Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The Millennium Bridge, linking St Paul’s on the North side to Tate Modern on the South, has become a firm favourite. It’s been forgiven its wobbly beginnings and now thanks to the bridge the stretch of river on the south side from Blackfriars Bridge to London Bridge has become a destination for Londoners and tourists alike. It has contributed to the regeneration of Bankside as it’s now so easy and pleasurable for the pedestrian to cross over the river from the City to Southwark and to enjoy wonderful river views on the way without the constant background noise of traffic. It was not though the first time there was a proposal to build a bridge between Southwark and Blackfriars Bridges.
By the middle of the 19th century in addition to London Bridge there were bridges crossing the Thames at Westminster (opened 1750), Blackfriars (1769), Waterloo (1817) and Southwark (1819). Still though there were problems with traffic congestion crossing the river and in 1851 it was proposed that a further bridge be built directly opposite the south door of St Paul’s Cathedral. Not only would this ease congestion but would also open up a new view of the Cathedral. The project did not go ahead. But, despite the opening of Tower Bridge in 1894, traffic congestion did not get any easier and again the possibility of building a bridge here was raised at the beginning of the 20th century. An Act of Parliament was passed to enable this in 1911 and the building of the new bridge was combined with the rebuilding of Southwark Bridge which had always been unpopular due to the steep gradient that made it hazardous for horse-driven wagons and carriages.
The new bridge, named St Paul’s Bridge, crossed the river on the north side just east of St Paul’s Cathedral rather than from the centre of the Cathedral as it easier for the routing of the approach road. On the south side, there was to be a new approach road from the river to Park Street to the east of the City Electric Lighting Company’s power station which would then cut through some of the most overcrowded and poverty stricken slums in London centred around Moss Alley. Provision was made in the Act for the compulsory purchase of land both for the construction of the bridge and for the provision of new homes for those evicted in the process.
An architectural competition was held for the design of the bridge. The winner was G Washington Browne whose design incorporated a winged goddess driving a two-horse chariot. Work began first on Southwark Bridge and had reached an advanced stage when in 1915 work ceased due to World War I and plans for St Paul’s Bridge shelved. After the war ended, work resumed on Southwark Bridge which completed in 1921 but the building of the new bridge became the subject of reports, enquiries, proposals for different routes and financial constraints, ultimately leading to the building of a new bridge being abandoned in 1935.
The Bridge House Estates, who would have been responsible for the building and maintenance of the new bridge, had already acquired a great deal of land for the building of the approach roads, including on the Southwark side the area around Moss Alley and further south along Great Guildford Street. The Moss Alley area, dark, sooty and suffering high pollution from its proximity to the City Electric Light works, comprised a warren of courts and narrow streets including White Hind Alley, Skinners Yard, Ladd Court and Taylor’s Yard. Charles Booth’s investigator described Moss Alley at the end of the 19th century as a dark court consisting of two storeyed houses, a little village by itself with the west side dominated by the City Electric Light works. The men were employed at the Phoenix Gas Works or the waterside, the women worked at the Epps chocolate factory. There were some thieves, snatchers and van-draggers (those who pulled parcels off travelling vans). It was part of the “poorest and most vicious part of London.”
The Bridge House Estates had acquired the land before the first world war but, until the building of the new bridge commenced, felt they were unable legally to rehouse the residents and, in the meantime, the slums deteriorated even further. The Bridge House Estates were put under pressure from the Metropolitan Borough of Southwark, the LCC and finally the Ministry of Health to rehouse the occupants. The Bridge House Estates took measures to protect themselves legally and the problem was overcome. They had already acquired land in Sumner Street, the former site of a vinegar factory owned by the Pott family, and built two blocks there in 1930 which housed 350 people of which 288 came from the Moss Alley area. Two further blocks were built soon after which housed a further 260 people. The Bridge House Estates and Corporation of London continued to build public housing on other land it had compulsorily purchased for the southern approach roads on sites off Great Suffolk Street. The Moss Alley site was acquired by the City Electric Lighting Company in 1937.
By the mid nineteen nineties, Bankside was a different place and in the process of regenerating. Bankside Power Station had been built in the 1950s to replace the old power station. It was larger and the eastern end of it was built over the site of the Moss Alley slums. Decommissioned in the 1980s, it had been acquired by the Tate to house and exhibit its modern collection and was due to open in 2000. After many years spent in fund raising and planning, construction of Shakespeare’s Globe were well advanced and opened in 1997. Southwark Council wanted to see more tourists on their stretch of the Thames and to encourage visitors to the newly emerging cultural centre. And the millennium was approaching.
Across the river, David Bell, then Managing Director of the Financial Times, looked out of this office window to see St Paul’s Cathedral and the central tower of the Bankside Power Station. He conceived of the idea of building a pedestrian bridge to link the two as a means “to contribute something for the millennium that belongs to everyone, which lasts and is free.”
In partnership with Southwark Council and RIBA, the Financial Times sponsored a competition for the design of the bridge. The winning entry, based on a ‘blade of light’ was designed by a partnership between Norman Foster and Partners, Ove Arup and Sir Anthony Caro. The Millennium Bridge Trust was formed, with David Bell as Chairman, and the search began for funding. The project received £7.2 million from the Millennium Commission and other contributions were received from the Bridge House Estates, the HSBC, private funders and Southwark Council who project managed the bridge’s construction. Before it had been necessary to pass an Act of Parliament to build a new bridge over the Thames but in the building of the Millennium Bridge this was not necessary and the Port of London Authority used its statutory powers to grant a license. The necessary planning permissions were readily granted by both the City of London and Southwark Council. Unlike St Paul’s Bridge, the Millennium Bridge runs from the centre of St Paul’s Cathedral on the north bank.
It had been hoped the opening of the new bridge would coincide with the opening of Tate Modern in May 2000 but construction of the bridge overran. The Queen performed the opening ceremony in May but the bridge did not open until a month later. Then the problems really began. There was a definite wobble on the bridge from the motion of the pedestrians. The architects blamed the engineers and the engineers blamed the architects – and both blamed the pedestrians for walking in rhythm to the swaying of the bridge! Much has been written about rectifying the wobble, here is a link to just one article. Finally, the bridge reopened without a wobble in February 2002, and has become a firm favourite in the capital.
Source: ‘St Paul’s Bridge: the Project of a River Bridge near St Paul’s Cathedral and the Effects it had’, by Colin Frederick Walter Dyer, May 1983 is available on the Guildhall Historical Website.
Deyan Sudjic, Blade of Light: The story of the Millennium Bridge, 2002