Building the World

London Bridge, England


London Bridge, by Claes van Fisscher 1616.

– Completed in 1209, London Bridge was the first large stone bridge in England.
– Severed heads were impaled upon the bridge’s spires.
– The first shopping mall in England was located on the span; rents paid for bridge upkeep.


London Bridge is not one structure but series of spans that connected Southwark and London. Roman bridges were among the earliest, but fell to failure through floods or fires.But the London Bridge – known even to children who sing a famous nursery rhyme – was an innovation in engineering and construction famed not only for the use of stone but also for infrastructure as public relations.


Tower Bridge, from

The more spectacular Tower Bridge, completed in 1894, is often mistakenly called London Bridge; its iconic shape has come to symbolize London to many visitors. Today’s London Bridge, constructed between 1968 and 1972, is a two-pier cantilever structure of pressed concrete. More recently the Millennium Bridge was built to mark the turn of the century in 2000.


King John I, from Historia Anglorum.

Construction of London Bridge began in 1176 under the direction of Peter de Colechurch, who died during the project and was laid to rest in a chapel on the completed bridge. A new engineer was hired from a region in France with many islands, where bridge building in stone was a specialty. Isenbert was not only an expert in construction, but a marketing innovator who proposed to King John a way to pay for the new structure that may have been a forerunner of the modern shopping mall. the King’s letter of authorization (Building the World, pages 91-92) states the “rents and profits” from the stores be used for bridge maintenance. King John’s authorization letter to the Lord Mayor of London also provided what might be considered one of the first worker’s compensation plans in history.

Document of Authorization
This is the document that officially names Isenbert the new architect, calls for shops’ rent to pay for the construction, and payment to those injured in the process:

John, by the Grace of God King of England, etc. to his faithful and beloved the Mayor and Citizens of London, greeting. Considering how the Lord in a short time hath wrought in regard to the Bridges of Xainctes and Rochelle … Isenbert, Master of the Schools of Xainctes: We therefore by the advice of our Reverend Father in Christ, Hubert (Walter), Archbishop of Canterbury, and that of others, have desired, directed and enjoined him to use his best endeavor in building your bridge, for your benefit, and that of the public: For we trust in the Lord, that this Bridge, so requisite for you, and all who shall pass the same, will through his industry and the divine blessing, soon be finished. Wherefore, without prejudice to our right, or that of the City of London, we will and grant, that the rents and profits of the several houses which the said master of Schools shall cause to be erected on the Bridge aforesaid, be for ever appropriated to repair, maintain and uphold the same.

 And seeing that the requisite work of the bridge cannot be accomplished without your aid, and that of others, we charge and exhort you, kindly to receive and honour the above-mentioned Isenbert, and those employed by him, who will perform everything to your advantage and credit, according to his directions, every good office or honour you shall do to him, you ought to esteem the same as done to Us…But should any injury be offered to the said Isenbert, or to the persons employed by him, which we do not believe there will, see that the same persons be redressed as soon as it comes to your knowledge.

 Witness myself, at Molinel in the Province of Bourbon, France, — the eighteenth day of April, 1209.

– From C. W. Shepherd, A Thousand Years of London Bridge (London: John Baker and New York: Hastings House, 1971).

See also Building the World, p. 91.

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

Financing the Future: London Bridge presents an approach to financing that moves away from citizen taxation towards revenue generation. How will infrastructure be financed in the future? Bridges, Olympic stadiums, roads, even virtual highways such as the internet, all hold promise for creative funding. Thinking about new public building, what possibilities come to mind?

Public Structures and Public Relations: London Bridge advertised the offerings of the city through shops along the entrance, similar to highway signs approaching the city of Boston or Bangkok. But the bridge also was used for political statements, notably the displays of judgement against political criminals, a practice that continued until 1678. What is the public relations power of infrastructure? Are city entrances an opportunity for a new kind of public art?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of following: 

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

(* indicates printed in Notebook series)

Home, Gordon. Old London Bridge. London: John Lane The Bodley Head Limited,  1931

* “London Bridge around 1500.” British Broadcasting Corporation. Virtual tour of London Bridge, October 18, 2004.

* “London bridge is broken down:” Nursery Rhyme Lyrics, History and Origins.

“London’s Bridge is Swaying.” Riverdeep Interactive Learning Limited, 2004.

London Bridge. List of 15 books from HOLLIS Catalog, Harvard University. Available from:

Shepherd, C.W. A Thousand Years of London Bridge. London: John Baker & New  York: Hastings House, 1971.

Information and commentary written by Kathleen Lusk Brooke, based on the book, Building the World: An Encyclopedia of the Great Engineering Projects in History, by Frank P. Davidson and Kathleen Lusk Brooke, Greenwood/ABC-CLIO, 2006.

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Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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