The first article in this series (as well as this wonderful monologue) featured the current Waterloo Bridge and the story behind its construction. Matt Brown goes in search of our long lost span.
I first encountered the shade of Old Waterloo Bridge while exploring the heights of Belsize Park. There, in a tiny community park known as Antrim Grove, stands a piece of architectural stone, labelled as an old remnant of the bridge. It’s common knowledge that the previous London Bridge had been shipped off to the States in the 1970s, but I’d never before thought about Waterloo’s predecessor. Was this the only surviving fragment?
A baluster from Old Waterloo Bridge (Antrim Park, Belsize Park)
Photo: Matt Brown
Turns out: no. Pieces of the bridge can be found all over the world. I’ve since spent a bit of time tracking them down.
The current Waterloo Bridge was built within living memory. Its concrete span was famously put together by a largely female workforce during the Second World War (see this documentary). It was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who also gave us Battersea Power Station, Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern) and the iconic red phone box.
Crowds attend the opening of Waterloo Bridge on 18th June 1817
Before that, the Thames was spanned at this point by a bridge of 1817 designed by John Rennie. This noble, granite affair served the city well at first, but began to suffer structural problems by the end of the century. The decision to replace it was made in the 1930s.
Granite isn’t something you just throw away. Many of the stones and balusters were given a second life. Sections of baluster -- the fence-like walls that ran either side of the bridge -- were separated and sold on as ornamental bird baths or sundial plinths. These can still be found up and down the country.
Larger stones were sent overseas. Some were shipped to Commonwealth cities, as lithic ambassadors from London. You can still find parts of the bridge in Canberra and Wellington -- the latter boasts a memorial to a local dog assembled from the recycled blocks. This scheme was only partially successful, though. According to a 1935 report in the Dundee Evening Telegraph, "Canada didn't want any. New Zealand was willing to have one block of granite, and Australia took a few more. Two lamp standards have gone to Rhodesia, and Limbe Town Council, Nyasaland, asked for two balusters."
One of the two original granite stones given to Australia following WWII. They now reside on the southern shore of Lake Burley Griffin (Canberra). A part of he brass plaque reads, "Stones such as these from the bridge were presented to Australia and other parts of the British world to further historic links in the British Commonwealth of Nations."
Photo: Peter Ellis
Goodwill presents account for only a tiny portion of the bridge. The bulk of the structure was stored out in Harmondsworth (now in Hillingdon) after disassembly. This stockpile was greatly depleted in 1945, when it was shipped over to the Netherlands to help repair bridges destroyed by the Nazis. Quite a few blocks remain in Harmondsworth, in the shadow of junction 15 of the M25.
Possible remnants of the bridge, now lining the north bank
Photo: Matt Brown
The other great reservoir of Waterloo stone that I’ve found is over in St Mary Cray (now part of Bromley). Here, hundreds of stones were reshaped to form part of the local cemetery wall. (Take a look in Google Street View.) A few further examples of the granite balusters can still be seen beneath the northern end of Waterloo Bridge.
For me, though, the most beguiling remnants are those that now stand in private gardens and parks up and down the country. Got an old bird bath or sundial made of granite? Check the base, for you might be in possession of a piece of local history.
More information about Old Waterloo Bridge can be found in Matt’s longer article for Londonist.com. https://londonist.com/london/old-waterloo-bridge
Matt Brown is editor-at-large of Londonist.com, a website about London and everything in it. He’s also the author of Everything You Know About London is Wrong (among other books), and has hosted several ‘pub quiz’ events for Waterloo Festival in previous years.