Shooting The Bridge



Once there was a problem with London Bridge. By the time of the Tudors there were over 200 buildings on it. Some stood seven storeys high. They overhung the river by seven feet while others dangled over the road, forming a dark tunnel through which all traffic had to pass.

The roadway was just 12 feet wide, divided into two lanes so that in each direction, carts, wagons, coaches and pedestrians shared a single file lane six feet wide. When the bridge was congested, crossing it could take up to an hour. Those who could afford the fare might prefer to cross by ferry, but the bridge’s narrow arches and wide pier bases restricted the river’s tidal ebb and flow, so that in hard winters, the river upstream of the bridge became more susceptible to freezing and impassable by boat.

The flow was further obstructed in the 16th century by waterwheels installed under the two north arches to drive pumps, and under the two south arches to power grain mills.

As the difference in water levels on the two sides of the bridge could be as much as 6 feet, they produced ferocious rapids between the piers so that only the brave or foolish tried to ‘shoot the bridge’, that is, steer a longboat between the starlings when in flood. Some were drowned in the attempt.

George Canning wrote a poem about shooting the bridge;

‘So they dark arches, London Bridge, bestride

Indignant Thames, and part his angry tide;

(…there follows a long waffling bit about the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, then…)

‘Shoot we the bridge!’ the venturous boatmen cry –

‘Shoot we the bridge!’ – the exulting fare reply

Down the steep fall the headlong waters go

Curls the white foam, the breakers roar below,

The veering helm the dexterous barman stops

Shifts the thin oar, the fluttering canvas drops;

Then with closed eyes, clench’d hands, and quick-drawn breath,

Darts at the central arch, nor heeds the gulf beneath.

Full ‘gainst the pier the unsteady timbers knock;

The loose planks starting own the impetuous shock;

The shifted oar, dropp’d sail and steadied helm,

With angry surge the closing waters whelm –

Laughs the glad Thames, and clasps each fair one’s charms

That screams and scrambles in his oozy arms.

Drenched each thin garb, and clogged each struggling limb,

Far o’er the stream the cockneys sink or swim:

While each badged boatman, clinging to his oar,

Bounds o’er the buoyant wave, and climbs the applauding shore.


NB This piece was partly written to start reclaiming the term ‘shooting the bridge’ from its Google hits, which bring up only the cowardly terror attack on London Bridge.

10 comments on “Shooting The Bridge”

  1. Jo W says:

    Well done,Christopher. 😉

  2. Chris Webb says:

    The houses were intended to finance the building of the bridge. Some were large and ornate, including one wooden house made in Holland and brought across in bits. I think there is a model of it somewhere, Museum of London probably.

    There is a large concrete spike on the south side marking the place where decapitated heads were impaled as a deterrent to would-be crims.

  3. Rachel Green says:

    Fascinating. Thank you for the lesson, and the reclamation.

  4. Bill says:

    A fascinating congeries of structures atop a fascinating structure. Since I first read of it as a boy, I had wished it remained.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    The starlings. Such an odd word to use regarding the built out part of the arches, seen in the picture above. The upright guides to a ferry landing (enabling the ferry to centre itself on the landing) are called dolphins. Do starlings land on the starlings? were the dolphins called that because they are ahead of the boat’s prow? Oh, the questions that arise when reading idly. ( will Google search and see what they say.)

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Well the starlings seem to be alternatively “sterlings” so not likely a bird reference and the dolphins don’t seem to have a point of usage origin and seem to be more a point of embarkation unconnected to the shore than a guidance system, although we used to hoot rudely when the ferry hit one set of dolphins then bounced back to the other. Every once in a while the ferry would be out of service while the dolphins were repaired.

  7. snowy says:

    There was another, seldom mentioned hazard to those who dared to ‘shoot the bridge’.

    To understand we must travel back….


    ….back to a typical dwelling in the reign of ‘Good Queen Bess’. And consult a ‘contemporary account’.

    “… what about the privies?”

    “Um, well, what we are talking about in privy terms is the latest in front wall fresh air orifices combined with a wide capacity river installation below”.

    [Naive visitors to the city, encouraged by naughty boatmen to look up and admire the structure as they emerged from from the spans, risked more than having their best hat sullied .]

  8. Jo W says:

    Well,Snowy,now we know why men wore big hats back then!! 🙂

  9. Jack Bayes says:

    I thought the model of the old London Bridge was in the Church of St Magnus the Martyr, which is at the Northern end of where the old bridge was. Wanted to take my grand-daughters to see it, but the Church was shut when we got there. Maybe next visit to the Metropolis….

  10. Helen Martin says:

    That is perfect Real Estate Agent’s lingo, Snowy.

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