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.