Old London Bridge and Its Houses by Dorian Gerhold – a review.

London from Southwark, c.1630. Old London Bridge is in the right foreground and old St Paul's Cathedral on the skyline to the left. This is one of the few remaining pictures showing the city before the Great Fire. Oil on panel, Dutch School not signed or
A view of the bridge  from Southwark, c.1630.  Note the houses that are standing to the south of the Stone Gate, shown here adorned with heads on pikes, were in fact on the first pier of the bridge.  This is one of the few remaining pictures showing the city before the Great Fire. Oil on panel, Dutch School not signed or dated.

Since my earlier post on  Old London Bridge – A Medieval Wonder!  I am happy to say that the wonderful book Old London Bridge and Its Houses with its wealth of information by  Dorian Gerhold has been reprinted.   Being born and raised in London I always had a deep, deep  interest in old London and its history but perhaps of anywhere that I have read about (or visited if it still stood) none has  piqued my interest more than the old medieval bridge with its long and chequered history.  Building work commenced in 1176 led by Peter de Colechurch, a priest, chaplain and architect,  who would later be interred in the chapel that stood on the bridge.   It’s quite frustrating that the many views of the bridge created by artists over the centuries, although charming, have only captured the backs of the houses.    What would it have looked like in its heyday when it was crowded with medieval shops each with its own sign swinging outside?  What would the medieval shopper seen?  It would have been the medieval equivalent of Harrods or even Hatton Garden and a trading area for prestigious trades to which people would travel long distances to buy the superior goods that were available.   Street traders were not allowed and no one went there for a hot pie or a loaf of bread.  Indeed a Humfrey Searel was imprisoned for selling apples in 1617.  Shops selling food and drink in the period spanning the middle ages – of which I find the most interesting and am concentrating on here –  were unknown.    The few grocers that were trading on the bridge in the 14th and 15th centuries sold more specialist items such as spices and even dyes.

imageA view of Old London Bridge by an unknown artist.   The area just to the  south of the Stone Gate was known as Bridge Foot.  Getty Images.      

In the time span which I am focussing on here, the 14th and 15th centuries, five trades dominated the bridge – haberdashers, glovers, bowyers, fletchers, cutlers with a few pursers and stringers. The haberdashers sold an enormous range of items including ‘thread of various sorts, dress accessories such as combs, purses, girdles, bracelets, spectacles, looking glasses, undergarments, hats, writing materials such as parchment and paper, rosaries, garment fasteners such as laces, points, pins, buttons and miscellaneous small items such as thimbles and money boxes’.  When from 1285  ‘every freeholder in England with land worth between 40s and 100s a year was expected to keep in his house, a sword, a knife and bows and arrows and from 1363 all able-bodied men were expected to practice archery’ it can be seen that the bowyers, fletchers and stringers would be kept busy.  Interestingly after 1371 it was no longer allowed to make both bows and arrows.  You had to choose one trade or another.  Of course naturally some people ‘resisted’,  as you do, and a gentleman living on the bridge, Robert Verne, found himself in hot water when it was discovered in September 1375 he was making both.  He thereupon promised to stick to being a fletcher only.  By October he had broken his promise and the Mayor fined him and ordered him to be a bowyer.  

The author has included charts covering how many of each type of merchant were trading in any one period.  So we can see that from 1404 onwards haberdashers increased dramatically from 14 to approx 28, which remained a constant figure up to the 18th century.  Bowyers maintained a steady trade from 1381 onwards until a rapid decline in 1577-1606 when they became non existent.  Spurriers too became non existent around 1545 but it was good news for miscellaneous durables covering such items as makers of bottles,  combs, clocks, trunks and spectacles etc.,  The last armourer left in 1478.  

SCAN 2 1

This chart shows and names the tenants on the bridge in the year 1478.  Stone Gate is shown at the bottom of the chart on the right hand side with the chapel at the top.  The rest of the bridge is shown on the chart to the left.  The most prestigious trades were located to the north of the bridge.  

For me the most intriguing part of the history of the bridge is that touching upon the houses and the people who lived and worked in them.    What were their names, what did they sell, what were the interiors of their homes like?   Happily for me and anyone interested in the minutiae of  the history of the bridge the extensive records of Bridge House which maintained the bridge and owned the buildings on it have survived recording these very facts including the rental incomes as far back as 1358 and 1404 to 1421. The author has studied these records indepth and the result has been this amazing book.  By happy chance the  leases of the houses from the early 17th century thoughtfully begun to list the number of rooms in each house, plus the dimensions.  These leases are especially plentiful in 1650s when all the houses were relet and a new source of information has been uncovered by the author – a table of measurements which was drawn up in 1683.  This has enabled the author to write a book that is jam packed with information about how the houses and their rooms would have been utilised.   There are some informative and delightful cutaway depictions  which gives an intriguing peep inside as to how these houses would have appeared.



Cutaway of the eastern section of Nonsuch House c.1590.  Artist Stephen Conlin.


Reconstruction drawing of the bridge c.1590.  Artist Stephen Conlin.

Foreigners enthused about the bridge so let us leave the last word with  a French man L Grenade wrote in 1578 : 

“A great and powerful bridge,  the most magnificent that exists in the whole of Europe. It is completely covered with houses which are all like big castles. And the shops are great storehouses full of all sorts of very opulent merchandise. And there is nowhere in London which is more commercial than this bridge … I reiterate that there is no bridge in the whole of Europe which is on a great river like the Thames and as formidable,  as spectacular and as bustling with trade as this bridge in London.”

I have been absolutely entranced by this book and if anyone reading this who shares my love of the history of old London should feel tempted to purchase it I would say go ahead, treat yourself, you will not be disappointed.  

If you have liked this post you may also be interest in :

The Orange and Lemon Churches of Old London

The Abbey of the Minoresses of St Clare without Aldgate and the Ladies of the Minories







10 thoughts on “Old London Bridge and Its Houses by Dorian Gerhold – a review.

  1. What a wonderful book and post Sparky!!! awesome, I already ordered the book too! I may not get the book for a couple weeks (according to amazon) but at least I have your commentary and your choice selection of illustrations! I am thrilled to add new material to what I have scraped together and such detailed information (particularly who is renting what shops on the Bridge is mindblowingly helpful!)

    You probably have Peter Jackson’s London Bridge: A Visual History (1971 & 2002, from Historical Publications, ISBN 0948667826) but if not try to find a copy, very nice, probably the first book I started with in an effort to map out what was actually located ON the Bridge itself in Richard’s day (c. 1483). Another nifty book, more on the academic side, is Guxtave Milne’s The Port of Medieval London, (2003, Tempus Publishing, ISBN 0752425447), as a born and bred Londoner I think you would just love this one, from the archaeology to the harbour construction to pottery finds and where they came from, I was amazed at what they were able to learn from the few digs they have managed considering just how much the shoreline of the Thames itself (and the various streams like the Walbrook) have changed – even in Richard’s day, the Walbrook once flowed further west than he would have seen just a few decades later, barges even came up the Walbrook in Dowgate ward! The whole book, when you add what you now know with Mr Gerhold’s book, will make you feel as though you can see the Bridge as Gloucester himself would have!

    Oh I love these kinds of posts! I can’t wait till my copy comes!!! Thank you again!


    1. Thank you Amma. Firstly I cancelled my order with Amazon because it was going nowhere fast. I went to Oxbow books, which the author recommends, and I received my copy in a week. Perhaps you could try Oxbow and cancel the Amazon one if successful.

      I have read the Peter Jackson book with its lovely illustrations and some of them are included in this book. I thought I knew quite a bit about the bridge but London Bridge and its Houses has been a revelation. I might try Guxtave Milne’s The Port of Medieval London as you recommend it. Oh gawd yet another book to add🤣. Yes its nice to know Richard would have known the bridge and rode over it.

      Once again Amma thank you for your comments …. They do mean a great deal to me.. keep ’em up🤣🤣🤣

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lol Sparky, I will definitely give Oxbow a try, I think Amazon is going thru hoops and fences telling me it is a 10 day wait before they even ship the book to the US!!! (And I apologize, it is Gustave oopsie, not Guxtave, my bad, I was typing so fast, so excited, that I didn’t even check my spelling before I sent the reply off to you! – and I do not trust spellcheck! they were fine with Guxtave! HAH!)

    If you haven’t discovered John Schofield’s work (all archaeology but oh the details!) as he and his team have been digging up bits of London over the years, the first one of his many books that I found was “London 1100-1600: the Archaeology of a Capital City” 2011, and it is more than just dingy B&W photo’s of guys up to their eyeballs in some muddy ditch (haha like on p. 153!) – this was an overview of the economy, trade, distinctions in what was meant by an Inn (often a very grand mansion dating to the 1400’s and earlier, every noble and then affluent merchant family by necessity required one!)

    Our Richard was granted de Vere’s estates by Edward during that hectic period following Tewkesbury and the Bastard Fauconberg’s rising but he doesn’t appear to have ever lived in Oxford’s Inn by Bishopsgate (or any of the properties from that grant – some went to fund chantries at Cambridge, some were later sold to Lord Howard), nor the odd messuage/ mansion (hardly know what to call this one) referred to as La Reale which he did purchase or rent in the 470’s – presumably as a London residence (I rather doubt he ever did take up residence there – when in London he would have stayed wherever the king was). Later, as king himself, he granted La Reale to John Howard, now the Duke of Norfolk.

    Sparky, this is what happens when you try to create an accurate map of London c. 1483! You find all sorts of curious odds and bits in the process, did you know that there was at least one privy On the Bridge? Possibly two? And the pathetic thing came crashing down! Killed five men, this I believe was mid 1470’s and was still (if I recall the details) being repaired in the 1480’s, along with the damage from the Bastard of Fauconberg’s mini invasion from Southwark! The debate as to just where on the Bridge this privy was located seems to be unsettled, as is just when the Bridge no longer functioned – with stability- to allow bloats to pass underneath on their way up to Queenhithe! I have read everything from those massive fleets had ceased coming up the Thames even before Edward, that Billingsgate had taken over in precedence, that the Bridge could not be raised any longer due to its great antiquity!

    If you have a firm date on just when the Bridge was no longer raised I would love to know it! And thanks for the tip about Oxbow, I will let you know what happens!

    Beth (amma)


    1. Thanks Amma for your reply. I am making a note of these books you mention and will chase them up soon. Bit bogged down at the moment with the Coldridge mystery. Re the bridges privies. Yes there was two, one at either end and there is mention of when one of them collapsed taking 5 men with it to their doom. An elizabeth Ayers lived in a house in the middle of the bridge in 1678. She was a maid in the crowded house of John savage who was a grocer. Now re the drawbridge which as you know was pretty damaged during the 1450 and 1471 revolts and from 1476 the drawbridge could no longer be raised because it was never repaired properly. Orders given in 1481 it should only be raised when absolutely necessary such as defence of the city. However it was raised twice more, the last occasions, in 1485 and 1500 to let Henry VII barge through. Trust him!
      I didn’t realise you live in USA Amma, so I’m now wondering if you will be able to get the book from Oxbow who do have copies at the moment. I see now why you ordered it from Amazon. How frustrating! It’s a mystery why Amazon seem unable to get supplies of the book. I had to wait a week to get the book from Oxbow which was unusual. Good luck with getting it and I hope you don’t have to wait too long, bestest sparky x

      Liked by 1 person

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