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You are here: Home > Issue 461 > Banister Fletcher Lecture 2010: David Gilbert "A short history of London in wrought iron"

A short history of London in wrought iron: Empire, art and social division on the Hungerford Bridge

David Gilbert, Professor of Urban and Historical Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London

Annual Banister Fletcher Lecture of the London Society
15 December 2010
Society of Antiquaries Lecture Theatre, Burlington House

It is a great personal pleasure and a real honour to be asked to give this lecture tonight. I have to confess that it is also a little daunting. This is not so much because of the audience tonight, esteemed as you are, so much as the ghosts that are present with us on this occasion. I must have spent hours pouring over the reports of London Society meetings and lectures without ever anticipating that I would be making a contribution to the continuation of that tradition. It's humbling to follow the likes of Aston Webb, Edwin Lutyens or Frank Pick, to name but a few of the speakers to the Society in the early decades of the twentieth century; it is particularly humbling for a twenty-first century academic, as these were men who not only spoke and wrote about London and the modern city, but who also put their ideas into practice and left a lasting imprint on the city around us. (Although, I suspect that none of them had to get the children's tea on the table before leaving to speak to the Society.) Living in Ealing, just up the road from the magnificent Gillette Building on the Great West Road, there is also a real thrill at being asked to give the lecture in memory of its architect, Banister Fletcher.

Tonight, however, I want to focus not on those past achievements of the luminaries of the London Society, but also what I suspect many of its early membership would see as its greatest failure, the survival of the functional iron railway bridge across the Thames into Charing Cross station. From its inception in 1912, the removal of the Hungerford Bridge became a central goal of the Society, and the subject of repeated campaigns of lobbying. These campaigns were of course part of the broader mission of the Society to improve the city, but the bridge became a fixation, perhaps even an obsession for the Society. One aim of tonight's talk is to offer some suggestions as to why that should have been so.

I have a wider aim, which is perhaps hopelessly ambitious in the time available, but which draws inspiration from the British Museum's highly successful 100 Objects Project. Neil McGregor's modest aim to tell nothing less than 'A History of the World in 100 objects' chimes with recent moves in academia towards the study of the material, the study of the significance of things and objects. In the radio talks museum objects are used to open out a wider story about a past civilization or society, as a focus for different forces, flows and connections. In a sense different geographies are being packed into those objects. And I think that the materiality of such objects brings something extra to our understanding, for it engages our senses in making contact with those past worlds. I want to do something similar this evening, except that I'll be working with a rather large object, that old iron bridge across the Thames in central London that drew such ire from this Society.

I think it's important that it is a big functional thing for the stories that I want to tell. For those of us who have worked on the influence of empire and nationalism on cityscapes this intense concentration on a single monument or space is familiar. We are used to thinking about, say, for London, the contested meanings of Trafalgar Square, or the symbolic significance of the Albert memorial or the Victoria memorial, but the very ordinariness of the Hungerford Bridge, and the complexity of the responses to it, bring something more.

There are five sections to tonight's lecture. In the next section I think about the relationships between bridges and cities more generally before turning to think about the campaigns to remove the Bridge in the early twentieth century, and crucially ideas for what might stand in its place. I then turn to think about the unexpected prominence of the Hungerford Bridge in artistic representations of London, before discussing the Bridge's late twentieth century incarnation as site and symbol of social division. At the end of the lecture I'll turn to the remade Bridge of our own times.

At the start, however, it would be as well to have a few basic details about the Bridge. The Hungerford Bridge, also known as the Charing Cross Railway bridge, is a functional cast-iron railway crossing, designed by John Hawkshaw, and built across the Thames in 1864 to connect the new Charing Cross station with the network of the South Eastern Railway company. It was part of a wholesale incursion by the railways into central London across the river from the south. The South Eastern Railway also built the extension into Canon Street over another Hawkshaw iron bridge, and the elevated section from Borough to Waterloo that threatens to strangle Southwark Cathedral. Hawkshaw's bridge replaced Brunel's short-lived pedestrian suspension bridge at the same location, but used Brunel's piers. The chains were sold off for £5000 and recycled on the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Hawkshaw's Hungerford Bridge had pedestrian walkways on both sides, and these remained as toll-crossings until 1877 when the Metropolitan Board of Works bought them out. The Bridge was widened in 1887, removing the walkway on the upstream side. The bridge was significantly strengthened and resignalled in the 1920s to allow more train movements into Charing Cross.

It also survived a whole series of campaigns from the 1890s onwards to have it removed or replaced. This probably came closest in 1930 when a Bill for a new bridge was presented to Parliament. This failed through a mixture of government dithering over what to do, the effects of a major international financial crisis, and the power of some very wealthy financial interests. Its survival was primarily about the expense of replacing it, but also the everyday significance of a direct railway route from the south into the West End; opponents of the bridge like the London Society faced an increasingly powerful and organized commuter lobby.

Finally at the beginning of the current century the Bridge was neither removed nor rebuilt, but transformed by two new walkways, designed by the architectural partnership Lifschutz Davidson. This was a Millennium project but was delayed by concerns about unexploded bombs in the river, and opened late as the Golden Jubilee Bridges in 2002.

THE BRIDGE AND THE CITY

In his recent book "Cities in Modernity" the urban geographer Richard Dennis begins with an essay on bridges in London, New York, and Toronto. There is, I think, an important argument to be made about the significance of bridges for cities. It was no accident that the London Society spent so much energy on the Hungerford Bridge, for their case against it was not just focused on its ugliness or its function, but on its position in their wider vision of what the city could and should be.

Bridges are fundamental elements of most cities, and the founding cause of many. London's origins as Roman Londinium were because it was at the lowest convenient bridging point of the Thames. The first bridge was probably built of wood in the second or third century AD, at a point accessible both to land traffic and to ocean-going boats coming up the estuary. In their criticisms of the Hungerford Bridge the London Society liked to contrast it with the liveliness of old London Bridge, so central to the development of the medieval and early modern city.

For the modern history of London there is something appealing in understanding the city as a combination of crossing point and port. These characteristics were there in its origins and early development, yet were also there in the imperial city of 1900, and still find echoes in the twenty-first century city – a city based on trade and finance certainly, but also a city made by the coming together of different journeys and trajectories. In short, while bridges matter to many cities, they seem to be particularly significant for London and for visions of London.

Let me make three more specific points about the relationship between Bridge and City that illuminate the reception of the Hungerford Bridge:

  • First we can think of a bridge as a distinctive kind of OBJECT in the city, and particularly as something uneasily placed between architecture and technology. One long running criticism of the Hungerford Bridge was that it wasn't what the London Society described as suitably civic architecture. It had neither the graceful beauty of its suspension bridge predecessor, nor, for example, the formal classicism of its neighbour, Waterloo Bridge (designed by John Rennie in 1817, and superseded in 1945 by the spare modern classicism of Giles Gilbert Scott's replacement design.) Instead the Hungerford Bridge was treated as mere technology and engineering in the city, and by the late nineteenth century as engineering that had dated. Hawkshaw's Hungerford Bridge looks the way it does because the load-bearing capacities of wrought-iron meant that it needed to be very sturdy. Its form, of a lattice girder bridge supported by cast iron cylinders sunk into the bed of the Thames, was an expression of what was possible in the 1860s. Hawkshaw himself acknowledged the primacy of function in his design:
    'With regard to the Charing Cross line, I have made some bridges which I must say are ugly enough… As far as my opinion goes, I do not see how you are to produce architectural effect with such conditions… Charing Cross Terminus will be a handsome thing, which will not disgrace the metropolis. But girders cannot be adorned with advantage.' (Hawkshaw in evidence to a House of Lords Select Committee on Metropolitan Railway Communications in 1863.)
    It was more than the functional quality of the Bridge itself that animated critics. Hungerford Bridge and Canon Street Bridges brought the railways visibly and viscerally into the heart of the city, violating what had been known as the 'Quadrilateral', the exclusion zone for railways in central London. Part of the response to Hungerford Bridge was a response to a once modern technology that had become old. As we shall see, in the London Society's visions for what might replace the iron bridge great prominence was given to motor traffic.
  • Secondly, we can think of bridges as highly distinctive URBAN SPACES. It is a commonplace that London is a city without great public squares or piazzas – with the complex exceptions of Trafalgar Square and perhaps Parliament Square. When we think of, say, Bank Junction or Oxford Circus, these are spaces whose character comes from the city in motion; they are not spaces to stop and gaze. Historically Hungerford Bridge was not a place to linger; one of the triumphs of the new walkways has been the way that have made people stop by opening up one of the great urban views of the world, a worthy successor to Wordsworth's view from Westminster Bridge.
    But a bridge and particularly a London bridge is more than just a viewpoint. It is also a distinctive sensory experience of the city. In previous versions of this talk one of the responses from the audience about the old Hungerford Bridge has concerned its sensory intensity: not just the contrast between the rusty ironwork and cages and the open views across the Thames and City, but also its noisiness, above all of trains, but also of traffic, boats, the river, the gulls, and its smells of salt, coal, effluent, urine and passing bodies. River bridges are a meeting place of the human and the natural in the city, not merely the river, but also a place where wind, rain and sun take on different qualities.
    For nearly 150 years Hungerford Bridge has been one of the places where the syncopated rhythms of the city are felt most keenly. A favourite theme of contemporary urban geography is Henri Lefebvre's concept of rhythmanalysis – the way that the city is composed of the intersections of different rhythms. On Hungerford Bridge we experience that syncopation most intensely – the rush of commuters, the regular coming and going of the trains, the dramatic difference in the sense of the bridge in early morning, at rush hour, as a tourist view point in the afternoon, another rush hour different in character, then the evening bridge, and finally the nocturnal bridge. It is also a place where there is connection with natural rhythms of the wave and tides, and less expected rhythms of the river traffic or the Big Issue sellers' rota for the pitches at the end of bridge.
  • Thirdly, bridges work as CONNECTIONS, not merely of the two banks (and you hardly needed a guest speaker to tell you that) but of different districts, wiring up the city into circuits establishing and altering the relationships between different districts of the city. Bridges draw our attention to the significance of flows through the city. One of the features of London that struck literary modernists was the visible movement of mass society: in "Howard's End" Forster has Margaret Schlegel speak of her hatred for 'this continual flux of London – an epitome of us at our worst – eternal formlessness'. Most famously Eliot in "The Waste Land" writes of the endless flow of the commuters across London Bridge. Yet, the city in flux is not formless and has places where flow and flux are most evident and channeled. Hungerford Bridge has long been an important commuter place, a site where mass society was visible in motion. It is the place where suburbs meet city, as the end of the lines from outer London and North Kent, and for the millions more who cross the bridge from the mainlines at Waterloo.
    As connections, bridges shape the relationships between the different banks of the river. One of the key effects of the new walkways is to change the geographies of the city, particularly for leisure and tourism on the South Bank, where the daunting old walkways acted as a bar to tourists. There are precedents for this. For the 1951 Festival of Britain. Hungerford Bridge gained a wider southern footway, a Bailey bridge built by the Royal Engineers. This 'rewired' London, temporarily altering the relationship between West End and the South Bank, pulling people down from Trafalgar Square and directly across the river. Hungerford Bridge was dressed up for the occasion, but this simple reordering of the city was a very real part of the success of the Festival.
    Bridges and particularly pedestrian bridges also act as a connection point within the city between social groups, a place of unavoidable meeting or passing. Part of the lasting dislike of Hungerford Bridge for some was, I suspect, about the social (perhaps even political) experience of crossing it by foot, as much as its ugliness. The walkway was a place of unavoidable yet unwanted meetings, and a symbol of social division.

THE SPIRIT OF UGLINESS

In this section of the talk, I want to focus on long-running campaigns to remove the Hungerford Bridge, led for much of the time by the London Society. The Society's stated aim was 'the practical improvement and artistic development of London by the united efforts of its citizens.' Hungerford Bridge seemed an anathema to those aspirations, and became for the Society a crystallisation of all that was wrong with London, particularly that it was ugly, uncontrolled, and lacking in sufficiently imperial qualities. My focus here is both on the symbolism of the way that the existing Bridge was represented in debates about its future, but also of the potential for the city with the Bridge gone or replaced.

The campaigns against the Bridge tell us something both about the early years of this Society and about the wider cultures of urban thought in Britain in the early twentieth century. There will be those in this audience who are far more expert in the history of the Society than I am, but my sense is that what we see is a combination of perspectives that with hindsight seem very distinctive. It was a post-Victorian Society, in the sense that it combined both those who had developed their approaches towards the city in the previous century and those who were deeply involved in new kinds of urbanism, particularly associated with the emergence of the modern town-planning movement in the first decade of the twentieth century. It was an organization that struggled towards a common language for the proper development of London. We can see this in the approaches of some of the key figures in the Society involved in the campaigns against the Bridge. Central to Aston Webb's vision of the city was a sense of London as insufficiently imperial, and as inadequate as a proper urban expression of British civilization. For Reginald Brabazon (Lord Meath), the instigator of Empire Day, London needed to be a more human city as a fitting home to the Empire. And for Raymond Unwin, one of the central figures in the development of modern town planning, London was chaotic, inefficient and irrational.

The Hungerford Bridge was the focus of London Society campaigns precisely because it was vulnerable to a composite critique that could allow imaginings of an aggrandized, more human, and more modern London. Not only was the Bridge ugly (as seen in the Punch cartoon used repeated by London Society in its campaigns), it was old-fashioned (increasingly from 1920s onwards explicitly 'Victorian'), and it was prosaic, standing in the way of a more coherent, more monumental city. An aerial image used in the Society's 1921 publication "London of the Future" combined all that was wrong with London from these perspectives: vast, almost limitless, disorganised, and lacking symbolic clarity. It was no coincidence that the hated bridge was right in the foreground of the picture, despoiling the view.

There is not time to go through the great slew of proposals made for the replacement of Charing Cross Bridge in detail. But we can pick out a few key themes. Firstly, Imperialism or at least a certain rather conventional reading of the symbolism of the imperial city, was the key symbolic language of proposals between 1910 and the 1930s. In a series of proposals in 1917 and 1918 the Society suggested that a new Charing Cross Bridge should be the imperial war memorial. These followed on from an earlier vision by Thomas Collcutt, the architect of the Savoy, for monumental arcades opening out onto a classical piazza with obelisk. This proposal for a Palladian bridge looked back simultaneously to a classical heritage fitting for a new Rome, but also to the traditions of London Bridge with shops and commercial activity above the river.

Secondly, plans for the rebuilding of Charing Cross Bridge combined monumentalism with modernisation, or perhaps to put it another way pulled together the approaches to the city of Aston Webb and Raymond Unwin. Aggrandizement went hand-in-hand with the rationalisation of the road layout of central London. There was a strong continuity of this vision; Stanley Adshead's proposal for the bridge in 1929, when there was a real possibility of a new scheme going ahead, involved a high-level bridge carrying a highway over both river and embankments, but also a spectacular new river frontage for the city. What was significant in many of these proposals was the way that the planning imagination saw the motor vehicle as an agent of modernisation. The fast circulation of traffic was seen as cleaner and more efficient than the railways. In a vision that went back to the ideas of Ebenezer Howard and the desegregated city region, expressways were seen as a way of opening out the geographies of the city, moving traffic out from the centre.

As I have already mentioned Hungerford Bridge survived intact in the early 1930s, both for rather typical reasons associated with the failure of grand-scale planning in London, such as costs, the interests of landlords and political fragmentation, but also crucially because the Bridge worked – as an important railway connection from the south directly into the West End, and as the pedestrian crossing provided by the footway.

A final echo of this vision of London resurfaced in plans for reconstruction. A new neo-classical Charing Cross Bridge appeared in the Abercrombie plans, and also in the Royal Academy's "London Replanned" of 1943.

'GHOSTLY MAGNIFICENCE'

(Many of the pictures relating to this section of the lecture may be found online at www.tate.org.uk.

In these plans Hungerford Bridge is seen as an example of English failings in town planning, and an obstacle to the beautification of London, but earlier, others had interpreted it as a part of a vision of London's distinctive modernity, what Claude Monet's friend and biographer Gustave Geffroy described as London's 'ghostly magnificence.' In September 1900, Monet moved into one of the upper rooms of the Savoy Hotel, on the north bank of the Thames. He was to stay there for nearly two months, and returned for substantial periods in 1900 and 1901. The rooms came recommended by Monet's friend James McNeill Whistler, and Monet and his family were able to take advantage of one of the most modern hotels in London, opened only in 1889, with modern bathrooms, electric lifts and full electric lighting. Cesar Ritz was the first manager and Auguste Escoffier the first head chef.

But Monet was attracted not just by the comfort of the beds and fine (and safely) French food, but particularly by the view from the hotel windows. Like many other nineteenth century artists travelers and tourists Monet came to see and to experience London – the greatest city of the world, the imperial capital, a city that surprised and perplexed in its combination of new and old – and what Monet painted was in a sense the strangeness of London's modernity, not its traffic, or crowds, or monuments, but the effects of pollution on the light and colour of the city.

There are three main series of paintings undertaken by Monet in his Savoy stays. Famously, there was a kind of individualized Fordism to the way that he worked. He worked on many canvases concurrently, adding to each when the time of day and atmospherics were right. In the afternoon, on his stays in 1900 and 1901, he would walk down to the Embankment, cross Westminster Bridge and paint the Houses of Parliament from St Thomas's Hospital. The two most recognizable of these series are of the Houses of Parliament and of Waterloo Bridge, but it was the distinctive object of the Hungerford that first attracted Monet's gaze from the Savoy window, and was the subject of the first series of paintings.

Contemporary commentators drew attention to the distinctive aesthetic of the combination of water, fog, pollution and ironwork. Octave Mirbeau discussed this in the catalogue for "Monet, Vue de la Tamise à Londres" 1904, the first exhibition of the London paintings:
'These paintings of Charing Cross show the railway bridge suspended above the water between massive pylons which appear to evaporate, and further away, scarcely visible, are the delicate silhouettes where one senses the crowded dwellings and the uproar of the factories. On the bridge above the arches of light, the trains follow in succession and pass: their undulating smoke, coming from different directions mixes, fuses, and vanishes into the air against the river. Oh how I love smoke with its vitality, its lovely fluidity, its elusiveness, then its disappearance.'

Writing about a visit to Monet's hotel suite, Gustave Geffroy, Monet's champion and biographer, wrote about the bridge's distinctive visual qualities, as it emerged from the morning fog:
'Charing Cross Bridge, geometric, rigid metallic was suddenly glimpsed inscribing its line among clouds, patches of fog and the steam from the trains.'

Monet's paintings are given structure by the bridge, and is arguable that these are aesthetically purer paintings than the other series of Waterloo Bridge and Houses of Parliament paintings, precisely because of the rectilinear qualities of the Bridge. The bridge, its foot traffic, its trains and their smoke are vital in their formal composition, and the ordering and organisation of the pictures. We might argue that the other series are of distinctive architecture and more recognisably specific subjects, while the Charing Cross Bridge series comes closer to his explicit objective to capture London or London-ness.

Monet was not the first to use Hungerford Bridge in this way. As suggested at the start, the room at the Savoy came through a personal connection with James McNeill Whistler, and Monet's atmospheric effects were clearly connected to Whistler's Thames nocturnes. Whistler himself had represented Hungerford Bridge from the Savoy, in lithotints and lithographs, working in the hotel while nursing his dying wife in 1896. The bridge was also the subject of an earlier (1890) painting by Camille Pissarro. This is very different in tone from the Monets, but again used the bridge to give the picture its formal structure, its thick horizontal line emphasising the width of the Thames. In 1906, on the back of the success of Monet's Thames pictures, the fauvist Andre Derain was dispatched to London. Derain claimed that he was directly seeking to 'renew completely... the expression which Claude Monet had so strikingly achieved.' For his agent this was rather more of a money-making opportunity on the back of Monet's success with the London series.

Later artists drew upon this view of the city. The Austrian artist, Oscar Kokoshka visiting in 1924 couldn't afford the Savoy and went to the cheaper next-door Hotel Cecil. He returned to paint the same view in 1926, and returned again in 1954 to paint it yet again. The bridge that seemed so out of place and out-of-date to architectural modernisers of the city seemed an essential element of a distinctive London aesthetic to outsiders. Like the fog and pollution, it was something that made the city distinctive. There is a sense in which Hungerford Bridge comes to stand for London, even a certain English modernity in these pictures. The vision feeds into some English views of the city – the view from the Savoy marked as one of the key views of the city, though these are perhaps more sober, more grey, as in C. R. W. Nevinson's view from the Savoy, or John Gay's black and white photography of the 1950s city.

What we find in these pictures is one distinctive London aesthetic. Monet himself was concerned that his paintings captured London-ness and were not just exercises in colour and effect. He wrote in a letter to his wife Alice during his second stay at the Savoy in 1900 that he was reworking some of the paintings because they were not 'London-like enough'. These views of the Hungerford Bridge of course sit alongside other ways of picturing London: the picaresque of olde London, a city of lanes and alleyways; or the related London of dirt and grime, what Simon Schama has termed the London of 'raw document'; or what the film historian Charlotte Brunsden calls monumental London, the London of St Paul's, the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, the Tower – a picturing of London that once conveyed power and historic depth, but now is most obviously present in tourist guides and popular films (and now perhaps joined by the new monuments of the past twenty years – the London Eye, the Great Court and indeed the new Hungerford Bridge itself).

The views of Whistler and Monet, the Noctures and the Thames views, make claim to be a distinctive view of London, but perhaps too of the modern city more generally. These paintings are not the monumental aesthetic of European modernity, nor the aesthetic of the vertical city of the new world, nor, despite the pollution and the iron bridge, an industrial aesthetic. What we have instead is a view that is horizontal, expansive, elemental, grand but which works primarily in its own terms as a view of London. This is not, as one suspects many members of the London Society would have had it, a view of a failed new Rome or an inadequate Paris, disfigured by the spirit of ugliness, but a distinctive vision of modern London, one in which the iron bridge played a supporting role.

THE BEGGAR'S BRIDGE

There is another story to tell about Hungerford Bridge that allows us to reflect on other dimensions of London's modernity. In Jack London's "People of the Abyss" (1903) he recounts his experience of the Coronation of Edward VII on 9 August 1902 in terms that unambiguously mark London as simultaneously the great imperial capital, but also as a socially polarised city:
'I saw it at Trafalgar Square, "the most splendid site in Europe," and the very uttermost heart of the empire. There were many thousands of us, all checked and held in order by a superb display of armed power. The line of march was double-walled with soldiers. The base of the Nelson Column was triple-fringed with blue-jackets… And as it was thus at Trafalgar Square, so was it along the whole line of march – force, overpowering force; myriads of men, splendid men, the pick of the people, whose sole function in life is blindly to obey, and blindly to kill and destroy and stamp out life. And that they should be well fed, well clothed, and well armed, and have ships to hurl them to the ends of the earth, the East End of London, and the "East End" of all England, toils and rots and dies.'

This point is made most strongly by reference to Coronation night, as London spends the night on a bench on the Embankment, under Hungerford Bridge:
'At three in the morning I strolled up the Embankment. It was a gala night for the homeless, for the police were elsewhere; and each bench was jammed with sleeping occupants. There were as many women as men, and the great majority of them, male and female, were old. Occasionally a boy was to be seen. On one bench I noticed a family, a man sitting upright with a sleeping babe in his arms, his wife asleep, her head on his shoulder, and in her lap the head of a sleeping youngster. The man's eyes were wide open. He was staring out over the water and thinking, which is not a good thing for a shelterless man with a family to do…'

We can fit Hungerford Bridge into a long story about urban marginality – a story that points to the parallels between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century imperial metropolis, and the neo-liberal global city of our times. Of course the Thames-side has a long history, both literally and metaphorically, as liminal, as a space of marginality and sometimes danger in the city. This reaches right through the twentieth century, including even the 1950s and early 1960s, when London was probably at its most egalitarian. There are reports of ex-soldiers begging [page 9] on the bridge in the immediate post-war period. The steps down to the South Bank and the Embankment at either end of the walkway were particularly sought after. Until the early 1970s these were also prime spots for buskers during the day and early evening. The Times (30 November 1959) reported 'the small, serious lady who takes up her violin most evenings at the sharp turn of Hungerford foot bridge.'

Hungerford Bridge was part of an established mid-twentieth century geography of marginality in London. As well as its own intrinsic qualities the bridge also linked Waterloo and Charing Cross, and was next to the sleeping ground of Victoria Embankment Gardens. The noise and smell of trains and river combined with the crude, utilitarian iron-work and caging to create a distinctive and often disturbing sensory environment. It was also part of the illicit night-time geography of sex in London, and a place where that frisson could shift quickly to outright danger. The Embankment and the Bridge were common sites for 'queer-rolling', where gangs would pick up gay men in Soho or Piccadilly, then beat them up and rob them away from the bright lights. On 14 May 1974 Edwin Thornley, a theatre producer, was picked up in the toilets at Piccadilly Circus by two men, who then cut his throat on the walkway of the bridge. Thornley's was not the first or last murder on the bridge. More recently in the last days of the old walkway, the students Timothy Baxter and Gabriel Cornish were set upon; Cornish was seriously assaulted, and Baxter died after being thrown into the river. In her blog the commuter 'Lynn Bex' later speculated about the malign effects of the structure:
'I have found myself wondering about the "cause and effect" aspect of that horrible old iron footbridge, adjoining Hungerford Railway Bridge… If it WAS as sinister and threatening as I felt it to be, might it have attracted a kind of "devilment" from those feral children? Something that then became truly evil? I expect I'm being over imaginative and fanciful again. On the other hand, having likened walking across Albert Bridge or the new Millennium Bridge to "walking through fairyland", I have to say that, crossing the old Hungerford Bridge after dark was like entering a far darker place.' (posted 23 June 2002)

If Hungerford Bridge had always had some association with marginality, threat , danger and exclusion, something distinctive, more systematic was developing in the way it was understood in the late twentieth century, particularly from the 1980s. Hungerford Bridge was becoming read as an ugly, unclean, and dangerous public space but also as a quite specific symbol of Thatcherite or neoliberal London, as the site where the socially and economically polarised city was brought in to sharpest focus. Different political perspectives read this differently. The state of Hungerford Bridge could be read as a marker of the retreat of public services, and the decay of what Richard Rogers described as the 'public realm'. But it could also be read as an example of the chronic inability of the state to make and sustain viable public spaces.

From 1983 to 1998, the Bullring outside Waterloo, a concrete underpass some 200 metres from the steps to Hungerford Bridge, was the site of Cardboard City. In her Guardian articles from the 1980s, Michelle Beauchamp interviewed the young homeless in London. Cardboard City was regarded even among the homeless as a place of last resort and despair. Hungerford Bridge was regularly mentioned by commentators of both left and right in 1980s and 1990s precisely because of its position in the flows through the city. In particular, the begging spot on the turn of the stairway, where the small serious violinist once played, was not only a lucrative pitch, but also a place where it was impossible to ignore the seated figure. Unlike the cardboard city, which could be navigated around, or passed through quickly, this was the exact point where the farthest extremes of neoliberal London came into the closest contact.

Epilogue

Much of this was cleared away for the Lifschutz Davidson Golden Jubilee walkways that opened in 2002. There are still rough sleepers on the South Bank, but the space is now very different (the main site where Cardboard City once was is now the IMAX cinema.) We might ask what the latest version of the bridge tells us to say about our London.

One way that the new walkways might be interpreted is as a final projection of the future onto the site, and as exercises in a renewed modernizing of the cityscape. In this respect they are rather tame compared with earlier suggestions. There was always a sub-group in the London Society that got caught up (some might say overexcited) by the possibilities of technology. The new Hungerford Bridge was one of the sites suggested in meetings for a central short take-off runway, and as late as the 1950s suggestion were made in Parliament about its suitability as London's heliport. The architectural plans and models of the early twentieth century have been followed by others that have used the bridge as centrepieces in revisionings of the city, notably by Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers, as well as a proposal from Westminster Council in the early 1970s to replace the walkways with monorails (as an 'Aid to Pedestrian Movement').

It is also tempting to read the Golden Jubilee Bridges as symbols of a further era in London's history, perhaps as representative of a newly-sanitized urban space, the London equivalent of Sharon Zukin's critique of Times Square on Thames. The new bridge is heavily monitored by CCTV cameras (with nine on each footbridge). There is also a sense for some that the footbridges are a part of 'Curtisland' - a new cityscape made safe for Hugh Grant to act out romantic comedies and for tourists to take their snapshots. Writing in the Observer in 1998 when the plans for the new walkways were revealed, the novelist and columnist Julie Myerson described them as Blairite bridges, a triumph of style over substance.

Such criticisms are I think over the top, certainly judging by the popular response to the bridges. Like the Bailey bridge built by the Royal Engineers, the new bridges are rewiring the city, changing the nature of central London and the relationship between West End and South Bank. They have also opened up spectacular views both upstream and downstream. But for me what I enjoy most is the way that the older Hungerford Bridge remains inside the walk-ways, and that we now have is a very visible, very material history of London, a palimpsest overwritten again and again over the past 150 years. From the mud of the Thames, up through the Brunel piers, to Hawkshaw's railway bridge, to the new walkways – what we have here is a short history of Modern London in mud and high tensile steel, and in cast and wrought iron.

© David Gilbert 2010


Hungerford Bridge seen from Waterloo Bridge, as depicted in the children's book London Town, by Thomas Crane & Ellen Houghton (1883) (Library of Congress Collection)



"London the Tremendous: Heart of the Greatest City the World has ever seen" (Wonderful London, 1926). The Hungerford Bridge is in the foreground. (Photograph: Alfred Buckham)



Beta II was a steam-driven firefloat, here shown tied up at Hungerford Bridge. Its top speed was 12 knots and it could pump 3,000 gallons of water a minute (Wonderful London, 1926)



Thomas Colcutt's 1908 design for a new Hungerford Bridge (reproduced in Arthur Keen, Charing Cross Bridge, 1930)



D B Niven & T Raffles Davison's 1918 London Society design for an Imperial Memorial Bridge at Charing Cross (reproduced in Arthur Keen, Charing Cross Bridge, 1930)



Track maintenance on the bridge at night, looking toward Charing Cross station. (Wonderful London, 1926: uncredited)



"Where the Iron Road to Dover crosses the River" (Wonderful London, 1926)



People sleeping rough on an Embankment bench on Coronation Night, 1902, from Jack London's People of the Abyss (1903). (With thanks to the Jack London Collection at the Henry E. Huntingdon Museum)





Hungerford Bridge today: history and modernity (David Gilbert, 2010)


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