Today the bridge officially known as the London Millennium Footbridge, which is a steel suspension bridge for pedestrians crosses the River Thames, linking Bankside with the City of London.
The bridge opened late and over budget in June 2000, but had to close two days later due to lateral movement which lead to it being named the “Wobbly Bridge”. It took nearly two years to rectify the problem before the bridge could be reopened to the public, but the wait was well worth it as the bridge is one of the most graceful structures to adorn the Thames. It also gives the pedestrian a fantastic view of St Paul’s Cathedral.
However, had the planners eighty years earlier had their way then you would have enjoyed the same vista from the interior of your motor car. It would also have meant there would be no visits to Tate Modern, or electricity from the power station that is now the Tate building.
The desire to span the Thames between Bankside and St Pauls had always been a long held one by the authorities, but for one reason or another they failed in the very early stages. In 1903 the architect Thomas Collcutt proposed a new bridge to span the Thames based on the original London Bridge, that is a bridge with shops along it’s length. At the time he argued that bridges once built don’t generate any income, apart from toll bridges which are unpopular with motorists and underused if alternative crossings are available. The rental from the shops would help offset the costs of maintenance. It seems he championed the idea for a couple of years, but his recommendations were not taken up by the authorities. By 1909 a proposal was made to span the Thames from a road running directly past the back of St Paul’s, crossing the Thames near Queenhithe to roughly where the Globe Theatre is today.
View from Queenhithe across to the Globe Theatre (Millennium Bridge & Tate Modern top right)
However there were two opposing camps, one who took the Queenhithe to Globe option and the other preferring the Bankside crossing in line with todays Millennium Bridge. These two proposals gained and lost favour in equal measure during the debate and were slightly watered down by the entrance into the discussion by Thomas Colcutt and his old London Bridge option. All of London’s bridges come under the authority of the City’s Bridge House Estate, who at the time recommended that the bridge be built. However the City Aldermen narrowly voted against the proposal, but kept it open for further consideration. Strangely given the decision it was only a matter of months later that the City sought a bill in Parliament to approve the construction of the bridge and it’s approach roads, which came to pass in the London Bridges Act of 1911.
Proposed location of the new bridge to be known as St Paul’s Bridge
James Roll. Lord Mayor of London 1920
So the decision to build a bridge was given the green light but as yet no decision had been made concerning what the bridge would look like, so now a public debate raged around the aesthetics of the bridge. The authorities wanted to put the design in the hands of the engineers who would build the bridge, while the architectural community feeling sidelined lobbied vociferously that there should be a competition to decide how the bridge looked. This argument seems to have given the City cold feet and they deferred any decision to even start the design process. Coupled with this major structural work had just finished on the nearby Southwark bridge leaving it with a much better traffic flow than before the works, which seemed to have placed the proposed bridge on the back burner, until in 1920 the then Lord Mayor, Alderman James Roll to publicly predict “Work on a St Paul’s Bridge would start shortly, although the cost seems to have risen to many millions”.
Over the next two years the City embarked on purchasing the land needed for the bridge approaches and construction seemed imminent until the Government stepped in and asked for a delay pending a report by a Royal Commission. The report was favourable, but at the same time a different commission had sat to report on other Thames crossing options and with great timing published their report giving four new sites and proposing the scrapping of the st Paul’s bridge. Debate dragged on until 1929 when the Government refused to extend the life of the bridge bill and by this time the City had gone right off the idea. With the great depression on the horizon the plans were never brought into the spotlight again. Thankfully nothing was built until the Millennium Bridge seventy odd years later, giving a superb view of St Paul’s that you can’t help feeling wouldn’t be had while sitting in a traffic jam.
One quirky little footnote to the story is that in the Bankside area (well outside the City of London’s jurisdiction) there are quite a lot of council owned housing stock bearing the crest of the City of London. This was land that they bought in the 1920s for the approaches to the bridge that never was built.