So, you have the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, then there’s the one in Oxford and another in Cambridge. I counted another twelve in Europe and North America.
The one I want to write about today no longer exists, or rather it has been replaced by a newer bridge, and that is Waterloo Bridge which spans the River Thames in the heart of London.
The new bridge was officially opened in September 1942, some ten years after the demolition of its predecessor, and it is that first bridge that is the focus of this post.
The first bridge was designed in 1807–10 by John Rennie and opened in 1817 as a toll bridge. Built out of granite it had nine arches, each of 120 feet (36.6 m) span. Each span separated by double Doric stone columns, and was 2,456 feet (748.6 m) long, including approaches–1,240 feet (378.0 m) between the abutments. During its construction, it was known as the Strand Bridge. A parliamentary act in 1816 was passed to name the bridge in commemoration of the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The bridge opened some 18 months later in 1817.
Well, that’s enough of the history, so what about the epithet Bridge of Sighs?
During the 1840s the bridge gained a reputation as a popular place for suicide attempts, so much so that in 1844 Thomas Hood wrote a poem which concerns the suicide of a prostitute there. The artist George Watts was moved to paint the picture Found Drowned after reading Hood’s poem.
In the 1840s about 15 percent of London’s suicides were from Waterloo Bridge, probably because as a toll bridge it was less busy than the others, and they were less likely to be disturbed. Ironically, a director of the bridge company was later to say that “the tolls surely saved many a penniless wretch from finding himself into the dark cold waters”. In 1873 the Royal Humane Society set up a twenty-four-hour receiving house by the northern end of the bridge, manned by a doctor who would attempt to revive any victims brought to him, and in 1875 alone twenty-one people were saved by this method.
Three years before the poem was written, the bridge had been the site of a tragic accident when a stunt went horribly wrong.
In 1841 the American daredevil and stuntman, Samuel Gilbert “Sam” Scott
was killed while performing an act in which he hung by a rope from a scaffold on the bridge.
Scott had developed a reputation for water-based stunts during his time in the American Navy. He left the service to become a full-time stuntman and travelled to the UK where he embarked on a tour of England diving or jumping from great heights into shallow water.
He organised the stunt on Waterloo Bridge and decided to practice the same feat of daring some two weeks before the event by hanging from the mast of an American ship that was moored at Dartford in Kent. Scott regularly hung from a rope either by his feet or around his neck on what he considered to be low-level dives. However, the event at Dartford didn’t go according to plan. Apparently the knot in the rope slipped and closed around his neck. It was only by the quick action of a sailor that prevented Scott from being strangled, supporting his weight long enough for Scott to loosen the ropes stranglehold.
Obviously shaken, but forever the showman Scott announced to the excited crowd “The hemp that is to hang me is not grown yet!” It was to prove a rash claim to make.
On January 11, 1841, Scott’s itinerary was to run from the White Hart public house in Drury Lane to Waterloo Bridge, jump from a scaffold on the bridge into the river, swim ashore and return to the pub.
The event had been well publicised, as I suspect had his brush with death a fortnight before, and crowds had gathered on the bridge, with a small armada of boats on the river itself.
Scott arrived at the bridge and began swinging from a noose attached to the scaffold. Once again the noose slipped and tightened around his neck. As had also happened in Deptford, the spectators mistakenly thought that this was all part of the act, and no immediate action was taken. Eventually, one man in the crowd demanded that Scott be cut down and came to his aid, but tragically it was too late. A medical journal written some years later states that Scott was left hanging for 13 minutes before any action was taken.
Newspaper reports say that Scott was “immediately taken to Charing Cross Hospital, where every attention was paid to him, but unfortunately without effect, as life was quite extinct.”
The writer Thomas Carlyle wrote about the accident a couple of days after. “A wretched mortal that was wont to leap from topmasts, bridges and dive and do feats of that kind, perished in a shocking manner (as you will see by that Newspaper) here this week. One of his tricks was to act hanging; the noose slipt; he was found hanged in earnest! When I think of the mob looking at him, brutal animals, the still more brutal ‘gentlemen’ of the Bridge Committee encouraging such a scene,—few things I have ever heard of seem more detestable.