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a tale of Restoration intrigue by

Molly Brown

London Bridge

London Bridge was for centuries London's only bridge across the Thames. About twenty feet wide, it was lined with houses and shops. The buildings on the bridge were fairly tall - three or four storeys - with sections hanging out over the water. There were about forty buildings altogether, set into four groups of about ten houses each, with gaps between each cluster; the gaps were to enable larger vehicles to pass each other on the bridge. It was probably these spaces between the groups of buildings that caused most of the houses on London Bridge to survive the Great Fire.

Among the items on sale in the shops on the bridge were etiquette manuals. (If a spinster entered into company, she was to curtsy twice, and if women were present, she was to offer her respects in some "quaint compliment". If she was alone with men, the initiative fell to them. Standard opening lines for a potential suitor included: "I wish you all joy and prosperity", "I am Your Ladyship's most affectionate servant", and "I bless the moment that gives me an opportunity to enjoy your company".). Etiquette manuals also contained such handy household hints as directions for carving and the interpretation of dreams.

The flow of water below the bridge was obstructed by the erection of several watermills between the bridge's arches. The successful operation of these mills depended on the bridge acting as a weir, with the water higher on one side than on the other. In order to achieve this, the arches were blocked by buttresses of stone and rubble sheathed in piles of timber, known as "starlings". As a result of these "starlings", the tidal flow of the river was restricted to only two or three open arches at the centre, causing a dangerously swift current through this narrow channel. Watermen used to speak of "shooting the bridge"; a saying also arose that: "Wise men walked over London Bridge while only fools went under it." Many travellers would disembark at the bridge then drag their boats around. Another result of the limited access through the arches below the bridge was that there was a continual traffic jam on the river with boats queuing up to go through. (Meanwhile, in the houses above, the continual "whoosh" of rushing water could be heard at all hours of the day and night. One man who had lived on the bridge then moved away found it impossible to sleep without the sound of running water.)

The obstruction caused by the bridge and its starlings is believed to have been responsible for the freezing of the Thames and the famous "Frost Fairs" of the 17th and 18th centuries.

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(c) 1996 Molly Brown