Saturday, 23 February 2013


"You disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns!" - Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, the play on which the musical and film My Fair Lady is based

The other day, a friend of mine suggested we should go see the new Oslo production of this timeless piece of musical silliness, and suddenly, I was humming the old children's song with lines that go like this:

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

According to Wikipedia's excellent article about this verse, which is referencing Studwell, 1996, this is probably (???!?) where the musical took its name from. The rhyme is part of an old song about building a bridge using all sorts of materials (wood and clay will was away, iron and steel will bend and bow, etc.). A charmingly illustrated note sheet from 1877 looks like this:

I'm not really sure which one of these guys is the architect, but the old architect's symbol can be found on top of the stone plate being carried by that really muscular man. Maybe it's him?

London Bridge in the late 19th century

London Bridge is a name that has been carried by several bridges throughout the ages. The one pictured on the note sheet was only 40 years at the time, replacing a medieval bridge which stood 30 m downstream. The 1831 bridge was later bought and moved to Arizona, USA, by Robert McCulloch, for a new planned community called Lake Havasu City, after this bridge had been slowly sinking into the Thames since the end of the 19th century. (Nasty rumors have it that he thought he was buying the iconic Tower Bridge.)

Not London Bridge

The reconstructed bridge was finished in 1971, and was in London replaced by a neutrally looking concrete bridge.

The reconstructed London Bridge in Arizona

The current London Bridge

The coolest bridge, though, was the medieval one. Construction began in 1176, but wasn't finished before 1209, 33 years later. Then again, this bridge would last for another 600 years.

From the very beginning, houses with shops, dwellings, water wheels, squares and chapels were built on top of London Bridge, almost forming a continuous street instead of giving the feeling of walking on a bridge. This was partially done to pay for the extremely expensive construction, but also looked really neat.

The infamous Nonsuch house (as in 'nothing quite like it') was perhaps the most outstanding building on the bridge, and can be seen in the middle of this picture. (It's the one with the red, yellow and white facade, topped by four blue onion domes.) To cross the bridge, you actually had to go right through many of the houses, out of which several leaned as far as seven feet out over the water.

The bottom picture shows London Bridge c. 1750, shortly before all the houses were demolished to make way for traffic. The bridge itself stood until 1831, when it was replaced by the bridge now standing in Arizona.

And then only one question remains: Who was this Fair Lady? There are several suggestions, but here's the one I found a picture of, Matilda of Scotland. She was a consort of King Henry I, and oversaw the building of several bridges in 12th century England:

(Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons, except the ones of Audrey Hepburn and Nonsuch House, which I frankly don't quite know who owns.)

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