Regency Bicentennial:   The Dedication of the Waterloo Bridge

Called the most beautiful bridge in Europe when it was built, this magnificent new bridge actually had another name when it was first planned. However, it was renamed by order of Parliament after the Allied victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in order to commemorate that decisive battle. The dedication of that new bridge took place two hundred years ago this coming Sunday, on what was the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. The ceremony was attended by a glittering array of important personages and it was also captured on canvas by one of the most famous artists of the time. A Regency author might find any number of uses for this bridge or the public celebration of its opening in a romance set during that period.

A brief history of the first Waterloo Bridge . . .

Until the turn of the nineteenth century, there was only one bridge, Blackfriars, which spanned the Thames between the two most heavily traveled bridges in the city, the Westminster and London Bridges. It is estimated that the population of London was about 750,000 in 1760. When the first reliable national census was taken in 1801, the population of the city was recorded as 1,096,784 residents. By 1815, the city was estimated to have nearly 1,500,000 inhabitants. The majority of those people had to travel about the city in the course of their daily lives. The biggest barrier to that travel was the Thames River, and the few bridges which spanned the river had become serious bottle-necks for traffic. Therefore, it can come as no surprise that in 1806, a group of investors, led by an enterprising engineer, George Dodd, formed a company and petitioned Parliament for permission to build another bridge over the Thames. This new bridge was to be a toll bridge, the intent being to enable the company recover construction costs and to pay off its investors with the tolls collected.

Due to the rapid expansion and development in the area of Lambeth, the site chosen for the new bridge was about midway between the Westminster and Blackfriars Bridges, at a point where the river bends sharply to the east as it flows down to the sea. The roadway for the bridge would run northwest, from the area known as the South Bank, across the bridge, then, just west of Somerset House, on to the Strand, one of the major thoroughfares of London. Thus, the planned new bridge was to be named The Strand Bridge, and the company granted the right to build it was known as The Strand Bridge Company. Though George Dodd was a competent engineer, and the chairman of the bridge-building company, the company directors wished to employ a more experienced engineer. Over Dodd’s objections, in 1809, they hired the Scottish civil engineer, John Rennie, at a salary of £1,000 a year, as the principal engineer to design the new bridge. Dodd was so offended by what he saw as a complete lack of confidence in him that he resigned from the company he had founded, even though he was drawing a salary of £1,000 himself. From that day forward, George Dodd would have nothing further to do with the design and construction of the new bridge.

Perhaps because they intended to charge tolls for crossing the new bridge, the officers of The Strand Bridge Company directed John Rennie to design an elegant stone bridge. Since the northern end of the bridge would be situated near Somerset House, Rennie took his inspiration from the Neo-Classical architectural style of that great public building. He drew up plans for a bridge with nine elliptical arches, each spanning a distance of 120 feet, with a rise of thirty-four and a half feet. The full width of the bridge between the balustrades was forty-two feet. This comprised the carriageway over the bridge which was twenty-eight feet wide and which was flanked by a seven-foot wide raised footpath on either side of the carriageway. The length of the road over the bridge was 1250 feet. The cutwaters, or starlings, were eighty-five feet from point to point and each supported a pier twenty feet thick which was ornamented with a pair of Doric pilasters on either side. The pilasters on the piers in turn supported an elegant entablature which formed the balustrades on each side of the bridge. All of the arches and the entire facade of the bridge would be built of grey granite which was quarried from the new granite works recently opened near the town of Penryn, in Cornwall.

The foundation stone for the new Strand Bridge was laid on Friday, 11 October 1811. Henry Swann, then Chairman of the Board of the Strand Bridge Company, and Member of Parliament from Penryn, Cornwall, (where the granite for the bridge would be quarried) officiated at the ceremony. Also in attendance were the current Directors of the company and the principal engineer, John Rennie. The foundation stone for the new bridge was hollow, and within it, Mr. Swann placed a bottle containing a selection of coins from the reign of King George III. It was then sealed with a metal plate which carried the following inscription:

This foundation stone of the Strand Bridge was laid on the 11th day of October, A. D. 1811, by the Directors for executing the same, Henry Swann, Esq. M. P. Chairman, in the 51st year of the reign of King George the Third, and during the Regency of His R. H. George Prince of Wales, the money for the building of which was raised by subscription, under the authority of an Act of Parliament.

Engineer, John Rennie, F. R. S.

John Rennie was a talented and inventive engineer who not only designed the new bridge, he also developed new construction techniques which enabled the building of the bridge in half the time usually needed for a stone bridge. These new techniques were embraced by the contracting firm of Joliffe and Banks, not only for the time savings, but also because they provided added safety for the bridge workers. The arches for the bridge were actually constructed onshore, rather than being built up out in the flowing river. Since each arch had identical dimensions, it was much easier and faster to build them than it would have been to build arches of various sizes. While the arches were under construction onshore, coffer-dams were set into the river bed and pumped out using steam power. It is believed that this was the first use of coffer-dams for bridge construction in Britain. The cutwaters were each constructed within one of these coffer-dams. When each arch was completed, it was floated out to its position, then eased onto the cutwater which would support it. Another advantage to Rennie’s design was that the roadway over the bridge was almost completely level. In addition, the bridge was only slightly above the level of the roads which approached it from either side of the river. Therefore, much less work was needed in order to construct the access roads to the new bridge. It is estimated that it cost approximately £1,100,000 to build the new bridge.

Rennie’s stone bridge was nearing completion in the last months of 1816. During that year, a proposal was made to build an iron bridge over the Thames further downstream at Rotherhithe. That iron bridge was to be named the Waterloo Bridge. However, when that project fell through, Parliament decided that a Waterloo Bridge should still span the Thames, to commemorate the Allied victory over Napoleon. Therefore, they passed another Act of Parliament by which they ordered that the Strand Bridge be renamed the Waterloo Bridge. According to the new act, " . . . the said bridge when completed will be a work of great stability and magnificence, and such works are adapted to transmit to posterity the remembrance of great and glorious achievements." Since the directors of the company which built the bridge were eager to make it as attractive as possible to all those potential toll payers, they had no objections to the change of name. When the bridge was completed and ready to be opened to the public, it would be dedicated as the Waterloo Bridge.

Though the bridge was completed early in the spring of 1817, it seemed only fitting that the date of its dedication and official opening be set for Wednesday, 18 June 1817, the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. A great deal of planning went into this grand dedication event and it included numerous activities. The new bridge was festooned with the flags of all of the countries who had been allied against Bonaparte and the French during that last campaign in Belgium. A Waterloo Fair was held on the bank of the Thames near the new bridge. A host of stalls were set up at the fairground, offering food, drink and an array of souvenirs to those in attendance. The surface of the river near the bridge was thick with bobbing wherries, hired to bring people who could afford the fare as close to the celebrations as possible. However, the wherries were forced to give way to the Regent’s Royal barge, the Lord Mayor’s barge and an Admiralty barge which carried a large number of Waterloo veterans who were invited to be present at the dedication ceremony.

Some of the most important figures of the time were invited to take part in the dedication ceremony. The Prince Regent and his brother, the Duke of York, were both guests of honor, as was Henry Paget, the Marquess of Anglesey, who had lost his leg at Waterloo. More importantly, even the Duke of Wellington, who was still serving in France as the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army of Occupation, returned to England to take part in the dedication of the Waterloo Bridge as an honored guest. Troops of Horse Guards in full dress uniform provided an official honor guard. Though it was late in the social season, most members of Parliament and a great many prominent members of society remained in London so that they could attend the dedication. But attendance was not limited to the upper classes, and people from all classes and walks of life eagerly turned out to enjoy the exuberant festivities of the day.

Fortunately, the Wednesday morning of the dedication ceremony dawned clear and sunny and the weather remained so throughout the day. Crowds began to gather on either side of the bridge early in the morning. Even more people, travelling on the river in wherries, soon followed. However, the official ceremony did not begin until three o’clock that afternoon. The ceremony was kicked off with a salute of 202 guns, to mark the number of French guns which had been captured by the British at Waterloo. This was followed by a grand procession over the bridge, on foot, led by the Prince Regent and the Duke of York, with the Duke of Wellington and the Marquess of Anglesey immediately behind them. These very important personages were followed by all of the other prominent and influential people who had been invited to participate in the dedication. The procession was accompanied by the sound of several trumpeters playing a grand fanfare as well as the cheers of the crowds. Once the official procession had passed over the bridge, crowds of people flooded over the bridge from either side and the Waterloo Fair and other festivities continued on into the night.

John Constable, the English romantic painter, is believed to have witnessed the dedication ceremony and its accompanying festivities. He had just moved to London earlier that year and it is believed he took a great interest in his new surroundings. Constable made a number of drawings and oil sketches of the events of the day, though it seems he did not conceive of the idea of a full painting of the event until at least two years later. From 1819, Constable deliberated on how to create a lasting record of what he considered to be a significant historical occasion. In the end, it took him thirteen years to complete his painting of the Waterloo Bridge dedication ceremony. At over seven feet in length, this was the largest canvas which Constable ever executed for public exhibition. It first went on display at the Royal Academy Exhibition, in Somerset House, at the northern end of the Waterloo Bridge, in 1832.

Though Constable did not produce an image of the Waterloo Bridge dedication ceremony until fifteen years after the actual event took place, other artists worked more quickly. Within a few weeks, a plethora of prints which captured various aspects of the occasion were published and available in London and beyond. Rudolph Ackermann, who had premises in The Strand, just north of the new Waterloo Bridge, advertised prints of the dedication ceremony in the July 1817 issue of his Repository. One was an aquatint engraving of the Prince Regent and the Duke of Wellington, et. al., crossing the bridge. It measured 7 1/2 inches by 11 1/2 inches and the colored version sold for four shillings. A print of Somerset House, taken from the Waterloo Bridge, was also available. This print measured 14 by 19 inches and the colored version sold for 15 shillings. George Thompson, a print publisher with premises in Long Lane, West Smithfield, published a pair of less sophisticated and refined colored engravings within a week of the event. Each measured approximately 6 1/4 by 8 3/4 inches, though the price of these engravings is not known.

The dedication ceremony of the Waterloo Bridge was not only commemorated in the visual arts. In the "Musical Review" section of Ackermann’s Repository for October 1817, was listed the sheet music for a Triumphal Procession of their H. R H. the Prince Regent and the Duke of York, with his Grace the Duke of Wellington, over the Waterloo Bridge; a descriptive Piece in which are introduced favourite Airs of the Operas of "Le Nozze de Figaro" and "Il Don Giovanni," composed, and dedicated to the Marquis of Anglesea, by W. Grosse. William Leopold Grosse was a German composer and music teacher who wrote many pieces for the piano. He was born in Saxony, and had served in the Allied armies during the Napoleonic Wars before he eventually settled in Britain. The price for the sheet music for this new composition was listed as two shillings, six pence. Poetry and popular ditties were also written in honor of the new Waterloo Bridge.

It is not surprising that so much effort was made to celebrate this new bridge. Not only would it stand in London as functional monument to the Allied victory at the Battle of Waterloo (for over a century), it was also considered one of the most magnificent and noble bridge designs in all of Europe. Antonio Canova, the Italian sculptor, who worked primarily in the Neo-Classical style, called it "the finest bridge in all Europe," and added that "it is worth going to England solely to see Rennie’s bridge." The French mathematician and engineer, Charles Dupin, considered Rennie’s bridge a colossal monument worthy of the ancient kings of Egypt and the Caesars of the Roman Empire. In addition to its artistry and style, the height and situation of the new bridge meant that it offered some of the most splendid views of London. The bridge stood fifty feet above the river and there were no other bridges near it at the time. Therefore, it afforded those who stood upon it a stunning panoramic view of the City and the metropolis, including the Temple Gardens, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Monument (to the Great Fire), the Tower, the Pool of London and the many tall ships which were usually anchored there, as well as the spires of a host of churches in the city. Within a couple of years, it had become so well-known and popular that the majority of tourists visiting London made it a point to see the Waterloo Bridge.

Despite its warm reception by the public and critics alike, and its auspicious opening at the dedication ceremony on Waterloo Day in 1817, in the end, the Waterloo Bridge made no profit for its investors. Instead, it is estimated that its construction resulted in a loss for them of at least £300,000. The investors expected to make back their investment from the tolls that would be collected from those who crossed the new bridge. As the bridge was being completed, four toll lodges were built, two at each end of the bridge. Neat structures in the Doric style, designed to blend with the architectural style of the bridge, each of these toll lodges was equipped with a special iron turnstile. These turnstiles would allow only one pedestrian to pass through at a time. Each time the turnstile was moved, it tripped a mechanism locked within a study oak box in the toll lodge which kept track of the number of people who passed through the turnstile. Toll-takers were on duty at each toll lodge to collect the tolls from passing horsemen and vehicles. The toll for each pedestrian was a half-penny, the toll for a horse and rider was one penny and the toll for each vehicle was two pennies. Unfortunately for the Waterloo Bridge investors, the tolls were considered much too high by many people in the city, and most of them were willing to walk, ride or drive the extra distance to either Blackfriars or Westminster Bridges in order to avoid having to pay a toll to cross the river. Waterloo Bridge remained a toll bridge for the next fifty years, until it was purchased, late in 1877, by the Metropolitan Board of Works. Waterloo Bridge was toll-free from 1878, and the following year, it was lit at night by electric lights.

Though he would never know it, John Rennie himself laid the groundwork for the eventual destruction of his magnificent Waterloo Bridge. The new granite bridge was hailed as such a triumph that Rennie was offered a knighthood during the dedication ceremonies in 1817. Though he refused the knighthood, he did not refuse the many offers to design a number of other bridges which came his way in the years that followed. One of his most important commissions was to design a new London bridge, to replace the medieval bridge which had been in place for over 600 years. Before he died, in 1821, John Rennie completed his plans for a new London Bridge in a Neo-Classical style. Construction on the new bridge began in 1824, under the supervision of Rennie’s son, John, also an engineer. The old bridge had nineteen irregularly spaced arches, which had the effect of constricting the flow of water up and down stream as the tides went in and out. Rennie’s new London Bridge spanned the river with only five very wide arches.

The elimination of the blockage of the old London Bridge significantly increased the speed and volume of water carried by the tides which flowed up and down the Thames. This increased flow marked the end of the frost fairs which had been held on the river, since, without the Old London Bridge to constrict the flow, the river would never again freeze to a depth which would support a fair. But this increased water flow had another effect on the bridges over the Thames. This greater volume and more powerful flow of water significantly increased the scouring around the cutwaters which supported the bridges in the tidal portion of the Thames. This scour was increasingly harsh on the cutwaters of Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge. By the 1920s, it required a steel framework to stabilize it, and by 1934, it was decided to demolish it and build a new bridge. The river scour also contributed to the weakening of the London Bridge designed by John Rennie. It was put up for sale in 1967, and sold in 1968 to the American developer, Robert McCulloch. It was then dismantled and rebuilt over the Bridgewater Channel in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

Dear Regency Authors, might some aspects of John Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge provide you with a range of interesting plot points in an upcoming story? Perhaps one or more of your characters might attend the laying of the foundation stone for the new bridge, if your story is set in London in the fall of 1811. For stories set between 1811 and 1816, the building of the bridge arches in London, the quarrying of the granite in Cornwall, and/or its transport, might provide some opportunities for different but specific and historically correct events which you can weave into your tale. Of course, the dedication ceremony itself offers an array of options for romances set in the summer of 1817. Characters in the story might attend the Waterloo Fair held on the bank of the Thames that day, they might hire a wherry to take them out on the river to watch the ceremonies, or, a character who is a veteran of Waterloo might have a place on the Admiralty barge that day. Characters with high social standing or important political connections might have a place in the procession over the bridge which was led by the Prince Regent. Perhaps some members of one of these families might complain about having to stay in London for the dedication ceremony, which was so late in the social season. Then again, an author seeking to cause a character a financial loss might make them an investor in the Waterloo Bridge construction project. In a more simple vein, one or more characters in a Regency romance set after 18 June 1817, might wish to take a stroll over the Waterloo Bridge, only to find they cannot, or will not, pay the tolls. Or, someone visiting the city after that same date might be taken there to see the panoramic view of the city. But will the day be sunny, or so foggy that there is no view? How else might the Waterloo Bridge span an arc in a Regency romance?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   The Dedication of the Waterloo Bridge

  1. I was looking for the first use of coffer dams in the UK a couple of months ago! Thank you for answering that question, a significant advance in the safety of bridge building.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Glad I could help. I suspect that the use of coffer dams was initially implemented more to save time than lives, but it does seem to have had the net result of doing both.



      • there’s a superstition to this day amongst bridge builders that a bridge needs a blood sacrifice to stay up. There was some concern amongst the builders of our own lovely Orwell Bridge that it had been completed without an accident, and i understand that the labourers went out to toast the first suicide from it when it was in the last stages of completion. Safety isn’t always appreciated … superstition is an odd thing!

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          For all our modern technology, superstition is still alive and well in the twenty-first century. I used to run an office for a company that dug tunnels, and the tunnel workers, who call themselves “sand hogs,” are also very superstitious, just like bridge builders. They had similar views about the tunnels they were driving.

          Sadly, the first Waterloo Bridge became a popular spot for committing suicide not long after it was opened. Which seems a bit odd to me, since it was necessary to pay a toll to get onto the bridge. But perhaps it was seen as a more prestigious place from which to jump because it was considered such an important bridge. Again, who knows what drives people to do some of the things they do?



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