May. 13th, 2009

lost_carcosa: (Paele Madonna)
Chronicles of London Bridge

by An Antiquary (Richard Thomson)

First published 1827. Link takes you to the 2nd ed., published 1839.


This is by far and away my favourite source on London Bridge (1). That's not to say that Gordon Home's wonderful Old London Bridge of 1930 isn't an amazing work of scholarship - it truly is, and Home picks up on a great deal of things missed by Thomson - but Thomson's book is a picturesque gem.

The first true work of scholarship on the subject, Thomson researched and published his book at a key moment in the history of London Bridge (2). Between 1800 and 1830, the Corporation of London - the body with control over the bridge and all its very luractive holdings - decided to replace it with something new and fashionable. It is this decision that prompted Thomson to delve into the archives and collect the history of this remarkable building in one place for the first time.

Given the date of Thomson's researches, it isn't surprising that Barbican says nothing about physical preservation. The idea that the architectural fabric of the past should be restored and maintained (in preference to being replaced) hadn't yet gained currency. Instead, Thomson seeks to preserve through observation - a common feature of urban guides and histories in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Thomson doesn't get everything - neither does Home for that matter - but Chronicles is as comprehensive as the scholarship of the day would allow. What's more, it's a highly readable tale presented in a way that we would now consider unusual for a work of fact.

Thomson gives us two characters, Mr Geoffrey Barbican and Mr Barnaby Postern (see what he did there?). Mr Barbican is our narrator, an antiquarian saddened by the spirit of 'improvement' which he perceives is sweeping away the historic fabric of the City of London. Mr Postern is a man Barbican meets one evening in a pub, a serendipidous meeting considering that Barbican wants to know the history of London Bridge, and Postern can tell it to him.

The fictional narrative of a night-long conversation between Barbican and Postern in a pub by the bridge frames the historical narrative. Postern relates the tale of London Bridge from the very earliest of bridges across the Thames to the events unfolding in London during the 1820s. The tale itself is a vibrant and varied patchwork of historical anecdotes, antiquarian gleanings, economic, social and political history, folklore, poetry and song. All of this is punctuated by Barbican's questions, small debates between the two regarding the source material, and frequent reminders on the part of Barbican for Postern to steer clear of dull tangents and keep to his subject.

The text is peppered with illustrations engraved especially for Thomson, the vast majority of which are copies of earlier works. The book as a whole is a wonderful work of scholarship infused with a sentimental yearning for the past, and a keen eye for amusing historical and anecdotal detail. Thompson is keen for us to know which of his sources are reputable, and which of his tales might not be quite so reliable. He is very much of his time, but this in itself gives so much rich material for anyone interested in attitudes towards the medieval in the initial decades of the nineteenth century, as well as the long and fascinating history of London Bridge.



****


1. For anyone unfamiliar with the history of London, this is the current London Bridge, this is John Rennie's London Bridge, sometimes called Old London Bridge (now in Lake Havasu, Arizona), and this is one (post-medieval) phase of the medieval London Bridge. It's the medieval bridge and it's replacement that Thomson talks about. This is Tower Bridge. They are not the same.

2. By which I mean the history of the many Thames bridges that have occupied that site.

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