For centuries London Bridge was the only crossing in central London, the next bridge upstream was many miles away at Kingston.
The only crossing at this point was by the ‘Lambeth Horseferry’ but this took a long time and could be risky when the tides were fast.
During the reign of Elizabeth I several attempts were made to pass an Act authorising a bridge at Westminster but the City always objected. However, in 1734 Charles Labelye, a Swiss engineer submitted his plans and in 1736 the Earl of Pembroke and his followers were granted their Act. This empowered them to hold a lottery to raise money for the new structure, which became known as the ‘Bridge of Fools’.
The foundation stone for the first pier was laid in 1739 by the Earl of Pembroke. Cast-iron caissons were driven into the river bed by an engine invented by M. Valoue, a Swiss watchmaker. Building work hampered by financial problems and the harsh winters as well as wars in Europe, sabotage by the watermen, accidents and a small earthquake. Later cracks appeared in the masonry and in 1747 stones from the fifth arch fell into the Thames.
The Earl of Pembroke died shortly before Westminster Bridge was opened in 1750. Labelye, worn out by the ten years of work and worries, retired to the South of France, where he died in 1781.
The bridge was 1,038 feet long and 44 ft wide.The bridge, which tended to sway on its foundations, was never fully trusted. When the old London Bridge was removed in 1831 the scour of the river upstream undermined the foundations of Westminster Bridge and it became dangerous. In 1836 James Walker began piecemeal reconstruction of the structure over 10 years to complete and when complete he joined Charles Barry, George Rennie and Thomas Page in submitting designs for a replacement bridge.
In 1854 work began on a new bridge, the seven-arch wrought-iron bridge is overall 827 ft long and 84 ft wide. Opened in May 1862, Westminster Bridge is painted predominately green for the Commons benches of the Houses of Parliament, Lambeth Bridge is painted red for the benches of the Lord’s.
It was the construction of Westminster Bridge that started the development of the South Bank. Westminster Bridge is now the oldest bridge in use in London and, apart from the repair of a few cracked ribs in 1924, it has had needed very little repair since it opened almost 150 years ago.