Friday, October 13, 2006

London Bridge is falling down!

London Bridge, which until the eighteenth century was the only bridge over the Thames below Kingston, was originally built of wood; but after it was destroyed in 1176 it was decided to rebuild it in stone. The people made up a song about it:

London Bridge is falling down.
How shall we build it up again?
Build it up with silver and gold,
Dance over my lady lea;
Silver and gold will be stolen away,
With a fair lady.
Build it up with iron and steel,
Dance over my lady lea;
Iron and steel will bend and bow
With a fair lady.
Build it up with wood and clay,
Dance over my lady lea;
Wood and clay will wash away,
With a fair lady.
Build it up with stone so strong,
Dance over my lady lea;
Then ’twill last for ages long,
With a fair lady.

It did indeed last for ages long. After the masons had finished building it in 1209, it lasted 623 years, and when it was demolished in 1832, it was not because of any fault in the structure, but because the stone pillars on which the bridge was built were too close together to allow the larger ships of the nineteenth century to pass beneath.

And who was the ‘fair lady’, the ‘lady lea’ over whom the people danced when they crossed the bridge or entered the houses which were built on both sides of the bridge? Everyone knew all about her. She was a young virgin who had been walled up alive in one of the stone columns of the bridge by the masons when they were building the bridge, as a human sacrifice to appease God’s wrath and induce Him to preserve the bridge from destruction by gales or floods. It was one of the many lies about masons which people have spread and believed for more than 800 years.

From: The Freemasons - A History of the World’s Most Powerful Secret Society, by Jasper Ridley.

Image: Old London Bridge, with river craft and warehouses, by EW Cooke, © National Maritime Museum, London.

This brought to mind:

Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, an amazingly beautiful novel, about Macedonian immigrant workers engaged in building high bridges in Canada in the early twentieth century; and

the secret tradition, supposedly practiced in India, of a human sacrifice in major bridge projects, to protect workers from death by accident.

1 comment:

Yves said...

When I was in Sabah (old name: North Borneo) it was said to be the tradition to embed a human head in the foundations of a bridge. I don't suppose it happens these days but it was commonly discussed in 1981 as a reason for the delay in building a bridge: the contract was out to supply the head.

London Bridge was sold in 1962 to Americans for one million pounds and reassembled, stone by stone, to traverse a lake in Arizona.

An urban myth has grown up that the American who bought it was under the mistaken impression that he was buying the far more picturesque Tower Bridge, whose roadway can be hydraulically drawn up in two parts to allow ships to pass.

There are other urban myths that Londoners can be found on the street who are willing to sell Americans any bridge of their choice, for cash, on the "buyer collects" principle.