A link on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog led me to Hidden London, a website replete with interesting articles highlighting little-known sites and facts about London. On this website, I learned about an almost impossibly ancient organization that many Londoners unknowingly interact with every day.
There has been a bridge across the Thames at the present site of London Bridge since the time of the Roman occupation. The bridge was such a crucial transportation link between the Roman roads to the north with the routes heading southward that a small trading post that sprung up on the north side of the bridge grew to become the Roman city of Londinium—the beginnings of the City of London. (Yes, London Bridge is older than London!) With the departure of the Romans in the fifth century, Londinium was abandoned, and the bridge fell to ruin. Military bridges were rebuilt periodically during the Saxon period, and William the Conqueror seems to have built a more substantial bridge during his reign. However, this bridge proved less durable than his dynasty as it was damaged in 1091 by a tornado (A tornado in London! There must be an interesting story right there.)
William’s son, William Rufus, raised a tax in 1097 to fund repairs on the bridge. This tax is the origins of an organization that persists to this day—the Bridge House Estates. This wooden bridge was soon destroyed by fire as was the next. King Henry II created a monastery, the “Fraternity of the Brethren of the Bridge”, to oversee all work on London Bridge, and in 1176 its Warden, Peter de Colechurch, started construction on the first stone London Bridge. After 33 years of construction, the bridge was completed in 1209 and stood until 1831, spanning the reigns of British monarchs from King John to Queen Victoria.
The Brethren of the Bridge morphed into the Bridge House Estates, named after Bridge House, its original headquarters building in Southwark. Money raised through bridge tolls and their increasing real estate holdings enabled the trust to build Blackfriars Bridge in 1769, and Tower Bridge in 1894. It also took over responsibility for the Southwark Bridge as well as the recently built pedestrian Millennium Bridge. The mark of the Bridge House Estates, is one of the oldest continuously used corporate logos, and is displayed on all the London bridges, as well as other properties owned by the trust. As the income from its real estate holdings greatly exceeds the amount needed for bridge maintenance, in 1995 the City Bridge Trust was organized and started making charitable contributions to social and environmental non-profit groups.
An organization whose history spans almost a millennium is, of course, unheard of in the US, and rare anywhere in the world I would guess, especially one whose mission has remained unchanged throughout those thousand years. Every time a Londoner crosses one of the five bridges that are the responsibility of the figurative descendents of the monks charged with their care over 800 years ago, he is paying homage to the foresight and dedication that have knit together the two banks of the Thames.