Over London Bridge


By W. Pett Ridge.

The attraction possessed by London Bridge over all other London bridges is that there, on the left hand side starting from the City, a man can lean his elbows on the parapet and look at a scene of hard work on the vessels below, thus obtaining all the satisfaction of labour without its attendant inconvenience. I have observed men turn away after an hour's hard survey of the busy scene below—with its continuous line of porters, their cumbersome knots worn on their head with as much unanimity as women wear a popular shape in bonnets from Conduit Street, and upon the knots bursting cases of oranges—and say to each other, "Well, Bill, old man, that cargo's cleared out, and chance it," strolling off Boro'-wards with the slightly exhausted air of men who have completed a hard day's work. Also in the summer months at this point may be seen the unshipment by groaning, complaining cranes of enormous blocks of ice for consumption by the heated giant London, and, better still, the departure of pleasure steamers. Here, again, one can act by deputy. Next to taking the voyage to Clacton or to Ramsgate on a bright sunshiny morning, what can be better than to see the, voyagers off and wave to them an adieu? I declare that the farewells at the Royal Albert Docks are not more important, the good-byes at Southampton not more tearful.

"Goo'-bye, mother. Don't forget to eat your sandwiches."

"Mind you 'old the baby right side up. If he cries, give him a good shake."

"Enjoy yourself, Awthur, ole man. It's your one chance of the year, and you've got the week to do it in. Don't go losin' your 'at, or else you'll look foolish."

"Mind you write, Mabel, and tell us how ill you've been, and be sure to bring back some sea-weed. Oh! and I say, about that hat you're goin' to trim for me. How'd it be if, instead of——"

"Be sure to ask the captain, dear, not to have no accident on the voyage. He's got a very kind face, and I am sure if you was to ask him nicely——"

"Now you're off! Now she's movin'! Now you'll soon begin to rock about. I say! I say!" A sudden remembrance of an injunction till now forgotten and of the highest value. "Don't go and get drowned, mind, or else mother'll be cross with you."

An added joy to the parapet loafer comes with the stately raising of the bascules of the Tower Bridge. (For the matter of that, I know few men and no women who, crossing London Bridge, can see this without stopping to watch it carefully to the end.) With the slight mist that sometimes hangs over the Pool, this has all the effect of a spectacular performance: the ring of the distant bell, the stopping of traffic on either side, the slow opening of the two halves of the bridge, the passing through of some high-masted vessel with a slight inclination, as who should say, "So much obliged to you," the careful descent and reclosing of the two halves of the bridge, the release and the resumption of carriage traffic. Office boys in the City excuse their late arrival on the grounds that they stopped to watch the Tower Bridge, and stolid chief clerks, with a knowledge of their own weaknesses, say gently——

"Perhaps, in future, you had better come over Southwark."

Tower Bridge is on friendly terms with London Bridge because it was born at a time when the elder had found its task to be almost beyond bearing. Now it relieves its neighbour of much of the heavy Wapping to Rotherhithe traffic, and London Bridge has more room for its wayfarers, and the temper of drivers has softened. Thus it is possible at the present time to start from the City side in the early morning to go to Southwark and to reach Southwark in a few minutes; whereas in the old pre-Tower Bridge days there were painful invented stories of mild men starting with this intent and being met by the swift, determined stream of silk-hatted City men, of trying to breast the stream and being borne back Citywards and essaying the journey south again under the protection of a detachment of fish barrows from Billingsgate, but of being again caught and swept back to King William's Statue and eventually having to wait until nightfall ere they could ford the river in comparative peace. The City man, in a hurry to make his fortune, is an impetuous fellow, and, armed with his little brown bag and an umbrella, he is no enemy to be considered lightly. Indignant small boys may protest and say, "Now then, awk'ard!" and old ladies may remark satirically, "Nice manners, I must say," but the City men march on, the Mansion House ever before them as their goal.

The recesses of the Bridge, where timid people may step aside to take breath from their contest with the traffic, and where others seat themselves on the stone ottoman to enjoy an open-air meal, are the only survivals of the dwelling-houses which, in the days that are gone, bordered the side. Essays are made sometimes by tired-out wastrels to convert these resting-places into apartments for sleep, but the City Police frown at this and check it sharply. In these retreats one can look around and down. The masts of ships stand about the river like a half cleared hop-garden in September; the wharves down to the quay of the Customs House are busy on every floor. Behind them the gilded top of the Monument shines and glistens in the sun; a few black flies move in the cage of ironwork near to the summit. The flies are country men and women; no Londoner ever has the courage or the spare energy to climb its many steps. The flies come down after they have had what they consider to be their money's worth in fresh, swift air and the view, and having resumed their normal size, congratulate themselves on crossing the Bridge.

"Aye, it's a grand thing to be able to say as you've climbed it."

"I'd sooner say I've climbed it," remarks the tired wife, with some bitterness, "than say I've got to go climbin' it again."

Small watercarts creep along close to the parapet and insinuate a quiet stream of water, which trickles away across the stone pavement to the gutter and baulks the intentions of dust. The Bridge is cared for by a number of other attendants, who are ever giving it a wash and brush up, ever removing distracted pieces of contents bills and advertisement slips which fly about on its surface, ever begging its pardon and setting it to rights solicitously. Its clusters of lamps, with their whitened backs, are cleaned; every corner in the recesses is brushed out; everything is carted away carefully, and by the time this has been done the first end of the Bridge, like a tiresome and mischievous child, is requiring attention again.

The Bridge prepares for a descent on its Southwark side, and loaded vans, bulging with fruit and vegetables for Borough Market, have to skid their wheels for safety. Here, too, the wayfarer has need of caution. Bear to the left, past the old lady in a shawl, who, seated comfortably at her tray of collar-studs and button-hooks, has the complacent air of saying, "Show me the shop window that looks like that!" past the mulatto, who is selling matches, the shoeblacks, the flower-girls with their baskets of "voilets, sweet voilets"—go past all these, I say, and you find yourself before you have time to think in Dockhead, in Rotherhithe, in Bermondsey Wall. Return, and take the middle course, and you run plump into the arms of two railway stations, where you have to take a ticket to Folkestone or to Brighton, to avoid the appearance of confusion. Swerve, in leaving the Bridge, to the right, and you are down the hill past St. Saviour's Church and into the bustle and turmoil and stress and tumult of High Street Borough, where the honest country smell of hops fights stolidly with alert London scents that come from the by-streets, and farmers meet with the jolliest faces to brag to each other of how very badly they are doing.

"Hops, my dear sir? Why, bless your soul, I've got no hops to speak of. How did your fruit turn out?"

"Fruit," says the other farmer, with a puzzled air, "Fruit? Bless my heart! I only grew a sieve or two. What price did your corn fetch?"

"Corn!" echoes the first farmer, with great astonishment. "Corn? You mean—oh, I know what you mean. Why, I ain't grown none worth speakin' of. Another year like this" (here he laughs outright), "and, as I tell the wife, we shall have to apply for outdoor relief. I brought her and the girls up with me this mornin'. They've gone up to the West End to buy some frocks and bonnets and goodness knows what else. How's your missis?"

"Middlin' to well," replies the other cheerfully. "She'll be upset, though, when she sees your wife at church next Sunday. Means twenty pound out of my pocket. Got any pigs?"

"Pigs?" repeats the first farmer, resuming quickly his attitude of agricultural distress. "I never have no luck wi' pigs. How's that young foal of yourn gettin' on?"

"Don't ask me! Come and have a bit o' lunch at the Bridge House, and I'll tell ye all I have to put up with."

London Bridge takes a veil in the evening rather earlier than do the neighbouring thoroughfares, this being sent up by the river below. Then its lamps are lighted, and down river specks itself with red and white lights, whilst up river the railway bridge takes its ornaments of green and danger signals. Advertisements flash disturbingly; the stress of traffic becomes for a while more insistent. The Bridge at no hour sleeps, but after midnight it dozes—dozes to be awakened, perhaps, by a fire-engine dashing and spluttering across to a Shoreditch outbreak, followed by a regiment of people hastily recruited from nowhere; dozes until the market vans begin to rumble and the dawn comes; dozes until the world requires it to be wakeful. Wherein, indeed, is London Bridge a pattern and example to us all.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1930, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.