Have you heard of City Bridge Foundation?

Imagine an organisation that has been around for over 900 years, is responsible for two of the world’s most famous structures and yet has operated under the radar for centuries. Even in London, its own city.

City Bridge Foundation (historically known as Bridge House Estates) is exactly that. It is the body responsible for the construction of both London Bridge and Tower Bridge, as well as various other structures and buildings around London, such as Southwark Bridge. But how did such an organisation come about?

Detail from 'Panorama of London' by Claes Van Visscher, 1616, showing Old London Bridge.

A deep dive in history

Back in 1176, Peter de Colechurch began building the first stone bridge across the Thames. This was the original London Bridge, which took 33 years to finish. That bridge remained an important crossing until 1831, when it was finally replaced.

Peter was head of the 'Fraternity of St. Thomas', which was the clergy of the Chapel of St Thomas on the Bridge. The 'Fraternity', also known as the 'Brethren of the Bridge'lived in the Bridge House, and were responsible for running and maintaining the bridge.

The Chapel raised funds for the bridge’s upkeep, assisted by its locale, as pilgrims would leave donations before setting off southwards on the pilgrimage to Thomas’s tomb in Canterbury. More money came from bridge tolls for crossing, bequests, rents and penalty fares.

Image: Detail from 'Panorama of London' by Claes Van Visscher, 1616, showing Old London Bridge.

'London Bridge is Falling Down'

Most of people will have heard of the nursery rhyme 'London Bridge is Falling Down' but did you know its origins?

In 1269, Henry III diverted funds from bridge tolls to his wife, Eleanor, who some believe is the 'My Fair Lady' in the now famous nursery rhyme. Just over a decade later, their son, Edward I, awarded the Bridge House Estates a charter in 1282, kept ownership with the Crown but made the City of London Corporation responsible for maintaining the bridge, ensuring its upkeep for centuries to come.

By the end of the 13th century, significant amounts of wealth had accumulated in the Bridge House Estates as it was considered a religious and civic duty to donate to the bridge. Over time, the fund grew ever larger thanks to bequests; grants from wills; donations to 'God and the bridge'; tolls and levies; and good administration and investment by the two Bridge Masters, who were elected by the Citizens of London.

This right was enshrined in the 1319 Charter from Edward II, which transferred ownership of the bridge from Crown to the City of London Corporation.

The Bridge Mark

The Bridge Mark

Ownership was often identified by the Bridge Mark, which first appeared on maps and plans in the 1500s. Look for one the next time you cross one of the City's bridges, like Tower Bridge. The most distant Bridge Mark is on Old London Bridge, which is now located on Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

Relatively recently, for such an old organisation, the Bridge House Estates has built Blackfriars Bridge (1769), bought Southwark Bridge (1864) and then had it rebuilt (1921); constructed Tower Bridge (1894), and twice rebuilt London Bridge (1831 and 1973).

The charity also took over responsibility for the Millennium Bridge, built between St Pauls Cathedral and the Tate Modern to mark the year 2000.’

Image: The Bridge Mark at Guildhall © City Bridge Foundation

Connecting London

City Bridge Foundation is London’s biggest independent charity funders. It donates more than £30 million a year to charitable causes across Greater London.

So, did you know that when you visit Tower Bridge, your admission contributes towards the charitable efforts of City Bridge Foundation, more than £6 million every year?

City Bridge Foundation is an extraordinary and fascinating organisation, which many Londoners will have never heard of, but of which Londoners should be rightly proud.