Charlene Mullen ‘London Calling’ Mug
London Bridge view — Royal Doulton
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“When I was small I dreamed of demons. I thought they were under my bed, but you said, it can’t be so, you don’t get demons our side of the river, the guards won’t let them over London Bridge.”
– Hilary Mantel
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
Some of the song’s lyrics have been updated in this version:
Note: The bridge in this cartoon is Tower Bridge, not London Bridge
The traditional English nursery rhyme and singing game was inspired by some very real problems with the London Bridge. There are similar singing games from the Middle Ages, but earliest record of the lyrics about London Bridge dates from the 17th century.
Olaf II of Norway is said to have destroyed an ancient version of London Bridge in 1014, or possibly 1009, but some historians have cast doubt on the entire story. It is a fact that until the 1750s, the Old London Bridge was the only one crossing the Thames directly into London. It had been damaged in a big fire in 1633, but ironically that damage became a fire break on the bridge during the Great Fire of London in 1666, preventing the flames from crossing the river.
London Bridge before the Great Fire of London
There were continual problems with this bridge – the 19 narrow arches supporting it restricted river traffic on the Thames, and caught debris, which had to be cleared. It was too narrow for the traffic flow on its top as well, and was in constant need of expensive repairs. So New London Bridge was built, which opened in 1831. It in turn was replaced in 1972. But New London Bridge wasn’t demolished like its predecessor; it was transported in pieces to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and reconstructed there.
New London Bridge postcard, circa 1895
The nursery rhyme which was inspired by the bridge’s problems is one of the most popular and well-known songs in the world, but there have been endless debates about its possible hidden meanings. Like the ‘dark lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets, there are multiple candidates for ‘my fair lady’ – including:
Henry I’s consort, Matilda of Scotland, who was responsible for the building of a series of bridges for the London-Colchester road
Henry III’s consort, Eleanor of Provence, who had custody of bridge revenues from 1269 until about 1281
Several different female members of the Leigh family of Stoneleigh Park have also been proposed, because of a family story of human sacrifices buried under their building – one of the stories about Old London Bridge is that children were buried as sacrifices in its foundations. This idea was first put in print by Alice Bertha Gomme in The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland (1894–1898). However, no archaeological evidence of human remains were found in the foundations.
The London Bridge song shows up in The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot:
I sat upon the shoreFishing, with the arid plain behind meShall I at least set my lands in order?London Bridge is falling down falling down falling downPoi s’ascose nel foco che gli affinaQuando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallowLe Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolieThese fragments I have shored against my ruinsWhy then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.Shantih shantih shantih
It was probably the source of the title of the Lerner and Loew musical My Fair Lady. English football fans have used the tune for chants.
By coincidence, there’s a Korean nursery rhyme and singing game called Dong Dong Dongdaemin about the Grand Gates of Seoul, where two children are gatekeepers who try to catch the last child passing under their raised arms as the song ends, and a caught child has to replace one of the gatekeepers.