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London Bridge: a history of disaster at the iconic Thames crossing

London Bridge, Fire
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London Bridge, Fire
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A depiction of London Bridge on fire during the great blaze that swept through the English capital in 1666

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London Bridge, Fire

Friday’s deadly terror attack is latest in string of tragedies involving the bridge over the centuries

In Depth Gabriel Power
Monday, December 2, 2019 - 12:36pm

The UK has been left reeling by a terrorist knife attack that claimed the lives of two people before ending on London Bridge on Friday.

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Usman Khan, 28, was shot dead by police officers after stabbing to death Cambridge University graduates Saskia Jones, 23, and Jack Merritt, 25, in the second major terrorist incident on the famed crossing in just over two years. 

The attacks join a long line of tragedies involving London Bridge, numerous iterations of which have spanned the River Thames between the City of London and Southwark over the centuries. As far back as 1878, author and biographer Walter Thornburry wrote: “There are few spots in London where, within a very limited and strictly defined space, so many historical events have happened, as on Old London Bridge.”

Here are some of the disasters to have hit the landmark.

1014 demolition

According to Viking legend, the Saxon version of the bridge was destroyed in 1014 by Norwegian prince Olaf, who was aiding King Aethelred in regaining London from the Danes.

Experts say there is insufficient evidence to verify this version of events, but the story is believed to have been the chief inspiration for the famous nursery rhyme London Bridge is Falling Down.

1091 tornado

In a bizarre twist, a replacement wooden bridge built by William the Conqueror was totally destroyed by a tornado on 17 October 1091.

Historic UK says the tornado “struck the heart of the city, causing a great deal of damage”, including levelling the church of St Mary-le-Bow and around 600 houses.

c. 1135 fire

Little is known about this fire on the next version of London Bridge, other than it occurred to some point in the mid-1130s. The death toll is not thought to have been high, and the level of destruction to the structure is unknown. 

However, this incident was one of two referred to as the “Great Fire of London” prior to the now-famous events of 1666, when a massive blaze swept through central parts of the city.

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1212 fire

The fire that hit London Bridge in 1212 is widely portrayed as the most devastating ever to hit the crossing, and some accounts suggest it may even have been London’s single most deadly disaster ever.

The bridge had recently been rebuilt in stone when a small fire on the southern end of the bridge was whipped up by high winds, “setting aflame the straw and wood buildings at the northern end of the bridge”, and trapping people in the middle, according to Londonist.

Writing in 1603, historian John Stow put the death toll from the fire at around 3,000, but there is no way to verify that figure.

1633 fire

The City of London website says that in 1633, a minor fire broke out in the house of a man called John Briggs at the northern end of the bridge. The fire quickly spread, destroying a total of 43 homes.

The blaze did have some positive effects, though. The destroyed buildings around the northern end of the bridge had not been rebuilt by the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the gap where they had stood is thought to have acted as a fire break that prevented the remainder of the bridge from burning down.

1984 collision

Following two centuries with little incident, in June 1984, the HMS Jupiter collided with London Bridge after the captain of the Royal Navy frigate dismissed an offer to be tugged through a strong incoming tide.

The collision severely damaged the boat and took large chunks out of the granite bridge, and led to the court-martialling of Jupiter’s captain.

2017 terrorist attack

On 3 June 2017, eight people were killed and dozens more injured when three Islamic extremists ploughed a van into pedestrians on the southern end of the bridge and then attacked people indiscriminately with knives in Borough Market.

Armed police arrived on the scene within eight minutes and shot all three attackers dead.

On 3 June 2017, eight people were killed and dozens were injured when three Islamic extremists ploughed a van into pedestrians on the southern end of the bridge before attacking people indiscriminately with knives in Borough Market.

Armed police arrived on the scene within just eight minute and shot all three attackers dead.

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