“The men who built Waterloo Bridge are fortunate men. They know that although their names may be forgotten, their work will be a pride and use to London for many generations to come.” – Herbert Morrison, opening Waterloo Bridge in December 1945.
These words must have been a slap in the face to many of the workers who built the bridge during the second world war. Why? Because many were women.
Until the beginning of the 19th century there was only one bridge, Blackfriars, between Westminster and London Bridges. In 1806 a group of speculators formed the Strand Building Company with the aim of constructing a bridge across the Thames midway between Westminster and Blackfriars, to be financed by the income from tolls. The new bridge was opened by the Prince Regent accompanied by the Duke of Wellington on the 18th of June, 1817, exactly two years after the Battle of Waterloo. Following a new Act of Parliament of 1816, the Strand Bridge Company had renamed itself as the Waterloo Bridge Company, hence the present name of Waterloo Bridge. The bridge was of grey Cornish granite of nine elliptical arches of 120 feet span, the total length between the abutments being 1,240 feet. The width between the parapets was 42 feet.
During the 1840s the bridge gained a reputation as a popular place for suicide attempts. In 1841 the American daredevil Samuel Gilbert Scott was killed while performing an act in which he hung by a rope from a scaffold on the bridge.
In the 1930s London County Council decided to demolish the bridge and replace it with a new structure designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The engineers were Ernest Buckton and John Cuerel of Rendel Palmer & Tritton.
In 1937 demolition of the old bridge and construction of the new bridge started, commissioned by Herbert Morrison, leader of the London County Council from 1934 to 1940. In 1939 at the outbreak of the war 500 men employed but very soon after only 150 remained. Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour and National Service, faced an acute manpower crisis on the home front. He called on women to help the war effort and in 1941 introduced compulsory registration of women aged 19-40 for employment. It is well known that thousands of women were working in the heavy industries: they were employed in shipbuilding, engineering and aircraft manufacture. It is less well known that considerable numbers also worked in the construction industry, with an estimated 24,000 women working in the industry by 1945. Women were put to work on the understanding that they would give up their temporary job when the male workforce returned from the war. Surprisingly little footage or documentation records women’s contribution to Waterloo Bridge – partly because it was a structure of strategic importance, and therefore prone to censorship, and partly because records have not survived. With peace came the return of the status to British life and most women returned to traditional roles, with their great contribution to the home front quickly forgotten.
The new bridge was partially opened on Tuesday, March 11th, 1942 and “officially opened” in September 1942. However, it was not fully completed until 1945.
The history of the Waterloo Bridge is an example of the rich heritage of the area. Let’s celebrate the women who have helped build the cities in which we live and let’s strive to encourage more to put their talents and efforts into the edifices of the future.
Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.
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