Bridge House Estates has been connecting London since 1122
Bridge House Estates was established more than nine centuries ago to ensure the upkeep of London’s first river crossing, London Bridge, and now looks after five of London’s iconic bridges. Since 1995, we’ve been able to go further: investing the surplus income from our endowment into charitable causes across the capital.
Read on to learn how Bridge House Estates came into being, grew, and towards the end of the 20th century saw a major expansion in its role – from bridging the river, to bridging inequalities in the capital.
Bridge House Estates down the ages
1176 – London Bridge begun in stone, completed 33 years later
1300s – funding to support the bridge’s upkeep increases, raised from trade, taxes and gifts. This is administered from ‘Bridge House’ in Southwark
1769 – the first Blackfriars Bridge opens – and is replaced 100 years later
1868 – Bridge House Estates purchases Southwark Bridge
1894 – Tower Bridge opens
1995 – The Charity Commission approves the addition of an ancillary purpose to Bridge House Estates’ charitable activities – tackling disadvantage across the capital
2000 – Ownership of the Millennium Bridge transferred to Bridge House Estates
The charity’s origins and primary purpose: bridging the Thames
Bridges have been central to London’s economic, social and cultural life since the city’s foundation. Bridge House Estates owes its existence to the significance that generations of mediaeval Londoners placed on their city’s very first stone bridge.
A ‘London Bridge’ made of timber had existed for centuries before it was replaced with a bridge made of stone between 1176 and 1209 – under the direction of English engineer Peter de Colechurch. De Colechurch’s new stone London Bridge, an epic feat of engineering that stood for 600 years, opened to the public shortly before King John signed the Magna Carta.
The opening of the new bridge, which was adorned with houses and shops, was momentous to Londoners in the Middle Ages. In recognition of how crucial crossing the river was to the life of the city, they started to make gifts of land and money to ‘God and the Bridge’ — to fund its upkeep and construction. These donations were considered religious ‘acts of piety’ and were actively encouraged by the Church.
Over the course of the thirteenth century, cross-river trade, taxes, rents and bequests to the new stone London Bridge all increased, and an entity was set up on the south side of the bridge, in a building called Bridge House, to administer the significant funds and other assets it raised.
Bridge House Estates, as it became officially known, continued to amass increasing wealth and property. Income sources included tolls on crossing the Bridge, ships passing under the bridge and fines for illegal fishing.
Over succeeding centuries Bridge House Estates became responsible for the maintenance and support of four additional bridges across the Thames: Blackfriars Bridge, Southwark Bridge, Tower Bridge and Millennium Bridge. All these bridges adjoin the City of London, with Bridge House Estates fund administered by the City of London Corporation (‘the City Corporation’) as Trustee.
Maintaining these bridges remains Bridge House Estates’ ‘primary purpose’ – our legal reason for being.
The charity in the 20th century: bridging the river and bridging London’s inequalities
For over 850 years, it was a legal requirement for all Bridge House Estates’ expenditure to be spent exclusively on the upkeep, building, purchase, repair or replacement of its bridges. But in 1995, everything changed.
The fund had to maintain colossal reserves to ensure it could rebuild a bridge from scratch in the event of a collapse. Over time, through careful stewardship and thanks to the continued prosperity of London, these reserves grew substantial enough to warrant an expansion of Bridge House Estates’ legal purpose.
In 1995, the Charity Commission allowed the City Corporation to widen the fund’s purpose (through a legal route called a ‘cy-près scheme’). This scheme meant that so long as sufficient funds remained ring-fenced for the Trust’s ‘primary purpose’ – the upkeep of its bridges – the excess in any year could be directed towards a newly defined ‘ancillary purpose’. This was defined as: ‘the provision of transport for elderly and disabled people in Greater London and/or for other charitable purposes for the general benefit of the inhabitants of Greater London.’
Bridge House Estates’ charitable funding arm, City Bridge Trust, has since awarded more than £760 million in grants to over 4,500 organisations. The Trust has funded projects tackling disadvantage in every Greater London borough.
The Bridge Mark
The Bridge Mark, established as an identifying emblem of the charity for centuries, is believed to have been designed by William Leybourn, a famous seventeenth century surveyor.
It is thought that Leybourn adapted the mark from one found on an early plan of St George’s Fields, in London’s Bayswater area – where the symbol was used as a shorthand to mark plots owned by Bridge House Estates.
You can still see the symbol on several of the five bridges, there are more than 20 Bridge Marks on Tower Bridge, and at the Guildhall, as in the image below.
Tower Bridge is open to the public and offers spectacular views across London from its walkways, which also include an exhibition on the history of Tower Bridge and its construction. As part of Bridge House Estates, all profits generated by Tower Bridge come back into the charity and form part of our grant-making funds.
At the north end of London Bridge, the Church of St Magnus the Martyr has strong historic links with the Bridge and has a well-known model of London Bridge on display.
Finally, there are many books available on the history of the Thames and its bridges. The Tower Bridge online shop sells books featuring Tower Bridge for children and adults, alongside many other themed gifts.