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Merian's View of London

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Merian's View of London

This view of London by Merian, a Swiss engraver, was published in 1638. It is a very rare engraving and shows London with it's old bridge and St Pauls without its steeple. Lightening struck St Paul's in 1561 and destroyed the steeple which had been rebuilt after a similar strike in 1444. It seems disaster struck St Paul's every 100 years or so as the cathedral was completely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

From it you get the sense of the London that Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare knew. At the southern end of Old London Bridge with it's display of traitors heads over the gate is Southwark. Merian has illustrated the Globe, the Swan and the Bear Pit theatres but has added a mysterious fourth which may be a mistake or simply an unrecorded theatre.

The population of London at this time was around 300,000 and life for the working classes was hard and short, the average life expectancy a little over 30 years, lower for the working man and women. On average they had to work 80 hours per week and lived in very cramped conditions, whole families in a single room. Disease was rife and infant mortality very high. London could only maintain it's population by immigration from home and abroad and then as now London was a very diverse city.

Old London Bridge; Central to the image is the remarkable Old London Bridge. Commissioned by Henry II building began in 1176 supervised by Peter Colechurch, a priest at St Mary Colechurch, and it was finally completed in the reign of King John 1209. The cost of building and maintaining the bridge was enormous so money was recouped from the rents of the shops and houses that slowly took over the bridge. One hundred and fifty years after the completion of the bridge there were over 125 shops and later this rose to around 200. Congestion always was a serious problem, the carriageway down to as little as 12 feet, the bridge being around 28 feet wide and 900 feet long, the Thames being much wider before the embankments of later centuries.

Over it's 700 years the bridge suffered and survived numerous disasters from being destroyed by fire to being demolished by flood or damaged by ice. A fire in 1212 caused the death of several thousand people. Starting at one end of the bridge sightseers rushed on to the bridge only to be trapped when parks set fire to the other end. A fire at the north end of the bridge in 1633 turned out to be a blessing because it formed a firebreak that saved the southern end being consumed by the Great Fire of 1666.

The river to the left of the bridge is the stretch where the frost fairs took place during the severe winters London suffered in what has become known as the Little Ice Age. The bridge restricted the flow of water so much that the languid flow allowed the river to freeze.

At high tide the difference in water level on either side of the bridge could have been as much as six feet causing such a rush of water that it undermined the foundations of the piers and these required constant maintenance. Traveling under the bridge was known as "shooting the bridge" and at the high tide was very dangerous, many 100's, and probably over the bridges life 1000's of people drowned, their boats being inundated or smashed against the piers, or starlings.

By the mid 18th century congestion and the cost of maintaining the bridge became intractable problems. Putney and Westminster bridges had been completed by 1750 and the decision was taken to remove the shops and houses and widen the bridge to 45 feet. Some arches were removed and that increased the flow of the river. However this did not save the bridge and by 1831 a new bridge was built and Old London Bridge was demolished, thus London lost what was considered one of the wonders of the world.

The Folding Map Company produce reproductions of the rarer maps, all dissected and hand laid onto 100% natural cotton cloth. All of them are supplied in handmade slipcases covered in marbled paper taken from our collection of original papers dating back to circa 1700.

36.5 x 13"

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