The history and the hidden meanings behind a classic childhood game that can serve not only as a cheap form of entertainment for the little ones but also as: a quick history lesson of the Thames River, a “How to Build a Bridge For Dummies” guide, a very subliminal way to scare the kiddos into behaving, or a way to express our sexual desires through innuendos and maneuvers. Yes; that’s right! “London Bridges”, is not just for kids.
How to play the game
Two children face each other and form an arch by raising their arms forward and interlocking each other’s hands together. The rest of the children take turns walking under the arch while singing the song and on the last word of the verse “lady” is said, the arch comes down and captures one of the children. The game continues until all of the kids are captured or the little tikes get bored and restless.
Short History Lesson
Bridging the Thames River was a long and tedious task that began during the late Roman empire era. In 43 AD, the Romans established Londinium (London) as the capital of England. During this time period the Romans made several attempts of building bridges over the river and finally succeeded around 50 AD. Then, the shortly lived wooden bridge, was burned down during the Viking and Saxon invasions. Bridges were rebuilt many times also due to natural disasters such as the 1091 tornado and the 1136 fire.
In 1176, the construction of the first stone arch bridge in Britain, “Old London Bridge”, started in efforts to replace the wooden bridges that survived from the Roman occupancy. Peter, a priest and chaplain of St. Mary’s of Colechurch, was the architect and project leader until his death in 1205. The construction of the bridge was completed in 1209. The new stone bridge had 19 arches including a gatehouse with a drawbridge. To create a source of income from the bridge, shops and homes were constructed and lined on both sides of the roadway of the bridge. For thrills locals would shoot the bridge from their small boats.
Three years after being completed a fire destroyed all the buildings on the bridge and killed thousands of people. The houses and shops were quickly rebuilt narrowing the pathway to four meters (approx. 13 feet). Do to the pressure of winter ice, five arches collapsed in the winter of 1282. The arches were rebuilt as well. The constant additions to the buildings eventually created a tunnel like passageway across the Thames River. Queen Elizabeth I, ordered to have water mills added onto the structure of the bridge in the 1580s. Despite the bridge having a bad reputation of constantly being under repairs and more and more additions being added to the shops and houses, the Old London bridge was the only crossing of the Thames River in London until 1750 when the Westminster Bridge was completed and opened.
Shortly after the city decided to repair the London bridge the project was taken upon Charles Labelye. All of the houses were removed and the roadway over the bridge was expanded to 14 meters ( approx. 45 feet) and the two center arches were replaced with one great arch at the middle of the bridge. After completion in 1762, the remodeling of the arches led to erosion of the riverbed. Eventually the city decided to give up spending resources to fix the bridge and gave the New London Bridge project to John Rennie. The new bridge was built several yards upstream from the old bridge. Rennie died in 1821 before construction of the new bridge could start and was picked up by his two sons. The project was completed in 1831. After serving the Londoners for 622 years the Old London bridge was demolished. Rennie’s bridge lasted almost 140 years until it was dismantled and shipped across the Atlantic ocean to the United States, where it now resides at Lake Havasu, Arizona. The modern London bridge was built between 1968 and 1972.
The origins and meaning
Similar rhymes have been found all over Europe that pre-dates the earliest London Bridge version. “Knippelsbro Går Op og Ned” from Denmark, “Die Magdeburger Brück” from Germany, “Pont Chus” from France, and “Le Porte” from Italy, are all suspected to be the influence of the “London Bridge” version. The earliest reference to the English version was in the comedy “The London Chanticleers” printed in 1657. No words of the rhyme or mention of the melody were stated, however the popularity of the rhyme and melody was greatly influenced by Henry Carey and his satire play, “Namby Pamby” in 1725.
Namby Pamby is no clown,
London Bridge is broken down,
Now he courts the gay Ladee,
Dancing o’er the Lady-Lee.
In 1823, a more popular version was printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine.
London Bridge is broken down,
Dance over the Lady Lea,
London Bridge is broken down,
With a gay lady.
Then we must build it up again
What shall we build it up withal?
Build it up with wood and stone,
Wood and stone will fall away.
The meaning behind the rhyme is not really clear and numerous theories have developed. The modern version was first recorded in the late 19th century. The game that is associated with the song resembles arch games that date back to the middle ages. The theory of the meaning about the constant struggle of repair and rebuilding the many bridges that allowed Londoners for centuries to cross the Thames River may have some small truths, but the original rhymes regarding the London Bridge were very different compared to the earliest forms of the modern version.
The Fair Lady
The identity of the “fair lady” reference within the rhyme is uncertain, nothing has been proven, but suspicions of the identity to the reference are:
- The River Lea – another river that feeds into the Thames River.
- The Leigh family of Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire– a family linked to a story about a human sacrifice that lies under the bridge.
- Matilda of Scotland– The Queen of England, Henry I consort, who was responsible for building the series of bridges between 1110 -1118.
- Eleanor of Provence– Henry III consort, who had custody of the revenues of the Old London bridge from 1269 -1281.
The Human Sacrifice theory
Alice Bertha Gomme, a folklorist, who wrote The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland (1894-1898); presented the idea that the Old London Bridge could be involved in a human sacrifice during the constructions and/or reconstructions of the bridges. Gomme pointed out that in certain variations of the “London Bridges” rhymes there is a watchman or a prisoner mentioned in the later stanzas of the songs. Human sacrifice was believed to be necessary to protect the structures, to serve the purposes as guardians or “watchman” and protect the building from supernatural forces. In 1880 Calcutta India locals were afraid to be out at night due to people disappearing. Sacrificial offering towards the construction of the Hooghly Bridge was a popular suspicion to the explanations of the missing people of the area. The prisoner reference is suspected to be metaphor for a live or dead human sacrifice to be entombed in the structure for eternity. However, there were never any reports found stating that human remains were ever found when the Old or New London Bridges were torn down or, shall I say… falling down.
According to the Urban Dictionary, London Brides is also a modern slang word for panties. When a lady says “you make her london bridges fall down”, she is saying you make her hot… sexually. It is also a sexual position involving four consenting adults, two males and two females, or four females with attachments. For further explanation look that up for yourself.
Gomme, A. B. (1894, January 01). The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Retrieved February 08, 2017, from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/literature/fable/traditional-games-of-england-scotland-and-ireland/index.html
Grenby, M. O. (2014, February 13). The origins of children’s literature. Retrieved February 08, 2017, from http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-origins-of-childrens-literature
Billington, D. P. (2002, October 25). London Bridge. Retrieved February 08, 2017, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Old-London-Bridge
Library, W. P. (n.d.). London Bridge Is Falling Down. Retrieved February 08, 2017, from http://www.worldlibrary.org/Articles/London%20Bridge%20Is%20Falling%20Down?&Words=the origins of london bridges falling down
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