Origin of London Bridge is Falling Down

This traditional nursery rhyme became immensely popular in the middle of the 18th Century when the lyrics were first printed in the form that we know today. The origins of London Bridge is Falling Down might actually date back all the way to the middle ages or even beyond. The apparent meaning of the song – and accompanying game – deals with the stability (and lack of) the world famous landmark. Suggestions on how to repair the structure were both realistic and wildly fanciful. When the lyrics were first penned to paper, the popularity of the song soared, especially in both the UK and USA.

london bridge is falling down

The Old London Bridge as it looked in this 1632 oil painting “View of London Bridge” by Claude de Jongh

Most people that know the lyrics only tend to know the first verse by heart. It goes like this:

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

There are additional verses that tell more of the story behind the reconstruction of the Bridge:

Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair lady.

Wood and clay will wash away,
Wash away, wash away,
Wood and clay will wash away,
My fair lady.

Build it up with bricks and mortar,
Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar,
Build it up with bricks and mortar,
My fair lady.

Bricks and mortar will not stay,
Will not stay, will not stay,
Bricks and mortar will not stay,
My fair lady.

Build it up with iron and steel,
Iron and steel, iron and steel,
Build it up with iron and steel,
My fair lady.

Iron and steel will bend and bow,
Bend and bow, bend and bow,
Iron and steel will bend and bow,
My fair lady.

Build it up with silver and gold,
Silver and gold, silver and gold,
Build it up with silver and gold,
My fair lady.

Silver and gold will be stolen away,
Stolen away, stolen away,
Silver and gold will be stolen away,
My fair lady.

Set a man to watch all night,
Watch all night, watch all night,
Set a man to watch all night,
My fair lady.

Suppose the man should fall asleep,
Fall asleep, fall asleep,
Suppose the man should fall asleep?
My fair lady.

Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
Smoke all night, smoke all night,
Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
My fair lady.

The History Behind London Bridge is Falling Down

Generations of parents have taught it to their children, who in turn taught it to theirs. Few have extended these teachings to the actual meaning behind the song. The most likely explanation for that is that most people do not actually know what the true meaning is. Several versions have been proposed down the centuries.

Viking Attack

The Norse saga entitled Heimskringla was translated in 1844 by Samuel Laing. While it is possible that something was lost in translation, one verse is reminiscent of the accepted version of the rhyme. According to Heimskringla, London Bridge was destroyed by Olaf II of Norway in either 1009 or 1014. There are no other corroborating accounts of such an attack besides the Heimskringla.

Immurement

For those that do not what Immurement is, it is a centuries old practice of entombing somebody within a structure. This torture was based on the belief that a sacrifice like this would somehow make sure that the stability of a given structure would be assured by the presence of the imprisoned victim. Several structures across Europe have had skeletons discovered within their foundations. Many of these are castles and churches but one bridge in Bremen, Germany has been revealed to have contained an Immurement sacrifice. Victims of these ritual sacrifices are said to be minors.

The Great Fires of London

Within the span of just 33 years, London Bridge suffered from a pair of fires. The first, in 1633, severely damaged the structure and weakened it to some degree. The Great Fire of London was different. London Bridge acted more like a fire break and stopped the fire from rampaging into the south of London. Originally designed with 19 arches, the Thames was not able to flow properly and the decision was made to widen the central arches and create a more navigational span. As late as 1763, repairs were still ongoing and Parliament thought it better to simply order a brand new bridge to replace the existing one. The new bridge officially opened in 1831 and remained intact for 140 years when it was transported brick by brick to its new and current home in Lake Havasu City in Arizona.

Who was the Fair Lady?

One other major contention surrounding the nursery rhyme is not what it is actually about, but more in the identity of ‘My Fair Lady’. Numerous attempts have been to determine the true identity of the woman mentioned in the rhyme. Over the years there have been several names proposed. Henry I’s consort was Matilda of Scotland. Between the years of 1110 and 1118 Matilda was responsible for overseeing the construction of a series of bridges that helped carry the main London to Colchester road across the River Lea and the streams located between Bow and Stratford. Another regal consort, this time Eleanor of Provence, had sole custody of bridge revenues circa 1269-81. Another candidate could come from the Leigh Family of Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire. According to their family history, there is a report of a human sacrifice that lies beneath their estate. One interesting choice is not a woman at all, but the tributary of the Thames – the River Lea in particular.

london bridge is falling down

Was “My Fair Lady” Matilda of Scotland (c. 1080 – 1 May 1118)?

There are other versions from across Europe. Some of these apparently pre-date the English counterpart. France, Germany, Italy and Denmark have all variations of the theme that may or may not have inspired the English version, which was adapted to include London Bridge, which at the time was London’s sole river crossing.

The children’s game that accompanies their rendition involves two of the children forming an arch with both arms. The remainder of the participants take turns to pass beneath this passage for the duration of the rhyme itself. When the final verse is completed, all four arms then drop and any child caught inside is then deemed to have been eliminated from the game. Watching this innocent activity could be comparable to the more brutal practice of Immurement.

london bridge is falling down

The Old London Bridge in 1710.

For the record, there are no reported child sacrifices contained within the foundations of London Bridge. Not officially anyway.

Sources
Cracked
Song Facts

Sites pulled 11 June 2016

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Les Hewitt

Les currently resides in London and is a freelance writer with a long standing passion for the unexplained and paranormal. In his spare time he enjoys astronomy and Xboxing. It's a big Universe full of wonders.

Historic Mysteries