The London Bridge Improvement Act of 1756: A Study of Early Modern Urban Finance and Administration
thesisposted on 23.07.2010, 14:32 by Mark Latham
In 1756 the Corporation of London began the removal of the houses that had lined the passage over London Bridge since the twelfth century, houses which had turned the Bridge into a ‘living’ structure and ensured its status as one of London’s great medieval icons. The ‘death’ of the inhabited London Bridge, a key element in the construction of the Capital’s medieval identity, was a highly symbolic moment in the progressive demise of the pre modern metropolis more generally. The aim of this thesis is to elucidate the factors that led to the London Bridge Improvement Act of 1756, the parliamentary legislation obtained by the Corporation to facilitate the removal of the houses. Previous analyses of the Act have placed it within the narrative of the ‘spirit of improvement’. Yet the role of urban governance and finance in the process of improvement has received virtually no detailed analysis. This despite the fact that the historiography of Improvement Acts suggests that the structural characteristics of early modern urban administration, and in particular urban finance, were crucially important factors in terms of the motivation for, and execution of, improvement schemes. This thesis provides a greater understanding of the way in which the Corporation of London managed the Bridge and financed its upkeep. It does so in order to demonstrate how aspects of urban governance - the transition from aldermanic oligarchy to a commoner democracy, the bureaucratic structure for financial management, and the financial necessities of governance - played a crucial role in the advent of the London Bridge Improvement Act. To achieve this, the thesis utilises the records associated with the London Bridge House Estates, the most extant and complete financial and administrative series within the Corporation’s archives. It undertakes for the first time a schematic collection and detailed analysis of financial data, property records and administrative accounts relating to an urban governmental body in the early modern period. In pursuing this argument, and engaging in such an analysis, this research suggests that we should look beyond simply social and cultural factors, and in particular pay closer attention to the often mundane concerns that decisively influenced decision making within urban organisations, when seeking to explain the process of early modern urban development more generally.