Was an American really conned into buying the wrong London bridge?

London Bridge at home in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Image: Ken Lund/Flickr.

How did London Bridge come to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in Arizona, second only to the Grand Canyon? Was it an error on the part of the purchaser? Or was it a clever way to dispose of a decrepit structure, making way for progress, while making a profit in the bargain?

London Bridge is where London started: the relative narrowness of the River Thames at that point is what led the Romans to found a city on the site in the first place. Over the centuries, various bridges occupied this site, linking the City to Southwark on the South Bank of the Thames. Each in turn was lost – to fire, or storm, or Vikings. The longest lived seems to have been the 12th century “Old London Bridge”, whose arches supported not just a road across the Thames, but as many as 200 buildings, of anything up to seven storeys high.

In the early 19th century, the Scottish civil engineer John Rennie won a competition to design a replacement. The new London Bridge was 100 feet west of the previous bridge: 928 feet long, 49 feet wide, and supported by five stone arches, it lasted for over a century. By the 1960s, though, the city’s population had more than quadrupled, and London Bridge was supporting cars and buses rather than horse-drawn carriages. To make matters worse, it was said to be sinking at the rate of an inch per eight years; although technically not “falling down”, it was still enough to give London’s authorities cause for concern. 


In 1967, the Greater London Council had decided that a new bridge would have to be constructed and the old one torn down. Usually, under the circumstances abandoned structures would be simply abandoned or destroyed. (Euston Arch, for example, ended up in the River Lea.) But then, Ivan Luckin, a former journalist and PR man serving on the committee working on the scheme, came up with a better idea: why not flog the bridge off to some rich eccentric? Never mind that it was only 130 years old: pitch it right, and you could sell it as an important historic artifact, and improving the state of London’s coffers into the bargain.

This was not as crazy a scheme as it may now sound. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst – whose life inspired Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane – used to buy old European buildings, then ship them back in piles to be reassembled on his California estate. After some initial cynicism, Luckin’s colleagues embraced the idea, and the bridge was placed on the market. In order to sell the idea, Luckin himself visited New York to address the British-American Chamber of Commerce. 

At around the same time  Robert P. McCulloch, a Missouri-born oil and aviation entrepreneur and chainsaw tycoon (!), was facing his own problems. He’d founded Lake Havasu City on 16,000 acres of western Arizona land in 1963. But the eponymous lake, an arm of the Colorado River which he’d thought would make the new city an attractive resort, was in serious danger of going stagant. 

To prevent that, his engineers created a new channel, turning a peninsula into an island. That, though created a need for a new bridge. What better way to solve the problem, and to put his new city onto the map, than by buying the historic London Bridge

So in April 1968, McCulloch agreed to pay just under $2.5m for the bridge on April 18, 1968. (He was so keen to get hold of it that, despite the lack of competition, he paid twice the value the London authorities had expected.) He then spent $7m more, to have the granite blocks numbered, dismantled, trimmed to size and lugged across to the US. The reconstructed bridge, bridging the channel between Thompson Bay and Lake Havasu, opened to the public in 1971.

Some have come to believe that McCulloch had bought the wrong bridge: that he had meant to buy the far more striking Tower Bridge, but was somehow conned into buying London Bridge. There's no evidence, though, that this is true – and a fair amount that it isn't. The chainsaw entrepreneur got himself photographed on the London Bridge, with the Tower Bridge clearly visible behind him. For his part, Luckin always insisted on the honesty of the deal.

So, yes, a rich American did once agree to buy London Bridge – but no, he wasn’t conned. It’s still there, giving its name to a local resort:

If you want to find out more about this story, why not check out Travis Elborough's book, "London Bridge in America: The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing".

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.