LABELYE, CHARLES (1705–1781?), architect of the first Westminster Bridge, son of François Dangeau Labelye, was born at Vevey, Switzerland, in 1705. He was baptised at Vevey on 12 Aug. 1705 as ‘Danjau, Charles Paul, fils de M. François Danjau La Bélye et de Mme. Elisabeth Grammont sa femme.’ In the entry of the baptism of a subsequent child in 1709 the father is described as ‘Monsieur François Dangeau, Sieur de la Bélye, refugié en cette ville par sa Religion.’ One of the godmothers of another child, baptised in 1714, was the Madame de Warens celebrated by J. J. Rousseau (J. Chavannes, Les Refugiés Français dans le Pays de Vaud, Lausanne, 1874, p. 262). The father is said to have been related to the well-known Marquis de Dangeau, a prominent figure in the court of Louis XIV, and the author of a volume of ‘Memoirs.’ Some confusion appears to have arisen in consequence of the various modes in which Labelye's name is written, but with one exception he always called himself Charles Labelye. He probably came to England about 1725, as he states in the preface to his account of Westminster Bridge that he ‘never heard a word of English spoken till I was near twenty years of age.’ He appears to have become acquainted with John Theophilus Desaguliers [q. v.], to whom he addressed a letter dated 15 April 1735, dealing with a certain view of the laws of motion then prevalent, and displaying much mathematical knowledge. It is signed ‘Charles de Labelye,’ is printed in Desaguliers's ‘Course of Experimental Philosophy’ (1745, ii. 77), and is the earliest authentic evidence of his presence in this country. He is said to have been employed in Hawksmoor's office as a draughtsman, but the only evidence for this seems to be that Hawksmoor, in his ‘Propositions for Erecting a New Stone Bridge at Westminster,’ 1736, gives at p. 18 the results of some calculations made by Labelye to determine the probable effect of the bridge upon the current of the river.
The original act of parliament for building Westminster Bridge was passed in 1736 (9 Geo. II, cap. 29), but it was not until May 1738 that Labelye was appointed ‘engineer,’ a word which had not been previously employed in the sense of ‘architect.’ His salary was 100l. per annum, and 10s. per day subsistence money. The appointment of a youthful foreigner gave offence to the English architects, and especially to Batty Langley, who, in a drawing in one of his books, shows ‘the Swiss impostor’ hanging in mid-air from one of the arches of the bridge.
The original idea was to build a bridge with a wooden superstructure, and Labelye's commission only extended to the construction of the stone piers. The foundations were laid in what are known as caissons, being huge wooden tanks, open at the top, eighty feet by thirty feet, constructed on shore, floated into position, and then sunk until the bottom rested on the bed of the river, a cavity having been previously excavated for their reception. The pier was then built in the caisson, and when it had reached above the level of high water the sides were removed. Labelye was not the inventor of this mode of building, as it was mentioned by Batty Langley in his ‘Design for the Bridge at New Palace Yard’ (1736), but it had never been carried out on any large scale. The first pile was driven on 13 Sept. 1738, and the first caisson launched on 15 Jan. of the following year. On the 29th of the same month the first stone was laid by the Earl of Pembroke. About a year afterwards the commissioners changed their plans, deciding upon a bridge entirely of stone. Labelye submitted a design, which was accepted, and the bridge was practically finished at the end of 1746; but soon after a serious failure of one of the piers became apparent. The public grew alarmed, and a ballad was written, ‘The Downfall of Westminster Bridge, or my Lord in the Suds,’ in which ‘My Lord’ (the Earl of Pembroke), the commissioners, and the architect were severely handled. The cause of the disaster was attributed to the unsoundness of the foundations. ‘The Crace Collection of London Views’ in the British Museum contains two contemporary drawings of the broken arch’ (portfolio v. Nos. 93, 94). The bridge was consequently not open for public traffic until 18 Nov. 1750. It was the largest work of the kind executed up to that time, and was an object of admiration for many years. The views of it which were published are very numerous, and had Labelye carried out his original intention of laying the caissons on a foundation of piles instead of on the unprotected bed of the river, the bridge would probably have stood longer. In this, as in other respects, he seems to have been swayed by considerations of expense.