Tower Bridge is one of London’s most recognisable landmarks; it is the large gothic structure, spanning the Thames next to the Tower of London. The bridge is comprised of two towers joined together by large bascules that swing up to allow ships under the bridge and two high level walkways for the public to use whilst the main bridge is open. Despite its apparent age, the bridge is in fact only one hundred and ten years old, the medieval construction is in fact only a shell or case that covers up some more typical Victorian industrial architecture. Today, very few ships actually pass under the bridge, but it still one of London’s most popular tourist attractions.
London in the nineteenth century was a growing metropolis; the industrial revolution was forcing many people to move from farms in the countryside to factories in the cities. Up until this point London had only one bridge crossing the Thames, it was creatively named London Bridge. However, due to the huge increase in population, many more bridges had to be built to keep down congestion, which even a century and a half before Ken Livingstone was a citywide problem. Since London was a port, all bridges were built to the west of London Bridge, to allow ships to move as far into the city as possible but then, around 1865, a problem arose. During the mass-migration from country to city, the east end of the city’s population had grown to an incredible and demand for a new bridge at that end of the city to help ease congestion began to grow.
The Corporation of London, a body of officials responsible for the area in question, initially ignored the problem. But by 1876 the problem was getting extreme; huge tailbacks were forming as thousands of East Londoners attempted to get to a crossing, often waiting hours in huge queues of horses and a carts. Naturally it was decided that this was bad for business and later that year the Special Bridge or Subway Committee was formed as a public committee for the development of methods of crossing the Thames without disrupting the river’s traffic of ships sailing to the western ports. The site chosen for the bridge was next to London’s great castle, the Tower of London.
Over the following eight years, well over fifty designs were submitted. Some were traditional designs involving a magnificently high bridge suspended by cables or simply built out of a multitude of arches. Others were for a technologically advanced subway that would be wide enough for many thousands of people to travel under the river each day. Still more intended to use the latest innovations in steam power to create a huge swing-bridge of the kind employed earlier in the century for use over canals and a few even suggested the innovative Bascule-Bridge style that employed one or two draw-bridge style roads that would swing up if a ship needed to pass. One notable fact was that a large number of the proposals appeared to be designed to mimic the medieval architecture with which the Tower of London was built.
Eventually, in October 1884, a design by the City Architect, Horace Jones and his partner John Wolfe Barry, was chosen. The design was to have two large towers, one on each side of the Thames, and, between them to have two bascules that would be powered by large steam engines housed underneath the towers and bordering the Thames. Behind the towers would be two gatehouses, in these, tolls could be collected and a watch could be kept to prevent vandalism and to alert the engine room of approaching ships. The entire construction would be encased in gothic architecture to give the impression that it is an extension of the castle, rather than a just another mere bridge.
After many delays, construction finally began a year later. The construction of the bridge took eight years, five contractors and four hundred and thirty two workers, beginning in late 1885 with the sinking of two gigantic piers into the Thames. From there, workers raised two towers either side of the Thames to support the two walk-ways, this was then clad in Cornish granite and Portland stone to provide it’s castle-like appearance. But the real challenge was building the bascules.
At the time, Tower bridge was to be the largest of its kind, this meant that the bascules had to be lifted using the largest mechanism of its kind. The bridge also had to be able to open regularly and quickly, so as not to disrupt the flow of river-traffic. To achieve this, the hydraulically operated bridge was powered by a gigantic steam engine that created energy to be stored in six accumulators. This meant that the bridge could open whenever necessary and only take around one minute to do so.
The bridge opened in 1894 to great public appreciation. That said, architects were disgusted, claiming that it was dishonest and that the constructers should have left it as bare steel, instead of covering it with medieval stone carving. Still, the bridge served its purpose, although the walkways were considered a failure since most people didn’t use them, preferring to wait and watch the bridge rising and the ships pass through. In 1910 they were closed, the official reason given was their lack of use, although it is suspected that the real reason was that prostitutes had taken to peddling their trade up there.
The bridge has been the site of many feats and stunts: In 1912, the eccentric airman, Frank K. McClean flew his new “hydro-plane,” a bi-plane capable of landing on water, between the bascules and the walkways. According to the bridge itself’s site, he did this due to an emergency, but other sources claim it was simply an aerobatic stunt. Since it was filmed, which at the time was unusual anyway, I am inclined to believe the latter. In 1952 a London Bus was trapped on a bascule as it was rising and was forced to jump from one to the other!
In 1971, London Bridge was bought by Robert McCulloch, an American businessman. He had the entire bridge dismantled and shipped to Arizona. It was then re-assembled over a lake. It was unfortunate really that he hadn’t realised that London Bridge and Tower Bridge are not the same thing. A common misconception even more than thirty years later. 1
1976 saw the bridge changing its means of power from steam to electricity. This was done because the ports in London were no longer being frequented by large ships and it was expensive to keep boilers fired for only one or two ships each day.
The bridge’s appearance changed dramatically in 1977 when, for the Queen’s silver jubilee, it’s old chocolate brown paintwork was removed and it was given a new coat in a patriotic red white and blue.
Since 1910, the inside of the bridge had been closed to the general public, but in 1982 it re-opened with a new museum placed in the now glazed walkways. The museum tells of the bridges creation and goes into detail about how the bridge was built. In 1993, for it’s centenary, a new moving display was placed in the museum and in 1994 the bridge became open to hire for wedding receptions and parties.
Facts and Figures
- Including the approaches the total length of the bridge is half a mile (0.8 km)
- The roadway is 35 feet (10.66 metres) wide
- The paved footways either side of the road are 12.5 feet (3.81 metres) wide
- The central roadway is 200 feet (61 metres) long
- The total height of the towers on the piers, measured from the level of the foundations, is 293 feet.(89.3 metres)
- The walkways are 140 feet (42.5 metres) above the Thames
- 235,000 cubic feet (6 654 cubic metres) of Cornish granite and Portland stone were used in the bridge’s construction
- 20,000 tons (18 143 694.8 kilograms) of cement were used
- 4,000 tons (3 628 738.96 kilograms) of iron and steel were used
- 70,000 cubic yards (53519 cubic metres) of concrete were used
- 31,000,000 bricks were used
- The bridge opens and closes within five minutes
- The bridge opens about 900 times a year
- At least 24 hours notice is required (in writing) for Tower Bridge to lift. All vessels over 14 metres in height must give Tower Bridge this notice
1ocelotbob says re Tower Bridge: small nitpick, but Robert McCulloch knew that he wasn't getting the tower bridge; that he thought he was purchasing the tower bridge is an urban myth.