For over a century Tower Bridge, along with Big Ben, has been one of London’s great icons, its popularity due to the unique neo-Gothic design. It is so familiar as a symbol of the capital that many people not familiar with the city confuse it with its older neighbour London Bridge.
In 1819 Southwark Bridge was completed, so at that time there were five bridges over the Thames to the convenience of those in the City and Westminster and districts to the south. During the 19th century a series of new docks were opened east of the Tower of London, and at Rotherhithe on the south bank of the Thames. That resulted in new industrial and residential suburbs in those areas. In 1871 a report was submitted to the Bridge House Estates Committee, the charitable trust with responsibility for the City bridges. It pointed out that by then a million inhabitants, or a third of the total living in the metropolis, lived to the east of the City. Many had to make a journey of several miles in order to make a dry crossing over the river at London Bridge, or otherwise take a ferry. London Bridge itself was very congested and a new bridge to the east was at that time the most pressing requirement as a metropolitan improvement. Between 1874 and 1885 about thirty petitions were submitted to the City urging them to either widen London Bridge to relieve congestion or provide a new public crossing.
The most difficult issue in providing a bridge to the east was that the Thames was busy with ships all the way up the river into the Upper Pool as far as London Bridge. Vessels coming upriver would need to pass under or through such a crossing. There was also much opposition from those with a vested interest, such as ferry operators and wharfingers.
In fact, a toll-tunnel had been opened in 1870 by a private company that conveyed passengers in a cable-hauled wooden carriage running on narrow-gauge rails under the river from Tower Hill to Pickle Herring Stairs in Southwark. It was uneconomic however; the company went bankrupt, and the tunnel reopened as a toll-paying foot-tunnel, with almost a million pedestrians per year.
A report was made by a City Corporation sub-committee. It included research regarding traffic flow from the City’s architect Horace Jones, as well as a study of the number of vessels passing upriver west of the St. Katharine Docks and the height of their masts. In 1876 the sub-committee laid out details of ten schemes and designs that had been submitted but rejected, each of which allowed for the passage of high-masted ships. Some were for a low-level bridge with a movable section allowing ships to pass and others were for a high-level structure under which ships could sail. The sub-committee recommended that adverts should be placed for new proposals. Jones considered the options of high-level and low-level bridges or a subway. He concluded that a low-level bridge would be the cheapest and most practical option. The committee therefore concluded that such a crossing should be made from Little Tower Hill and Irongate Stairs on the north bank to Horselydown Lane on the south side. This was accepted by the City’s Common Council who then discussed the matter with the government and Metropolitan Board of Works.
In the meantime, the MBW put forward their own proposal from their architect Sir Joseph Bazalgette for a high-level crossing to be known as ‘the Tower Bridge’. It would have required a long spiral ramp on the south bank to bring traffic to the necessary level. Jones pointed out the shortcomings of Bazalgette’s plan. It was successfully opposed by both the City, who did not want a bridge in their territory controlled by the MBW, and the Thames Conservancy Board, the latter being responsible for the river itself. Furthermore, Jones made recommendations for a low-level bridge with a central section that could be raised with counter-weights, using the ‘bascule’ (or see-saw) principle.
The City Corporation accepted Jones’s idea but there the matter rested for several years. In the meantime, the Bridge House Committee spent months considering three options: to provide a free passage across the river by means of the existing steam ferry; the erection of a floating chain bridge at Greenwich; or a low-level bridge. Thames Conservancy rejected the floating chain bridge in 1883. New solutions were presented, none of which were feasible.
By 1883 there was enough public interest in the issue that the London Chamber of Commerce held an exhibition at which eleven designs of bridges and tunnels were shown. That June the Thames Conservancy pointed out the urgency of a crossing downriver of London Bridge, observing that East London had grown to 39 percent of the entire population of London, almost as large as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds combined. They recommended maintaining two or three steam ferries.
It was from the following month that the final solution began to take shape. The City’s Common Council instructed the Bridge House Estates to obtain designs and estimates for a mechanical bridge. A deputation visited Holland, Belgium, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow to study examples, which included the Jan Kulten Bridge at Rotterdam and Entrepôt Bridge at Konigshaven, both of the bascule type.
Following consultation with the engineer John Wolfe Barry, Horace Jones submitted three designs for consideration at the end of 1884, two with a swing opening. The third was of the bascule type with a low-level road, together with a high-level walkway to be used by pedestrians when the bridge was open to ships. The Bridge House Estates Committee, with a recommendation from Barry, adopted the latter, to be erected between Little Tower Hill and Tooley Street, within a cost of £750,000.