Tower Bridge

The official opening of Tower Bridge by Edward, Prince of Wales on behalf of Queen Victoria on 30th June 1894. The Prince pulled a lever to open the bridge, allowing a procession of steam-boats to pass through.

The southern approach to the bridge required the purchase and demolition of private property. To purchase part of St. Katharine Docks on the northern side would have made the whole cost prohibitive. Discussions therefore took place with the Surveyor-General of Fortifications and they agreed to give over a small section of the Tower Ditch of the Tower of London, necessitating the exhumation of a number of graves. There was a general concern that the appearance of the bridge would be aesthetically incompatible with the Tower. In return for giving over the section of Tower Hill it was agreed that the design should be in accord with that of its ancient neighbour and would include mounted guns. (The latter part of that stipulation was subsequently discarded). The designs by Jones submitted to Parliament show the bridge built in brick in a somewhat medieval Germanic style, or ‘Crusader’s castle’ as Barry described it.

Barry later explained the reason for the choice of the bascule system:

Any opening bridge revolving horizontally would have occupied so large an area of the river as to be very undesirable…whereas a bridge revolving in a vertical plane, not only occupies the minimum of space in the river, but also at an early stage of the process of opening affords a clear passage for ships in the central part of the waterway, increasing in width rapidly as the operation of opening is continued.

The Act of Parliament for the Corporation of London to construct the bridge received royal assent in August 1885. It laid down various dimensions of the completed work, in particular for the benefit of river traffic. The following month the Bridge House Estates were authorised to proceed, appointing Jones and Barry to supervise the project. Work began in April 1886 and the foundation stone was laid by the Prince of Wales on behalf of his mother in June, on the day following the 50th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne. Over 1,500 invited guests attended the ceremony, including 200 overseas visitors who were in London for the Colonial and India Exhibition.

The piers of the bridge are unusual in that they each contain chambers that house the counterpoise and machinery of the two opening leaves, in addition to maintaining a support for the towers that carry the overhead girders. It is effectively a suspension bridge, with the two towers supported by stiffened chains anchored on each bank. They are united by horizontal ties across the central opening that each carry a narrow high-level bridge. The span between the towers provides a clear waterway of 200 feet in width and 140 feet in height above Trinity high water mark. At the time of its completion it was the world’s largest opening bridge.

The opening leaves, or bascules, were lifted by hydraulic machinery. Two pairs of horizontal tandem compound surface condensing pumping engines were operated under the south approach of the bridge. Water under high pressure was pumped to two pairs of hydraulic engines below the footway of each pier, with that for the leaves on the north side carried by pipes up the south tower, across the high-level bridge and then back again. As the Parliamentary Bill was being drafted the Tay Bridge disaster in Scotland of 1879 was still fresh in the mind and an excessive amount of protection was demanded of the engineering.

The leaves took one and a half minutes to raise each time. When brought down to their horizontal position four conical bolts were pushed out hydraulically from one leaf into the other to provide stability.

Horace Jones was knighted in 1886 but died the following year and never saw his bridge beyond the foundations. Barry continued the supervision until completion. He was assisted by Henry Marc Brunel, son of Isambard, becoming the third generation of Brunels involved in Thames tunnels and bridges. As the design work progressed after the death of Jones it was found necessary to change much of the detail. In particular, the idea of it being built of brick was discarded in favour of steel, clad with masonry and brickwork.

Tower Bridge took eight years to complete, twice that originally planned. The delay was largely because the construction of the piers was troublesome and took much longer than anticipated. The Act of Parliament stipulated that during construction a clear width of waterway of 160 feet be maintained for vessels. With the necessary equipment around each pier that proved too wide for both piers to be constructed simultaneously. The amount of river traffic also made the berthing of barges around the piers difficult while work took place. As it progressed crowds watched with great interest from London Bridge. Eight workmen died during the construction.

Tower Bridge was officially opened by the Prince of Wales on behalf of the Queen on 30th June 1894. The royal party processed back and forth across the bridge in carriages, after which the Prince pulled a lever to raise the bascules for 12 steam-boats to pass through. An orchestra aboard the gunboat HMS Landrail played God Save the Queen. The final amount to create it and its approaches was about one million pounds, paid entirely from the funds of the Bridge House Estates Committee and without any direct cost to the public.

At the time of completion the southern approach ended at a T-junction with Tooley Street because the London County Council, who were responsible for the road layout, were having protracted negotiations with the government. What was then Bermondsey New Road was finally extended to link the bridge with Old Kent Road, and the new thoroughfare named Tower Bridge Road. As would be expected, the Tower Subway’s income decreased and the company sold it to a water supplier to run their pipes.

In its first year Tower Bridge was raised for ships over 6,000 times and still continues to be opened over 1,000 times each year. Any vessel with a mast or superstructure 30 feet or more coming from the east may transmit a signal when passing Cherry Garden Pier at Rotherhithe to request the opening of the bridge. Similarly, any such vessel casting off from between Tower Bridge and London Bridge. The bridge will take from seven to ten minutes to then open.

Three years after the completion of the bridge Barry was knighted. In its early days it employed a staff of eighty, including 57 men to operate the machinery, together with engineers, carpenters, plumbers and blacksmiths. The Bridgemaster and Resident Engineer lived in the towers. In the days of horse-drawn vehicles two men were employed to clear the horse droppings that would otherwise shower down each time the bascules were raised. Stables were originally built into the bridge so a back-up was always available should a horse-drawn vehicle have difficulties while crossing. The overhead walkways proved unpopular and were closed to pedestrians in 1910. The steam engines were replaced by one operated by electricity in 1976 but some of the original machinery is still in place as a back-up. A full-time staff of 13 is still employed, as are many occasional workers. Only one person is now required to operate the lifting and for that purpose the bridge is manned day and night. Tower Bridge continues to be funded and maintained by the City of London’s Bridge House Estates.

Aeroplanes have flown through Tower Bridge, between the bascules and walkways, on numerous occasions, the first by a biplane in 1912. In 1953 a 60-year-old veteran of the First World War flew through the bridge and continued on through 14 other bridges. He was arrested and appeared at Bow Street Magistrates Court. In July 1944 a German rocket passed the central arch, landing on the Tower Bridge tug. A change-over of crews was taking place and both crews perished. On a famous occasion in 1952 a double-decker bus and its passengers were caught in the middle and lifted into the air as the bridge opened.

Sources include: Charles Welch ‘History of the Tower Bridge’ (1894, courtesy of the Hawk Norton collection); Peter Matthews ‘London’s Bridges’; John Pudney ‘Crossing London’s River’.

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