Tower Bridge celebrated its One Hundred and Twentieth birthday on Monday June 30th, so a blog about this iconic landmark seemed essential. Bridge building is no trifling matter, as through the ages our advancement in architecture and engineering have made it possible to create bigger and grander structures. Bridges are everywhere, with famous examples ranging from Rainbow Bridge and the Severn Bridge right through to the giant Golden Gate Bridge, these essential structures define our cities, not only as methods of crossing rivers, canyons and more, but as great landmarks and attractions in their own right.
Tower Bridge was opened by HRH Edward, Prince of Wales, on 30th June 1894, and was designed by Sir Horace Jones. The Thames was still a major shipping lane in the Victorian era, so the decision to place a bridge where it stands today was controversial as it had the potential to block the path of trading ships, causing delays and inconveniencing traders. However, congestion in the east of the City had to be alleviated, so the design had to accommodate both shipping and road traffic. A bascule bridge was decided upon, but with a gothic look in order to be in keeping with the Tower of London, which stands nearby. Several designs were put forward, including one by the great Sir Joseph Bazalgette, and when the votes were counted, the winning design caused controversy as Sir Horace was also on the panel that picked the winner!
Jones needed an engineer for the project, and the youngest son of Sir Charles Barry (the architect behind the Houses of Parliament), Sir John Wolfe-Barry, came into the picture. Wolfe-Barry was already famous for his railway bridges spanning the Thames, and he helped perfect the bascule design proposed by Jones. Horace Jones died shortly after work began on the bridge, so it was left up to John Wolfe-Barry to oversee the works.
Footbridges were built for pedestrians to use while the bascules where open to river traffic; they were only accessible by stair. Police rarely patrolled these high level walkways, and this lead to the footbridges being commonly used by London’s more unsavoury characters including prostitutes and pickpockets. In an attempt to curb these issues, the walkways were eventually closed in 1910. The bridge is often a focal point of many London celebrations, and in 1977 the bridge took on a red, white and blue colour scheme to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of HRH Queen Elizabeth II.
The bridge has often been involved in interesting events. In May 1997 US president Bill Clinton’s motorcade was due to cross the bridge, but as the motorcade was crossing the bridge began to open, splitting the motorcade in two (much to the horror of the president’s security staff)! Apparently the bridge staff had tried to contact the US embassy that morning but no one answered the telephone.
In December 1952, a dramatic incident occurred on the bridge involving the number 78 bus. It was just a normal day, but for some reason the process of stopping the traffic before the opening had failed. The bus had therefore driven onto the south bascule as the bridge began to open. Albert Gunter, the plucky driver of the bus, decided the only escape was to accelerate, so he gripped the wheel firmly, put his foot down, and sped towards the three foot gap! After falling six feet, the bus landed safely, with no serious injuries, and Albert was given a £10 reward for his bravery.
Another popular story (that has sadly been disproved), tells that the American, Robert P. McCulloch, thought he had bought Tower Bridge when he was instead purchasing Sir John Rennie’s London Bridge! Sir John Rennie’s London Bridge was opened in 1831, but by the 1960’s it was clear that it had to be replaced. The Bridge was purchased by the American at auction, a tourist attraction for his newly built Lake Havasu City in Arizona. Each stone was numbered as it was dismantled in order to ensure it could be easily be rebuilt when it reached it’s destination, and the grand opening was celebrated with parades and fireworks. It is still the second most visited tourist attraction in Arizona (after the Grand Canyon), but unfortunately for Havasu City it’s clearly not our beloved Tower Bridge.
Tower Bridge has become one of the most iconic landmarks in the world, steel and steam surrounded by stone! It’s powered by electricity today, but it’s still used by boats and ships around twenty times a week. Happy birthday Tower Bridge, let’s hope you stand for another 120 years!