As the BBC reminds us, this is the 120th anniversary year of Tower Bridge, which officially opened on 30 June 1894. The structure was largely praised by the press of the day, and roundly acknowledged as a masterpiece of both design and engineering. It remains an icon of London into our own times. Like any big project, however, it had its share of detractors.
A childish and ugly bridge
Two months before the bridge opened, a humorous skit in the Pall Mall Gazette sought to identify London’s ugliest structure. After breezing over much-criticised landmarks, such as the ‘merely commonplace’ National Gallery and the obtrusive Highgate Archway, the discussion alights on Tower Bridge.
“…there certainly seems to be a subtle quality of ungainliness, a certain variegated ugliness, so to speak, that age can scarcely wither or custom stale, about this new bridge. It is excellently situated for our ugliest public work, straddling across our Thames, to the terror of the errant foreigner.”
The correspondent continues to sneer, lambasting the “ponderous horizontal masses of ironwork, innocent of any suggestion of arch”.
The Pall Mall Gazette’s architecture critic was also disappointed by its style, lamenting, in the 8 December 1894 edition, its “horrible mixture of iron work and gothic stonework”. He continues:
“This huge but childish structure shows the vanity of forty years of sentimental gush about art…its unparalleled lack of proportion, its niggled and meaningless ornamentation, and the discordance between the iron and steel parts.”
The bridge has had a minority of detractors ever since, and not just for its appearance. The London Standard of 4 February 1898 carries a letter of complaint from one JR Young, bemoaning the crossing’s unhurried operations:
“It is by no means an uncommon occurrence to be kept waiting over a quarter of an hour, as the authorities needlessly open the bridge too long before the vessel is to pass through. This morning, for instance, the bascules were opened twelve minutes before a steamer had actually left her moorings, and by the time the bridge was open again for traffic over twenty minutes had elapsed.”
The curmudgeonly correspondent also objects to the lack of any form of public shelter during winter waits — an omission that exists to this day.
20th century criticism, listed here, includes HH Statham’s verdict (1916) that the bridge”…represents the vice of tawdriness and pretentiousness, and of falsification of the actual facts of the structure”. Meanwhile, Frank Brangwyn stated (1920) that “A more absurd structure than the Tower Bridge was never thrown across a strategic river”. He never lived to see the Thames cable car.
The deadly bridge
It almost goes without saying that Victorian health and safety regulations were not as tight as today. But accidents during construction of Tower Bridge were particularly frequent. During the six and a half years it took to build, 10 workmen were killed and 19 badly injured. An inquiry found that nine of the fatalities were accidental and one was due to the negligence of the deceased. According to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of 7 September 1894, incidents included a man who decided to jump down the scaffolding, and broke his thigh; and a man who ordered a travelling crane to move while resting his hand on the rail. You can probably predict the gory results.
Like any Thames bridge, Tower attracted its share of suicides, and those wishing to murderously dispose of unwanted babies. It also became noted as a place where the bodies of jumpers from further upriver would come to rest.
Half a year after the bridge opened, daredevil Ben Fuller attempted to dive from the upper walkway into the Thames. The stunt went wrong. Fuller briefly surfaced before vanishing under the water. His body washed up in Limehouse five weeks later. It’s thought he died from internal injuries. The upper walkways were eventually closed because of their regular use by suicides.
And finally…a confused canine
It seems that dogs also had difficulties with the bridge. A cutting from the Evening Telegraph of 4 August 1894 describes the fate of one poor little woofster who found himself part way across as the bascules began to rise:
“When well on his journey he felt the roadway rising beneath him — a sensation quite inexcusable at so early hour; so, like many another in a similar predicament, he began to run — uphill, too. In vain was he entreated to retrace his steps; he must get home, and without delay. Steadily rose the bascules, steeper grew the incline, until at length the unhappy creature found further ascent impossible. The next moment the hillside had become mountainous, and he could no longer keep his foothold. He turned and gazed down the abyss, and then, with a whine, rolled over and over until he reached the bottom, much shaken and considerably bruised. When the roadway had been restored to the horizontal it was more than the owner of the dog could accomplish to get him across.”
We’ll run a sequel to this article closer to the bridge’s actual anniversary, which will look at the many stunts and strange occurrences to unfold on the bridge since its opening.
All accounts can be found in the British Newspaper Archive, with subscription.