A Brief History Of Tower Bridge

A Brief History Of Tower Bridge

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Long exposure shot of cars passing over the bridge
Tower Bridge has seen some things in its time, including the Blitz and a massive Michael Jackson. Image: Dragan via creative commons

A chronology of London's iconic bridge.  

Tower Bridge is one of the great achievements of Victorian engineering, not to mention one of the best-recognised (and most misnomered crossings) anywhere. Constructed to help the flow of river traffic, it took eight years — with over 400 people working on it each day — to complete. More than 125 years later, Tower Bridge continues to intrigue Londoners and tourists, and (aside from occasionally breaking down), still does the job it was designed to do.

An alternative Tower Bridge with two 'loops' in it
Over 50 designs for the bridge, including this one, were dismissed.

1876: After it's established that east London sorely needs a Thames crossing, the Special Bridge or Subway Committee is set up, and an open competition is launched to find the best design. There are over 50 entrants, but no winner is chosen and the competition is scrapped.

1884: It's decided that a competition entry from Horace Jones (who's already designed Smithfield Meat Market) isn't so bad after all, and Sir John Wolfe Barry is called in to modify Jones's blueprints. The Tower Bridge we know and love emerges on paper.

1886:The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) lays the bridge's foundation stone, and building begins. 432 construction workers labour on it each day, while skilled divers are employed to place foundations in the riverbed, and are paid £10 a minute (that's £1,000 a minute in 2023!).

1887 (21 May): The bridge's designer, Horace Jones, dies. He's seen his iconic bridge take shape, but will never admire the finished product. Sir John Wolfe Barry (son of Sir Charles Barry, who designed the Houses of Parliament) takes the reins.

1894 (30 June): Tower Bridge is formally opened by the Prince of Wales and his wife, Princess Alexandra. It has taken 11,000 tons of steel, 70,000 tons of concrete and 22,000 litres of paint. The cost is £1.2 million, the equivalent of over £140 million in today's money.

Tower Bridge under construction
Skilled workers were paid handsomely to construct the bridge. Image: public domain

1912 (10 August): Pilot Frank McClean flies through Tower Bridge in his Short-Farman hydroplane. After completing this feat, he feels emboldened to continue to fly under every bridge up to Westminster. On the return trip down the Thames though, McClean's plane is plonked into the drink, thanks to a sudden sidewind. The (p)lucky pilot is unharmed.

1917 (11 November): To test out the effectiveness of the 'Guardian Angel Parachute', Major Thomas Orde-Lees leaps off from the road level of the bridge. It opens just before he hits the water.

1941: Tower Bridge's roof is damaged in the Blitz. It gets a new one eight years later.

1951: Essex man, Frank Miller, flies under Tower Bridge with his 13-year-old son as a passenger in the aircraft. Miller's son has dared him to complete the risky mission for 35 shillings. Miller Snr wins the bet, but has his winnings somewhat wiped out by the £100 fine he received from the police.

Smoke billowing behind the bridge
The bridge was hit in the Blitz, and later had its roof replaced. Image: public domain

1952 (30 December): While driving the Number 78 bus across Tower Bridge, Albert Gunter suddenly realises the road in front of him is rising. Gunter floors the accelerator, jumping onto the north part of the tower. All 20 of Gunter's passengers are uninjured.

1976: Tower Bridge makes the change from steam power to electricity. The steam engines are kept in place, and you can still see them to this day.

1977: In honour of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, Tower Bridge is painted red, white, and blue. Up until now it's been turd brown.

1982: Tower Bridge's walkways open to visitors, who enjoy the sights of the the City from 42 metres above the Thames.

1995 (16 June): In a nice, low-key publicity stunt for Michael Jackson's HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I album, a 32-foot-tall stone-effect statue of the singer is floated up the Thames; Tower Bridge's bascules are raised to let Jacko under, before he's moored up near Tower Bridge for a week.

2009 (13 July): Stunt motorcyclist Robbie Maddison decides to go one better than Albert Gunter, by swigging a can of Red Bull, doing a backflip over the opened bascules, and landing on the other side.

2012: A Queen Elizabeth II stunt double (at least we assume it is) flies through Tower Bridge in a helicopter, as part of the spectacular 2012 Games opening ceremony.

2014: Tower Bridge installs a glass floor on the walkway, for daring visitors to stroll over/jump up and down on. Yoga classes are also hosted on the glass floor.

2015: The bascule chambers — the spaces into which the bridge's counterweights drop when the bascules rise — are turned into a makeshift auditorium, when the Docklands Sinfonia brass ensemble perform music specially composed by Iain Chambers. Says the composer: "It's got the acoustics of a small cathedral."

2018: Londonist opens up Tower Bridge, for the cruise ship Silver Wind — one of the biggest ships to sail under the bridge.

Last Updated 08 December 2023

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