Tower Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in the world, and behind its iconic structure lies an amazing story.
In the late 19th century London had grown to a city of 6 million, with a third of them living in the East End. To cross the river was a real problem - it still is - with the building of a foot tunnel by the Tower of London wholly inadequate. To solve the problem a competition was launched to design a bridge that had a clearance of 9 metres, so masted ships could pass beneath it and reach the Pool of London . The winners were Sir Horace Jones (who happened to be on the selection committee) and Sir John Wolfe Barry, son of Sir Charles.
Their ingenious design is made from steel, with brick and Portland stone covering the metalwork. The solid piers took 4 years to build and involved employing divers, who were sent down to level the river bed. The work was hazardous and 5 workers lost their lives, but compared to other huge projects at that time fatalities were very light. The steel components were made in Glasgow and shipped down in 5 ton segments, so the gas-powered lifts could manage the weight.
Scotsmen were also responsible for its construction too, using their experience and expertise from building the recent Forth Railway Bridge. Tower Bridge finally opened in 1894 at a cost of £1.1m. The bridge is a mix of brilliant engineering: part suspension, part cantilever and part box girder. It works on a bascule system (French for see-saw), using steam-driven hydraulics to raise or lower the roadway. Nowadays electricity is used. The whole system takes just 90 seconds to open. In its first year Tower Bridge was lifted 6,100 times and even today it’s used over 1,000 times a year. When it opened the walkway above the road proved popular with all sorts of people, including pickpockets and ‘women who should know better’, so it was decided to close it. The walkway reopened only recently, with a new £900,000 glass floor - almost as much as the original cost of the whole bridge.
In 1912 Frank McClair flew a biplane between it, while in 1952 a No. 78 bus crossed the roadway just as it was being raised. The driver stepped on the accelerator and jumped the gap, his quick reactions saving all the passengers and earning him a reward of £10! Before the bridge was built an 1885 Act decreed that river traffic should always have right of way and it still does. Not even the most powerful man in the world can alter that, as President Bill Clinton learnt in 1997. After an enjoyable evening meal at the Oxo Tower, spent in the company of Prime Minister Tony Blair, the 4-car motorcade got split, with the first 3 cars crossing the bridge before the road was raised, leaving the US President stranded on the southern side. Frantic phone calls to the operator demanding the bridge to be lowered fell on deaf ears - he was a retired sergeant major - and Clinton had to wait patiently for normal service to be resumed.
Tower Bridge is open every day and well worth visiting. The views are spectacular! You can also buy a combined ticket for the Monument - another gem. And for the romantically inclined, you can also get married on it but only on the northern side!