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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of Tower Bridge in London

What is Tower Bridge?

Tower Bridge is an iconic 19th-century bridge which spans the River Thames close to the Tower of London, and still operates its original suspension mechanism.

Tower Bridge

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Tower Bridge History

Tower Bridge is one of London’s most distinctive landmarks. Named after the Tower of London, the bridge has arguably gained more widespread recognition than its medieval neighbour. Before its opening in 1894, Londoners wishing to cross the Thames at this point (without getting wet) had to take a subterranean route.

The Tower Subway, used by one million people each year, was closed in 1898 to all except those carrying out maintenance work. If you fancy experiencing what it’s like to walk under the Thames, a similar footpath that leads from Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs remains open.

The industrial revolution turned 19th-century London into a prosperous, polluted and overcrowded centre of commerce and production. The East End was home to many industries, including the manufacture of furniture, clothing and paper, as well as the vast interlinked economy of the docklands, and their unloaded cargo, further east.

The city’s boom created the need for a new river crossing east of London Bridge to facilitate supply chains. When Tower Bridge was commissioned in 1876, over 50 proposals were submitted for its design.

For the winning entry the commission stipulated a safe, efficient crossing without blocking access to the river for ships entering the commercial stretch of the Thames called the ‘Pool’ – a difficult task. Emerging as the winner came Horace Jones, who sadly died before the bridge was completed.

Jones’s unusual yet innovative design relied on steam-powered bascules (from the French word for 'see-saw'), which would lift to let vessels sail past. Today, these bascules are still operated by hydraulic power as they were in the 19th century (though now by oil and electricity rather than steam), and are raised approximately 800 times each year.

River traffic takes precedence, which US President Bill Clinton discovered in 1997 when his motorcade was caught by the lights and became separated from the Prime Minister’s.

Ten workers died during the bridge’s construction, though by the standards of the time this was a relatively low number for such a big project. Jones was assisted by an engineer called Sir John Wolfe Barry, who oversaw the project’s completion after Jones died. Another architect, named George D. Stevenson, also joined the project.

He altered the original red brick design of the bridge, using granite and Portland stone instead, to make it more visually sympathetic both to the Tower of London and to contemporary Gothic Revival style.

During the Second World War, a certain architect called W. F. C. Holden conceived an imaginative plan to remodel Tower Bridge. His bizarre proposal involved encasing the existing bridge in glass and steel, which, in addition to a crossing, would provide space for offices and shops.

Fortunately his design wasn’t pursued with any enthusiasm, as it would have meant the removal of the bridge’s most exciting feature, the moving bascules.

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