London Bridge was originally the only crossing for those who wanted to cross the river Thames, however as London grew more bridges were added, the only problem with this was that they were all west of London Bridge. With the increase of population in the East End the need for a new bridge on the eastern part was becoming critical. The City of London Corporation, responsible for that part of the Thames, decided the problem could be delayed no longer and in 1876 set about the challenge of building a bridge that would still allow traffic on the Thames to flow as normal.
A Special Bridge Committee was formed and the design for the new crossing was offered to the public to come up with the best design. Over 50 designs were submitted for consideration, some of which are on display at the Tower Bridge Exhibition. It wasn’t until October 1884 however, that Horace Jones, the City Architect, in collaboration with John Wolfe Barry, offered the chosen design for Tower Bridge as a solution.
It took 8 years, 5 major contractors and the relentless labour of 432 construction workers to build Tower Bridge. Two massive piers were sunk into the river bed to support the construction and over 11,000 tons of steel provided the framework for the Towers and Walkways. This framework was clad in Cornish granite and Portland stone to protect the underlying steel work and to give the Bridge a more pleasing appearance.
When Tower Bridge was built it was the largest bridge of its kind ever completed. The bridge was operated by hydraulics, using steam to power the enormous pumping engines. The energy created was stored in six massive accumulators so as soon as power was required to lift the Bridge, it was always readily available with the accumulators feeding the driving engines.
Despite the complexity of the system, the bridge only took about a minute to rise to its maximum angle of 86 degrees. Today, the bridge is still operated by hydraulic power, but since 1976 they have been driven by oil and electricity rather than steam. The original pumping engines, accumulators and boilers are now exhibits within the Tower Bridge Exhibition.
In 1910 the high level Walkways were closed to the public due to lack of use, due to the pedestrians preferring to wait at street level for it to close rather than heading up the stairs carrying their heavy loads. In 1982, as part of the new Tower Bridge Exhibition, visitors to the bridge could once again enter the walkways, now fully covered, and experience the amazing panoramic views.
Although Tower Bridge is now powered by oil and electricity, the original steam engines maintained by a dedicated team of technical officers remain in their original location for all to see. This area is known as the Victorian Engine Rooms.
The exhibition has been developed to keep pace with modern day needs without losing its Victorian essence. Through interactive kiosks and video walls along with knowledgeable Guides, visitors can learn about key events in the Bridge’s history, ranging from Royal visits to dare devil stunts.
A few interesting facts about Tower Bridge:
1910 – The high-level walkways, which were designed so that the public could still cross the bridge when it was raised, were closed down due to lack of use.
1912 – During an emergency, Frank McClean had to fly between the bridge and the high level walkways in his short biplane to avoid an accident.
1952 – A London bus driven by Albert Gunton had to leap from one bascule to the other when the bridge began to rise with the number 78 bus still on it.
1977 – Tower Bridge was painted red, white and blue to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. (Before that, it was painted a chocolate brown colour).
1982 – Tower Bridge opened to the public for the first time since 1910, with a permanent exhibition inside called The Tower Bridge Experience.
The view today from the high level Walkways has changed dramatically, although there are still signs of the area’s amazing history. With the aid of photographs and interactive kiosks, visitors to Tower Bridge Exhibition can gain a greater understanding of how life would have been when the idea of a new bridge was originally conceived.
A visit to Tower Bridge Exhibition clearly explains how the Bridge works and describes its fascinating history.