Tower Bridge was built between 1886 and 1894. Constructed in response to an increase in the population of London, its purpose was to facilitate ease of movement. Commercial trade was booming by the second half of the 19th century, resulting in more jobs and an estimated one million people living to the east of London Bridge.
Yet this was no straightforward commute – the journey across could take up to two hours by foot or require a ferry-crossing. In 1876, a Special Bridge Committee was formed to provide a solution. The committee launched a public competition to find a winning design for the bridge.
Did you know …
Tower Bridge was originally brown, but was painted red, white, and blue in preparation for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.
In 1952, bus driver Albert Gunter was forced to make his bus jump a rising bascule, after the watchman forgot to ring the warning bell and close the gate ahead of the bascules lifting.
Thomas Hans Orde-Lees once parachuted off Tower Bridge to demonstrate the advantages of RAF pilots using parachutes.
How long did it take to build Tower Bridge?
Work began on Tower Bridge in April 1886, but it was to take eight years before its completion. It took an army of 432 construction workers, five major contractors, and the cost of £1,184,000 to build Tower Bridge.
EW Crutwell was the resident engineer throughout the construction. The framework was covered in Cornish granite and Portland stone to protect the underlying steelwork and make it aesthetically pleasing. There was a strong emphasis on replicating the neo-gothic style of the nearby Tower of London, which might explain why many call it London’s most ‘beautiful’ bridge.
Supporting the bridge’s structure were two large piers embedded in the River Thames. As well as being a massive undertaking for the labourers involved, the structure also demanded an enormous amount of building materials, with 11,000 tons of steel needed for the bridge and its high-level public walkways. It also required a colossal 22,000 litres of paint to paint the bridge.
By June 30, 1894, Tower Bridge was finally complete and was opened to the public with a lavish ceremony by the Prince and Princess of Wales: the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra of Denmark. Its original public walkways closed in 1910 due to lack of use, but were restored in 1982, becoming a permanent fixture in the Tower Bridge Exhibition.
What was the biggest challenge faced when building Tower Bridge?
One of the most significant challenges facing Tower Bridge was the design of the bridge itself. The City of London Corporation was tasked with commissioning a bridge that wouldn’t disrupt the river’s traffic, including cargo ships carrying materials that were vital to London’s growing industries and were responsible for helping fix London’s place on the global stage.
A design was needed that would allow horse-drawn traffic and pedestrians access to the east, while letting the river-boat traffic pass underneath.
The answer was to create a ‘bascule’ bridge, a bridge containing two towers, that could be lifted to let the river traffic through. What started as a significant challenge ultimately became an outstanding triumph.
How many tourists visit Tower Bridge each year?
The contribution Tower Bridge has had to London’s cultural and historical heritage is almost unparalleled – 500,000 tourists visit it each year, which provides an invaluable uplift to London’s economy. Its positioning to neighbouring historical attractions, including the Tower of London and Shakespeare’s Globe, also means visitors can take in other culturally significant landmarks.
It also continues to play a critical role in helping Londoners to commute, with over 40,000 motorists, pedestrians and cyclists using it every day.
Though inaugurated to solve a practical problem, today, Tower Bridge is looked upon as one of London’s most iconic landmarks, serving as a reminder of civil engineers’ accomplishments from centuries ago.
People who made it happen
- Sir Horace Jones (city architect)
- Sir John Wolfe Barry (civil engineer)
- Sir William Arrol & co. (Scottish civil engineering and construction business responsible for devising skeleton structure)
- Sir John Jackson CVO FRSE (contractor – foundations)
- Armstrong, Mitchell, and Company (contractor - hydraulics)
- William Webster (contractor)
- E W Crutwell (resident engineer)