For years London Bridge (of the “London Bridge is falling down” song fame) was the only bridge across the Thames. As London grew, so did the need for more bridges, but they were all built to the west of London Bridge, with the east of London having developed into a busy port. Journeys from the east, on foot or by other means used to take hours. In 1876 the City of London Corporation could no longer ignore the problem and they opened up the design for public competition. Over 50 designs were received, but it seems none of them were quite right. Finally, eight years later, in October 1884 the design of City Architect Horace Jones and his collaborator John Wolfe Barry was chosen. Tower Bridge is 244 metres long and each tower is 65 metres high and took eight years to be built. Five major contractors with a total of 432 construction workers completed the bridge.
The Tower Bridge is a bascule bridge; the word “bascule” comes from the French for “see-saw”. On completion the bridge was the largest and most sophisticated bascule bridge at that time. The hydraulics operating the bascules used steam to power the enormous pumping engines. In order to have power available as soon as the bridge needed to be lifted, the energy created was stored in six massive accumulators. The bascules only took a minute or so to raise to their maximum angle of 86 degrees. The bascules are still operated by hydraulic power, but these days oil and electricity is used. All the original pumping engines, boilers and the accumulators are exhibited in the Tower Bridge Exhibition.
The high level walkways were closed in 1910 due to lack of use. People preferred to wait at street level rather than trying to climb the stairs up to the walkway, especially if you had an armful of bags, a pram, children or your granny with you! The walkways were reopened to the public in 1982 as part of the Tower Bridge Exhibition, and the public is still able to enjoy those wonderful views from those walkways today.
River traffic takes priority over pedestrian and vehicular traffic. If you wish to pass under the bridge with your tall ship (let’s face it, we all own a tall ship to do this with!) you have to give at least 24 hours notice. The bridge used to open almost 50 times a day, but nowadays it opens an average of twice per day only (about 1,000 times a year). Bridge lifts are pre-scheduled and you can check the bridge’s website to find out when it will rise and lower.
Some interesting facts about the Tower Bridge:
Each bascule (or deck) is 30 meters wide and when fully opened gives a clearance of almost 45 meters.
In 1912, during an emergency, Frank McClean had to fly between the bascules and the high-level walkways in his Short biplane, to avoid an accident.
In 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.
In 1977 Tower Bridge was painted red, white and blue to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (prior to that it was a chocolate-brown colour).
For the 2012 London Olympics a massive set of the Olympic Rings adorned the Tower Bridge.