The bridge – a major restoration of which was completed in March this year – was officially opened on 30th June, 1894, by the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) eight years after work on a new Thames crossing commenced, driven by the need for a bridge which was more accessible to people living in East London (at the time pedestrians and vehicles were facing considerable congestions, with some being forced to wait hours before crossing the Thames).
At the time of its completion, Tower Bridge (although not universally acclaimed at the time) was the most sophisticated and largest bascule bridge ever built – the word bascule comes from the French for ‘see-saw’ and refers to the action of the bridge when it swings open. The bascules, which took only a minute to open, were initially operated by a steam-powered hydraulic system although since 1976, they have been driven by oil and electricity.
The 293 feet tall structure was built from steel and clad in Portland stone and Cornish granite to ensure it blended with the nearby tower of London. It was built with two walkways joining to two great towers at a height of 110 feet. Initially open to the elements, these were conceived as a way for people to cross the bridge while the bascules were raised open but due to a lack of use, they were closed in 1910 (they were reopened in 1982 when the first permanent exhibition took up residence at the bridge).
These days as well as providing a thoroughfare across the river for pedestrians and vehicles (and still opening for larger boats and ships from time to time although 24 hours notice is required), the bridge – which, along with four other London bridges, is maintained by the Bridge House Estates trust, a charity whose roots go back to the 11th century – houses an exhibition which tells the story of its construction. The walkways provide wonderful views down the river.
Interestingly, the iconic colors of Tower Bridge only date from 1976 when the structure was painted red, white and blue for the Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Before that, the bridge was painted a chocolate brown though it was originally a greenish blue color.
One of the most interesting stories associated with Tower Bridge is that of a bus driven by Albert Gunton. On the bridge when it started opening in December 1952, he had to make the bus jump the gap – at three foot wide – to avoid the bus toppling into the river below. Passengers only suffered minor injuries and Gunton was later awarded a bravery award for his actions.
A list of times when the bridge will be lifted (this happens around 1,000 times a year) is kept on the Tower Bridge website.
WHERE: The exhibition entrance is located at the north west tower of the bridge (nearest Tube stations are Tower Hill or London Bridge); WHEN: 10am to 6.30pm (last admission 5.30pm) daily until end of September, then 9.30am to 6pm (last admission 5pm) until March; COST: £6 an adult/£4.20 concessions/£2.50 children aged 5 to 15 (under fives are free)/£12.50 for a family; WEBSITE: www.towerbridge.org.uk