Treasures of London – Southwark Bridge…

Southwark Bridge lit up to mark its 100th birthday. PICTURE: Courtesy of the City of London Corporation.

Southwark Bridge celebrated its 100th birthday earlier this month so we thought it a good time to have a quick look at the bridge’s history.

The bridge was a replacement for an earlier three-arch iron bridge built by John Rennie which had opened in 1819.

Known by the nickname, the “Iron Bridge”, it was mentioned in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorrit. But the bridge had problems – its narrow approaches and steep gradient led it to become labelled “the curse of the carman [cart drivers] and the ruin of his horses”.

Increasing traffic meant a replacement became necessary and a new bridge, which featured five arches and was made of steel, was designed by architect Sir Ernest George and engineer Sir Basil Mott.

Work on the new bridge – which was to cost £375,000 and was paid for by the City of London Corporation’s Bridge House Estates which was originally founded in 1097 to maintain London Bridge and expanded to care for others – began in 1913 but its completion was delayed thanks to the outbreak of World War I.

The 800 foot long bridge was finally officially opened on 6th June, 1921, by King George V who used a golden key to open its gates. He and Queen Mary then rode over the bridge in a carriage.

The bridge, now Grade II-listed, was significantly damaged in a 1941 air raid and was temporarily repaired before it was properly restored in 1955. More recently, the bridge was given a facelift in 2011 when £2.5 million was spent cleaning and repainting the metalwork in its original colours – yellow and ‘Southwark Green’.

The current bridge has appeared in numerous films including 1964’s Mary Poppins and, in more recent times, 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Treasures of London – Tower Bridge

Often confused with London Bridge, Tower Bridge stands as a testament to Victorian engineering ingenuity.

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: