The Tower Bridge

Calling all history nerds (that’d be us!), boffins and all-round curious souls (also us): unite and rejoice!If you’re the kind of person who  can watch giant construction machinery at work with child-like wonder, Tower Bridge is a must visit. It’s a moveable, double-leaf bascule (drawbridge) bridge spanning the River Thames with Victorian-style towers at either end. It opens in the middle to allow ships to pass through; be sure to check out the online schedule if you want to see it in action! The lifts are a special occasion these days. In the early 1900s there were an average of 9,000 bridge lifts a year; in 1910 the bridge hit a record 94 lifts in a day! By 1930 it had fallen to 3,000 per year. Today there are only 20 – 30 lifts/week, or approximately 1,000/year. 

Before Tower bridge was constructed, London bridges were used by more than 120,000 pedestrians and 20,000 vehicles each day. By the mid-1800s the East End of London had become such a buzzing commercial development the city needed a new bridge. A traditional fixed bridge couldn’t be built here because it would prevent sailing ships from accessing the important port facilities between London Bridge and the Tower of London. In 1876 a committee was formed to find a solution. 50 designs were submitted and a great deal of debate ensued. It took eight years for a design to be selected.

Sir Horace Jones “see-saw” design – where the bridge would open in the middle –  became the chosen solution. Queen Victoria wasn’t particularly pleased, feeling it would obstruct the view of London Tower, so the bridge was covered in stonework to make it appear old (like medieval old!) to complement the Tower.  

The construction and operation of the bridge was a marvel of engineering. A team of six divers excavated over 21,000m(3) of clay (equivalent to 9,545 London telephone boxes!) to create the foundations. Two piers, created from over 71 tons of concrete, were sunk into the riverbed to support the construction. Those piers support approximately 10,000 tons of steel. Cornish granite and Portland stone protect the steel and provide the all important Victorian Gothic look to satisfy Queen Victoria’s aesthetic concerns.  The Tower Bridge cost over £1,184,000 (a fortune in the late 19th Century, approximately £100 million* by today’s standards) to build and took 432 men eight years to complete its construction. Ten men lost their lives in the process. 

*This figure is according to

Walkways over the bridge were designed to allow pedestrians to cross even while a lift was in action. This made a lot of sense as foot traffic over London’s bridges was very heavy at the time. However, this best intention went a bit sideways in the years after the bridge opened. The overhead walkways became popular with prostitutes and thieves so eventually they were closed in 1909 and remained closed until 1982. Today the walkways can be visited as part of the tour where they provide fabulous vistas of London. There is also a section of glass floor that allows you to watch the bustle of traffic and pedestrians crossing the bridge below – very cool. 

Until the mid-1970s huge steam engines under the south side of the bridge provided the power to drive the bridge lifts. Huge boilers made the steam, using burning coal to boil the water. The stokers shovelled nearly 3,000 kilograms of coal into the boilers every day!

The steam engines are preserved and open to the public as part of the self-guided tour. This part of the tour alone is worth the ticket price, especially if you get a chance to talk with one of the guides in the engine room. So throw on your steampunk gear and enjoy!

The raising of the bridge is now fully automated process using electricity and oil pressure. As of the early 2000’s this process is controlled by computers and operated using a joystick. The hydraulic engine draws back bolts that hold two bascules together and sets the counterweights in motion to draw the bridge upwards.


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