A Brief History of Tower Bridge in London

The capital of England, London, is a metropolis that has not lost its old-world charm in the process of modernizing itself with architectural marvels like The Shard. One of the greatest representatives of the city’s heritage is the fabled Tower Bridge. Tower Bridge is a stunning achievement of engineering and one of London's most instantly recognizable monuments, with its Gothic spires and main bascule surrounded by spectacular suspension bridges. This page delves into the history of this celebrated structure.

A timeline of Tower Bridge

  • 1201: King John grants a charter for the construction of a new stone bridge at the site.
  • 1437: A previous wooden bridge at the location was destroyed in a fire.
  • 1660: The idea of a drawbridge to allow tall ships to pass through the Thames is proposed.
  • 1886: Construction of Tower Bridge officially begins under the supervision of architect Sir Horace Jones.
  • 1894: Tower Bridge opens to the public, becoming an iconic symbol of London.
  • 1952: The bridge undergoes major repairs and renovations, including the installation of an updated control room.
  • 1977: Tower Bridge is officially recognized as a Grade I listed building.
  • 1982: The bridge's engine rooms are opened to the public as part of a museum exhibit.
  • 2012: Tower Bridge plays a prominent role in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.

Detailed history of Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge London Facts

The competition

By the 19th century, as the East End of London began to develop, there rose a need for a new river crossing. In 1876, the Special Bridge or Subway Committee was founded to develop ideas, and a public contest to choose a design for the new bridge was held. Over 50 ideas were offered for evaluation to the Committee, with some on display at Tower Bridge. However, it was not until October 1884 that Sir Horace Jones, the City Architect, suggested the chosen design for Tower Bridge as a resolution, in partnership with John Wolfe Barry, who was appointed as the engineer.

Tower Bridge London Facts

The construction

The construction of Tower Bridge began in 1886. It took eight years, five main contractors, and the tireless labor of 432 construction workers each day to build Tower Bridge. To support the building, two large piers were built on foundations deep into the riverbed, and the Towers and Walkways were built with nearly 11,000 tons of steel. To safeguard the underlying steelwork, this structure was covered in Cornish Granite and Portland Stone. When Jones died in 1887, George D. Stevenson took over and replaced the original brick facade with the iconic Victorian Gothic style. It cost £1,184,000 to finish building the tower.

London Tower Bridge History

The opening

The Prince and Princess of Wales officially opened Tower Bridge on 30 June 1894. Lord Chamberlain, Lord Carrington, and H. H. Asquith, the Home Secretary, were present for the opening ceremony. On the same day, the bridge lifted, after a two-minute delay, for the first time. A tug boat was required by an Act of Parliament to be on duty to help vessels in distress when crossing the bridge, an obligation that lasted until the 1960s. The Tower Subway was the quickest method to cross the Thames from Tower Hill to Tooley Street in Southwark until the bridge was built. Because there was no toll to cross Tower Bridge once it opened, the majority of foot traffic shifted to using it.

Tower Bridge Histor

The 20th century

By the time the Second World War rolled around, Tower Bridge had become a major connecting point to the Port of London. This also meant that it became a target for enemy countries. Between 1940 and 1942, the Tower Bridge saw a few attacks that damaged parts of the bridge. In 1942, a third engine was installed in case the existing ones were damaged. However, when the bridge was modernized, this third engine became redundant and was donated to the Forncett Industrial Steam Museum. On 6 December 1949, the southern section was Grade I listed and the northern part of the bridge was listed on 27 September 1973. In 1982, the Tower Bridge Exhibition opened.

London Tower Bridge History

Steam to oil and electricity

Tower Bridge was the world's largest and most advanced bascule bridge at the time of its construction. Hydraulics were used to run these bascules, with steam powering the massive pumping engines. The energy generated was stored in six large accumulators, ensuring that power was always available when it was needed to lift the Bridge. The accumulators supplied power to the driving engines, which raised and lowered the bascules. The bascules are still powered by hydraulics today, but they have been powered by oil and electricity instead of steam since 1976. The original pumping engines, accumulators, and boilers can now be seen in the Engine Rooms of Tower Bridge.

Construction of Tower Bridge

The construction of Tower Bridge in London, a marvel of Victorian-era engineering and architecture, began in 1886 and was completed in 1894. It was designed by two prominent architects, Sir Horace Jones and Sir John Wolfe Barry, who collaborated on the project. Tower Bridge showcases a remarkable blend of architectural styles, primarily Neo-Gothic and Victorian.

The bridge's unique feature is its bascule design, with two massive towers connected by a high-level walkway. The bascules could be raised to allow tall ships to navigate the River Thames, maintaining vital trade routes. It's made of steel and clad in beautiful Victorian Gothic detailing, creating an imposing and picturesque structure.

The construction process was a monumental undertaking, involving thousands of workers and extensive use of steam-powered machinery. The result is not just a functional drawbridge but a work of art that has become an iconic symbol of London's architectural and engineering heritage. Today, Tower Bridge stands as a testament to the innovation and craftsmanship of the Victorian era.

Tower Bridge today

London Tower Bridge Facts

The Tower Bridge today is one of the most important ways across the River Thames. In fact, according to some estimates around 40,000 people cross the bridge daily.

Tower Bridge is now electrically powered and rises approximately 800 times each year, up to ten times per day in the summertime.

The greatest place to view the bridge being lifted is on the Tower Bridge's 11-meter-long glass walkways, which are 42 meters above the river. The story of the bridge's construction is also narrated on these walkways, although the views of the river Thames outshine it.

Historic Tower Bridge lifts

  • The first vessel through the Tower Bridge was the Harbour Master’s vessel, Daisy. It was closely followed by a procession of honorary vessels: The Conservator Steamer, the Trinity House Yacht Irene, the gunboat HMS Landrail, The Bismark, and the Clacton Belle.
  • In 1932, the Royal Eagle regularly made the jersey across the Tower Bridge, ferrying commuters between London and numerous seaside stops including Southend-On-Sea, Ramsgate, and Margate.
  • Thousands of Britons came to the banks of the River Thames in the spring of 1954 to see the Royal Yacht Britannia sail beneath Tower Bridge, carrying Her Majesty the Queen and her entourage from a six-month Commonwealth tour.
  • On 15 May 2004, the STS Lord Nelson and SV Tenacious set sail and were to pass under the Tower Bridge. However, the bridge authorities did not receive the lift booking, causing the ships to strike the south pier of the Tower Bridge.
  • Monte Urquiola, a Spanish cargo ship, had made a habit of striking the Tower Bridge. Between 1957 and 1967, the cargo ship hit and damaged the Tower Bridge thrice.
  • Former football superstar David Beckham drove a Bladerunner BR RIB 35 called 'Max Power' with Torchbearer Jade Bailey under the Tower Bridge during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics of 2012.
  • Since 2013, the Tower Bridge has welcomed over 30 cruise ships a year into the upper pool of London. You can get a spectacular view of these ships from the walkways of Tower Bridge.

Buy tickets to Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge highlights

London Tower Bridge History

The Glass Floor

Look down the glass floor to find the famed red London buses and pedestrians speeding across the Bridge as river barges pass beneath it.

Tower Bridge London History

Paranomic views

Visitors can go up to the walkways connecting the two towers and spot iconic attractions such as the Tower of London, City Hall, the Shard, and HMS Belfast.

London Tower Bridge History
London Tower Bridge History

Frequently Asked Questions about the history of Tower Bridge

What is Tower Bridge?

The Tower Bridge is one of the most iconic bridges in the world. It was opened in London in 1894 and has since been used for tourism and commute purposes. You can buy tickets to visit Tower Bridge here.

When was it built?

The Tower Bridge was built between 1886 and 1894. It took eight years to finish constructing it.

Why was it built?

The Tower Bridge was built to carry pedestrians and vehicles across the River Thames. There was a need for a bridge to be built downstream of the London Bridge, and that is where the Tower Bridge came in.

Who innaugrated it?

On 30 June 1894, the Prince of Wales and his wife, the Princess of Wales, officially inaugurated the Tower Bridge London.

Who designed it?

The Special Bridge or Subway Committee chose the the design by Sir Horace Jones and John Wolfe Barry for the Tower Bridge.

Where is Tower Bridge located?

The Tower Bridge is located near the Tower of London on Tower Bridge Road in the borough of Southwark.

How often does it lift?

The Tower Bridge lifts about 800 times in a year.

What can you see inside?

On visiting the Tower Bridge, you can explore the North and South Towers and the glass walkway that connects the two. You will also find an exhibition that narrates the story of the construction of the bridge as well as the Victorian engine room that houses the original machinery used to lift the bridge.