Behind the Scenes of Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge spans the part of the River Thames to the east of London known as the Pool of London. In the 19th century, the growing population in the east meant a new river crossing was needed that could open to allow ships carrying cargo to riverside warehouses through.

By City of London Corporation

Bisi Alimi, Tower Bridge, Tower Hamlets, Greater London (2016-07-20) by Chris Redgrave, Historic EnglandHistoric England

It was this need that led to the iconic design we know today. On this Expedition, you’ll explore the exterior, interior—even the underground—areas of this historic bridge.

Tower Bridge high level balcony

This view is from the balcony of the Bridge’s north tower, looking onto the south bank of the River Thames where 19th century wharves and modern office blocks intermingle. The balcony overlooks the high-level pedestrian walkways which link the north and south towers.

From here you can see the High Victorian Gothic cladding of the Bridge, with its castle-like turrets and crenellations.

Pedestrian high-level walkways

These walkways allowed pedestrians to cross the Bridge when it was open for shipping. However, as the Bridge opened so quickly (60 seconds), they were rarely used, closing to the public in 1910, and reopening as an exhibition in 1982.

High Victorian Gothic cladding

Tower Bridge is clad in Portland stone and Cornish granite, with tiles of Welsh slate. Portland stone can be carved and is also relatively weather-resistant, allowing it to decoratively conceal and protect the Bridge’s inner structure of iron and steel.

Butler’s Wharf

Completed in 1873, Butler’s Wharf was once reputedly the largest tea warehouse in the world. Dozens of wharves lined this section of the Thames in the 19th century. Today the buildings have been converted into luxury shops, restaurants and residences.

The Shard

The Shard was completed in 2012 and is one of the tallest buildings in Europe. Its design is inspired by the numerous church spires visible across London and also the masts of the sailing ships which use the River Thames.

Inside Tower Bridge

Here you can see the internal structure of Tower Bridge, which really provides its structural strength. You can also see some of the people who built the Bridge—the architect, engineers, and construction workers. 

The architect of Tower Bridge was Horace Jones, and the chief engineer was John Wolfe Barry. Specialist engineers William Armstrong and William Arroll designed the engines and steel frame respectively. Building Tower Bridge involved hundreds of people with a vast range of skills.

Steel girders

These are the steel girders that give the bridge structural strength. They are held together by 14 million rivets, fitted by workers paid 1d (1/2 pence) per rivet. There are 12,000 tons of steel and 1,200 tons of iron in Tower Bridge.

Construction workers

Here you can see pictures of some of the many workers who built Tower Bridge. There were an average of 432 workers onsite at any time over the 8 years of construction.  

Shipping, cargo and traffic

These are examples of the types of goods that ships were bringing to wharves in the Pool of London and also of the types of transport that used the Bridge when it first opened.  

Sir Horace Jones portrait

This is Sir Horace Jones, the architect of Tower Bridge. Sadly, he died in 1887, while Tower Bridge was being built and so never saw it completed. His death was unrelated to the construction of the bridge. 

Victorian control cabin

This is the cabin from which Bridge Drivers operated the bridge before the switch to electricity in 1976. There are 4 control cabins, 2 on each pier, although only 2 are used today.

In Victorian times, signalmen would communicate with the Bridge Driver using semaphore or lamps to tell them a ship was coming and therefore that the Bridge needed to be raised. Today, ships need to give at least 24 hours’ notice—larger ships often give notice months in advance.

Gauges

It was very important that the Bridge Driver knew what was happening with the machinery and mechanism. These gauges provided important information, such as how much pressure was flowing through to the drive engine.  

Levers

Each lever triggered a different stage in the process of raising the bridge. A series of interlocking gears made it impossible to operate the levers in the wrong sequence or to start the next stage until the last was complete.  

Valve

This is the valve which released the hydraulic power to drive the engines and raise the Bridge. 

Modern control cabin

This is where the Bridge Driver controls the Bridge from today. There are 2 modern control cabins on the bridge, 1 on the west side, the other on the east. Either can be used to open the bridge, depending on which direction the approaching boat is coming from. 

Computer screen

This computer tells the Bridge Driver information about what is happening at different points in the bridge.

Joy stick

This is the controller for the bascules. The Bridge Driver pushes it up, slowly, to raise the bridge, and pulls it down slowly to lower it. 

Buttons

These buttons control different stages in the bridge-opening process.  One of the buttons releases the nose bolts, the parts of the bascules that fit together when the bridge is closed, to make the roadway stable.  

Telephone handset

This is a VHF radio for talking to ships on the general working channel for the Port of London Authority.

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