Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge is a combined bascule and suspension bridge in London, built between 1886 and 1894. The bridge crosses the River Thames close to the Tower of London and has become an iconic symbol of London. As a result, it is sometimes confused with London Bridge, about half a mile (0.8 km) upstream. Tower Bridge is one of five London bridges owned and maintained by the Bridge House Estates, a charitable trust overseen by the City of London Corporation. It is the only one of the trust's bridges not to connect the City of London directly to the Southwark bank, as its northern landfall is in Tower Hamlets.

Tower Bridge
View from Shad Thames
Coordinates51°30′20″N 0°04′31″W
CarriesA100 Tower Bridge Road
CrossesRiver Thames
LocaleLondon boroughs:
– north side: Tower Hamlets
– south side: Southwark
Maintained byBridge House Estates
Heritage statusGrade I listed structure
Preceded byLondon Bridge
Followed byQueen Elizabeth II Bridge
DesignBascule bridge / Suspension Bridge
Total length801 ft (244 m)
Height213 ft (65 m)
Longest span270 ft (82.3 m)
Clearance below28 ft (8.6 m) (closed)
139 ft (42.5 m) (open)
(mean high water spring tide)
Opened30 June 1894 (1894-06-30)

The bridge consists of two bridge towers tied together at the upper level by two horizontal walkways, designed to withstand the horizontal tension forces imposed by the suspended sections of the bridge on the landward sides of the towers. The vertical components of the forces in the suspended sections and the vertical reactions of the two walkways are carried by the two robust towers. The bascule pivots and operating machinery are housed in the base of each tower. Before its restoration in the 2010s, the bridge's colour scheme dated from 1977, when it was painted red, white and blue for Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee. Its colours were subsequently restored to blue and white.[1][2]

The bridge deck is freely accessible to both vehicles and pedestrians, whereas the bridge's twin towers, high-level walkways and Victorian engine rooms form part of the Tower Bridge Exhibition, for which an admission charge is made. The nearest London Underground tube stations are Tower Hill on the Circle and District lines, London Bridge on the Jubilee and Northern lines and Bermondsey on the Jubilee line, and the nearest Docklands Light Railway station is Tower Gateway.[3] The nearest National Rail stations are at Fenchurch Street and London Bridge.



In the second half of the 19th century, increased commercial development in the East End of London led to demands for a new river crossing downstream of London Bridge. A traditional fixed bridge at street level could not be built because it would cut off access by sailing ships to the port facilities in the Pool of London, between London Bridge and the Tower of London.[4]

A Special Bridge or Subway Committee was formed in 1877, chaired by Sir Albert Joseph Altman, to find a solution to the river-crossing problem.[5] More than fifty designs were submitted, including one from civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette, which was rejected because of a lack of sufficient headroom. A design was not approved until 1884, when it was decided to build a bascule bridge.[4][6] Sir John Wolfe Barry was appointed engineer and Sir Horace Jones the architect[7] (who was also one of the judges).[8] An Act of Parliament was passed in 1885 authorising the bridge's construction. It specified the opening span must give a clear width of 200 feet (61 m) and a headroom of 135 feet (41 m). Construction had to be in a Gothic style.[7]

Barry designed a bascule bridge with two bridge towers built on piers. The central span was split into two equal bascules or leaves, which could be raised to allow river traffic to pass. The two side-spans were suspension bridges, with the suspension rods anchored both at the abutments and through rods contained within the bridge's upper walkways.[7]


Construction started in 1886 and took eight years with five major contractors – Sir John Jackson (foundations), Baron Armstrong (hydraulics), William Webster, Sir H.H. Bartlett, and Sir William Arrol & Co.[9] – and employed 432 construction workers. E W Crutwell was the resident engineer for the construction.[10] The first stone was laid by Albert, Prince of Wales.[7]

Two massive piers, containing over 70,000 tons of concrete,[8] were sunk into the riverbed to support the construction. More than 11,000 tons of steel were used in the framework for the towers and walkways, which were then clad in Cornish granite and Portland stone, to protect the underlying steelwork.[11]

Jones died in 1886 and George D. Stevenson took over the project.[8] Stevenson replaced Jones's original brick façade with the more ornate Victorian Gothic style, which makes the bridge a distinctive landmark, and was intended to harmonise the bridge with the nearby Tower of London.[10] The total cost of construction was £1,184,000[10] (equivalent to £132 million in 2018).[12]


Tower Bridge was officially opened on 30 June 1894 by the Prince and Princess of Wales.[7][13] An Act of parliament stipulated that a tug boat should be on station to assist vessels in danger when crossing the bridge, a requirement that remained in place until the 1960s.[13]

The bridge connected Iron Gate, on the north bank of the river, with Horselydown Lane, on the south – now known as Tower Bridge Approach and Tower Bridge Road, respectively.[10] Until the bridge was opened, the Tower Subway – 400 m to the west – was the shortest way to cross the river from Tower Hill to Tooley Street in Southwark. Opened in 1870, Tower Subway was among the world's earliest underground ("tube") railways, but it closed after just three months and was re-opened as a pedestrian foot tunnel. Once Tower Bridge was open, the majority of foot traffic transferred to using the bridge, there being no toll to pay to use it. Having lost most of its income, the tunnel was closed in 1898.[14]

The high-level open air walkways between the towers gained a reputation as a haunt for prostitutes and pickpockets; as they were only accessible by stairs they were seldom used by regular pedestrians, and were closed in 1910.[15][16] The walkway reopened in 1982 as part of the Tower Bridge Exhibition.[15][17]

20th century

During the Second World War and as a precaution against the existing engines being damaged by enemy action, a third engine was installed in 1942: a 150 hp horizontal cross-compound engine, built by Vickers Armstrong Ltd. at their Elswick works in Newcastle upon Tyne. It was fitted with a flywheel having a 9-foot (2.7 m) diameter and weighing 9 tons, and was governed to a speed of 30 rpm. The engine became redundant when the rest of the system was modernised in 1974, and was donated to the Forncett Industrial Steam Museum by the Corporation of the City of London.[18]

The southern section of the bridge, in the London Borough of Southwark, was Grade I listed on 6 December 1949.[19] The remainder of the bridge, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, was listed on 27 September 1973.[20] In 1974, the original operating mechanism was largely replaced by a new electro-hydraulic drive system, designed by BHA Cromwell House, with the original final pinions driven by modern hydraulic motors.[21][22]

In 1982, the Tower Bridge Exhibition opened, housed in the bridge's twin towers, the long-closed high-level walkways and the Victorian engine rooms. The latter still house the original steam engines and some of the original hydraulic machinery.[23][24][25]

21st century

A computer system was installed in 2000 to control the raising and lowering of the bascules remotely. It proved unreliable, resulting in the bridge being stuck in the open or closed positions on several occasions during 2005 until its sensors were replaced.[26]

In April 2008 it was announced that the bridge would undergo a "facelift" costing £4 million, and taking four years to complete. The work entailed stripping off the existing paint down to bare metal and repainting in blue and white.[1][2] Each section was enshrouded in scaffolding and plastic sheeting to prevent the old paint falling into the Thames and causing pollution. Starting in mid-2008, contractors worked on a quarter of the bridge at a time to minimise disruption, but some road closures were inevitable. It is intended that the completed work will stand for 25 years.[27]

The renovation of the walkway interior was completed in mid-2009. Within the walkways a versatile new lighting system has been installed, designed by Eleni Shiarlis, for when the walkways are in use for exhibitions or functions. The new system provides for both feature and atmospheric lighting, the latter using bespoke RGB LED luminaires, designed to be concealed within the bridge superstructure and fixed without the need for drilling (these requirements as a result of the bridge's Grade I status).[28] The renovation of the four suspension chains was completed in March 2010 using a state-of-the-art coating system requiring up to six different layers of "paint".[29]

The bridge featured in publicity for the 2012 Summer Olympics being held in London. In June 2012 a set of Olympic rings was suspended from the bridge to mark one month to go until the start of the games. The rings cost £259,817 to make, measured 25 by 11.5 metres (82 by 38 ft) and weighed 13 tonnes (14 short tons).[30]

On 8 July 2012, the west walkway was transformed into a 200-foot-long (61 m) Live Music Sculpture by the British composer Samuel Bordoli. 30 classical musicians were arranged along the length of the bridge 138 feet (42 m) above the Thames behind the Olympic rings. The sound travelled backwards and forwards along the walkway, echoing the structure of the bridge.[31][32]

Following the Olympics, the rings were removed from Tower Bridge and replaced by the emblem of the Paralympic Games for the 2012 Summer Paralympics.[33]

In 2016, Tower Bridge was closed to all road traffic from 1 October to 30 December.[34] This was to allow structural maintenance work to take place. The work included undertaking major maintenance to the bridge-lifting systems, replacing the decking and resurfacing the walkways and road, replacing the expansion joints along the bridge to provide a smoother surface, and waterproofing the brick arches on the approaches to the bridge. During this time the bridge was still open to water-borne traffic as required by Act of Parliament. The bridge was open to pedestrians for all but three weekends, when a free ferry service was in operation.



The bridge is 800 feet (240 m) in length with two towers each 213 feet (65 m) high, built on piers.[35] The central span of 200 feet (61 m) between the towers is split into two equal bascules or leaves, which can be raised to an angle of 86 degrees to allow river traffic to pass.[36] The bascules, weighing over 1,000 tons each, are counterbalanced to minimise the force required and allow raising in five minutes.

The two side-spans are suspension bridges, each 270 feet (82 m) long, with the suspension rods anchored both at the abutments and through rods contained within the bridge's upper walkways. The pedestrian walkways are 143 feet (44 m) above the river at high tide, and accessed by lifts.[7][10]

The main bridge deck carries two lanes of road traffic between two low-level pedestrian walkways across both suspension spans and the opening bascule section of the bridge, with the walkways separated from the roadway by fences. The roadway passes through each of the two towers, whereas the low-level walkways pass around the outside of the towers.

One of the chimneys on the bridge, which are often mistaken for lamp posts, connects up to an old fireplace in a guardroom of the Tower of London. It is long-disused.[37]

Hydraulic system

The original raising mechanism was powered by pressurised water stored in several hydraulic accumulators.[38] The system was designed and installed by Hamilton Owen Rendel[39] while working for Sir W. G. Armstrong Mitchell & Company of Newcastle upon Tyne. Water, at a pressure of 750 psi (5.2 MPa), was pumped into the accumulators by two 360 hp (270 kW) horizontal twin-tandem compound stationary steam engines, fitted with Meyer expansion slide valves. Each engine drove a force pump from its piston tail rod. The accumulators each comprise a 20-inch (51 cm) ram on which sits a very heavy weight to maintain the desired pressure.

The entire hydraulic system along with the gas lighting system was installed by William Sugg & Co Ltd., the well-known Westminster gas engineers. The gas lighting was initially by open-flame burners within the lanterns, but was soon updated to the later incandescent system.[40]

In 1974, the original operating mechanism was largely replaced by a new electro-hydraulic drive system, designed by BHA Cromwell House.[23] The only components of the original system still in use are the final pinions, which engage with the racks fitted to the bascules. These are driven by modern hydraulic motors and gearing, using oil rather than water as the hydraulic fluid.[24] Some of the original hydraulic machinery has been retained, although it is no longer in use. It is open to the public and forms the basis for the bridge's museum, which resides in the old engine rooms on the south side of the bridge. The museum includes the steam engines, two of the accumulators and one of the hydraulic engines that moved the bascules, along with other related artefacts.

Signalling and control

To control the passage of river traffic through the bridge, a number of different rules and signals were employed. Daytime control was provided by red semaphore signals, mounted on small control cabins on either end of both bridge piers. At night, coloured lights were used, in either direction, on both piers: two red lights to show that the bridge was closed, and two green to show that it was open. In foggy weather, a gong was sounded as well.[10]

Vessels passing through the bridge had to display signals too: by day, a black ball at least 2 feet (0.61 m) in diameter was to be mounted high up where it could be seen; by night, two red lights in the same position. Foggy weather required repeated blasts from the ship's steam whistle. If a black ball was suspended from the middle of each walkway (or a red light at night) this indicated that the bridge could not be opened. These signals were repeated about 1,000 yards (910 m) downstream, at Cherry Garden Pier, where boats needing to pass through the bridge had to hoist their signals/lights and sound their horn, as appropriate, to alert the Bridge Master.[10]

Some of the control mechanism for the signalling equipment has been preserved and may be seen working in the bridge's museum.



Tower Bridge is still a busy crossing of the Thames, used by more than 40,000 people (motorists, cyclists and pedestrians) every day.[26] The bridge is on the London Inner Ring Road, and is on the eastern boundary of the London congestion charge zone (drivers do not incur the charge by crossing the bridge.)[42]

To maintain the integrity of the structure, the City of London Corporation has imposed a 20-mile-per-hour (32 km/h) speed restriction, and an 18-tonne (20-short-ton) weight limit on vehicles using the bridge. A camera system measures the speed of traffic crossing the bridge, using a number plate recognition system to send fixed penalty charges to speeding drivers.[43]

A second system monitors other vehicle parameters. Induction loops and piezoelectric sensors are used to measure the weight, the height of the chassis above ground level, and the number of axles of each vehicle.[43]


The bascules are raised about a thousand times a year.[44] River traffic is now much reduced, but it still takes priority over road traffic. Today, 24 hour's notice is required before opening the bridge, and opening times are published in advance on the bridge's website;[45] there is no charge for vessels to open the bridge.

When needing to be raised for the passage of a vessel the bascules are only raised to an angle sufficient for the vessel to safely pass under the bridge, except in the case of a vessel with the monarch onboard in which case they are raised fully no matter the size of the vessel.


The Tower Bridge Exhibition is a display housed in the bridge's twin towers, the high-level walkways and the Victorian engine rooms. It uses films, photos and interactive displays to explain why and how Tower Bridge was built. Visitors can access the original steam engines that once powered the bridge bascules, housed in a building close to the south end of the bridge.[25]

The exhibition charges an admission fee. Entrance is from the west side of the bridge deck to the northern tower, from where visitors ascend to level 4 by lift before crossing the high-level walkways to the southern tower. In the towers and walkways is an exhibition on the history of the bridge. The walkways also provide views over the city, the Tower of London and the Pool of London, and include a glass-floored section. From the south tower, visitors can visit the engine rooms, with the original steam engines, which are situated in a separate building beside the southern approach to the bridge.[46]


Although Tower Bridge is an undoubted landmark, professional commentators in the early 20th century were critical of its aesthetics. "It represents the vice of tawdriness and pretentiousness, and of falsification of the actual facts of the structure", wrote Henry Heathcote Statham,[47] while Frank Brangwyn stated that "A more absurd structure than the Tower Bridge was never thrown across a strategic river".[48]

Benjamin Crisler, the New York Times film critic, wrote in 1938: "Three unique and valuable institutions the British have that we in America have not: Magna Carta, the Tower Bridge and Alfred Hitchcock."[49]

Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank selected Tower Bridge as one of his four choices for the 2002 BBC television documentary series Britain's Best Buildings.[50]

Tower Bridge is often mistaken for London Bridge,[51] the next bridge upstream. A popular urban legend is that in 1968, Robert P. McCulloch, the purchaser of the old London Bridge that was later shipped to Lake Havasu City in Arizona, believed that he was in fact buying Tower Bridge. This was denied by McCulloch himself and has been debunked by Ivan Luckin, the vendor of the bridge.[52]

A partial replica of Tower Bridge has been built in the city of Suzhou in China. The replica differs from the original in having no lifting mechanism and four separate towers.[53]


On 10 August 1912 Francis McClean flew between the bascules and the high-level walkways in his Short Brothers S.33 floatplane.[54][55]

In December 1952, the bridge opened while a number 78 double-decker bus was crossing from the south bank. At that time, the gateman would ring a warning bell and close the gates when the bridge was clear before the watchman ordered the raising of the bridge. The process failed while a relief watchman was on duty. The bus was near the edge of the south bascule when it started to rise; driver Albert Gunter made a split-second decision to accelerate, clearing a 3-foot (0.91 m) gap to drop 6 feet (1.8 m) onto the north bascule, which had not yet started to rise. There were no serious injuries.[56][57] Gunter was given £10 (equivalent to £280 in 2018[12]) by the City Corporation to honour his act of bravery.[58]

The Hawker Hunter Tower Bridge incident occurred on 5 April 1968 when a Royal Air Force Hawker Hunter FGA.9 jet fighter from No. 1 Squadron, flown by Flt Lt Alan Pollock, flew through Tower Bridge. Unimpressed that senior staff were not going to celebrate the RAF's 50th birthday with a fly-past, Pollock decided to do something himself. Without authorisation, Pollock flew the Hunter at low altitude down the Thames, past the Houses of Parliament, and continued on toward Tower Bridge. He flew the Hunter beneath the bridge's walkway, remarking afterwards that it was an afterthought when he saw the bridge looming ahead of him. Pollock was placed under arrest upon landing, and discharged from the RAF on medical grounds without the chance to defend himself at a court martial.[59][60]

In the summer of 1973, a single-engined Beagle Pup was twice flown under the pedestrian walkway of Tower Bridge by 29-year-old stockbroker's clerk Paul Martin. Martin was on bail following accusations of stockmarket fraud. He then "buzzed" buildings in the City, before flying north towards the Lake District where he died when his aircraft crashed some two hours later.[61]

In May 1997,[62] the motorcade of United States President Bill Clinton was divided by the opening of the bridge. The Thames sailing barge Gladys, on her way to a gathering at St Katharine Docks, arrived on schedule and the bridge was opened for her. Returning from a Thames-side lunch at Le Pont de la Tour restaurant with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Clinton was less punctual and arrived just as the bridge was rising. The bridge opening split the motorcade in two, much to the consternation of security staff. A spokesman for Tower Bridge is quoted as saying: "We tried to contact the American Embassy, but they wouldn't answer the phone."[63]

On 19 August 1999, Jef Smith, a Freeman of the City of London, drove a flock of two sheep across the bridge. He was exercising a claimed ancient permission, granted as a right to Freemen, to make a point about the powers of older citizens and the way in which their rights were being eroded.[64]

Before dawn on 31 October 2003, David Crick, a Fathers 4 Justice campaigner, climbed a 100-foot (30 m) tower crane near Tower Bridge at the start of a six-day protest dressed as Spider-Man.[65] Fearing for his safety, and that of motorists should he fall, police cordoned off the area, closing the bridge and surrounding roads and causing widespread traffic congestion across the City and east London. The Metropolitan Police were later criticised for maintaining the closure for five days when this was not strictly necessary in the eyes of some citizens.[66][67]

On 11 May 2009, six people were trapped and injured after a lift fell 10 feet (3 m) inside the north tower.[68]

See also

Historic places adjacent to Tower Bridge

Comparison of the side elevations of the Tower Bridge and some notable bridges at the same scale. (click for interactive version)



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