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Tower Bridge - "The Gateway to London"

Tower Bridge is one of London's most famous landmarks, yet it is only just over a hundred years old. Although, when it was constructed, it was the most modern structures of its time, it was deliberately designed to look older (like a giant Gothic gatehouse), and indeed, it does fool most tourists to London into thinking it is several hundred years old!

The most famous thing about Tower Bridge is the fact that whenever a tall ship approaches and wants to pass underneath, the road section can be lifted in two halves which tilt upwards. The two halves of the roadway are termed "bascules". Each weighs 1200 tons, and can be lifted into the open position in 90 seconds.

The tilting mechanism

The two bascules are supported from a massive steel frame which is entirely concealed within the stone work of the bridge. This stone work is made of granite, in order to give the bridge its medieval look, but it does not support the bridge at all - if you took the stonework away the bridge would still stand!

Each of the bascules takes the form of a tilting see-saw, balanced carefully at its centre of gravity. The roadway is the side of the see-saw which is visible, but on the other side there is a massive counter-balance. When the bridge is opened, the counter balance sinks down into a huge pit sunk into the base of the tower at the side of the bridge.

The lifting mechanism of the bridge is concealed by the medieval granite "skin". There are two coal-burning boilers (which in the bridge's heyday used to consume 20 tons of fuel every week) which fuel two hydraulic pumps in engine rooms concealed under the roadway. There is one control cabin at each end of the bridge, one for each bascule. A single man would operate the bascules by firstly sounding a siren a couple of minutes before the bridge is opened, then setting a few levers, and finally by turning a handle to raise the bascule itself.

The history of the bridge

Although there has been a bridge over the Thames since Roman times, the first stone bridge was built in 1209. This was improved and redesigned over many years and finally demolished in 1831, as other bridges were created. Up to the 18th century bridge designs presented a blockage to large ships. They consisted of a roadway supported by several narrow, low arches. Although small ships could pass underneath, large ships couldn't. In the nineteenth century the demand for river crossings increased and it had reached bursting point by the end of the nineteenth century. Suspension bridges, such as Hammersmith Bridge, were built which had a single wide span supported from cables slung between two towers. However, these bridges were low, and tall ships still couldn't pass underneath.

In 1870, the Tower Subway Tunnel was completed. This allowed small railway carriages to pass underneath the river, but couldn't handle the large amount of traffic that needed to cross the river. The Corporation of London finally tendered for designs for a bridge to cross the river in 1876.

The battle over the design of the bridge was to last almost two decades, and more than 50 designs were eventually proposed. Most were rejected either because they were impractical, or because they didn't reflect the artistic tastes of the time. The bridge had to reflect the same artistic style as the Tower of London, which stood nearby.

Eventually, two front runners emerged as designers, Sir Joseph Bazalgette and Horace Jones. Bazalgette (pronounced "Basil Jet") was famous as the man who had designed and supervised the construction of the sewer system in London and the Thames Embankment. He submitted three designs, all of which were risky and forward-looking.

Horace Jones was an architect, rather than an engineer like Bazalgette. His design looked more like a medieval drawbridge. He was the son of a London solicitor, and had designed Smithfield and Leadenhall Markets. He was at the end of his career and was desperate to design some great monument which would mark him out in history. He was also the Chief Architect to the City Corporation, which meant that he made up part of the committee who had to judge the designs. However, the committee universally rejected Bazalgette's designs as being too radical.

In 1885, Jones' scheme was accepted. It was hoped that he and Bazalgette would collaborate on the construction of the bridge but Jones was absolutely set against this! Instead he recruited the engineer John Wolf Barrie to work on the details of the design. Wolf Barrie was the one who decided on the granite skin to the bridge. Remarkably, there was a complaint from Queen Victoria that a bridge allowing tall ships up the Thames would leave London open to invasion. The queen didn't venture her opinion publically, and eventually withdrew her objection.

Work began on the 22nd April 1886. It took 8 years, and Jones didn't live to see it finished. He is buried in his family plot, and his only memorial is a name "Sir Horace Jones, Knight" on his granite tombstone.

The bridge was officially opened by the Prince of Wales - the future Edward VII - on the 30th June 1894. He turned the handle to raise the bridge for the first time. Although the public approved of the bridge, the architectural press was almost entirely scathing in its criticism.

The decline of the bridge

The heyday of Tower Bridge lasted from about 1900 to the start of the Second World War in 1939. In its heyday, the bridge was raised on average 20 times a day. It was manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by a large staff, most of whom had originally been seamen. The staff included an official blacksmith, riggers, a shipwright and various maintenance fitters.

However, in the late 1930s the main dock activity of the city of London started to move east of Tower Bridge, so opening the bascules became more and more rare. At the outbreak of war in 1939, there was severe danger of destruction from German bombers - indeed, the Germans displayed Tower Bridge on their propaganda leaflets as the landmark which they thought represented London. The bridge was hit by a high-explosive bomb, and remained partly damaged until being fully repaired in the last years of the century.

Now the bascules are so rarely opened that they have almost become an irrelevance.

More facts about Tower Bridge

In its first year of operation, the bridge was raised 6160 times, and crossed by over 8000 horse drawn vehicles and more than 60,000 pedestrians.

The walkways across the top of the bridge were originally open to the public, and could be reached by lifts in the towers at either side. However, they were finally closed in 1910 because prostitutes used it as a pick-up point for clients.

On the 19th of November 1894, a dare-devil called Benjamin Fuller dived from the one of the walkways at the top of the bridge as a publicity stunt. He was well known to the police, having dived illegally off several bridges before, including Southwark Bridge, so he had to disguise himself carefully in order to get past the policeman on duty near the bridge. Unfortunately, the dive into the river killed him - the coroner's jury recorded a verdict of "Death by Misadventure."

Just after the Second World War, thousands of tons of sand were brought in from the coast to build an 800-foot long pleasure beach just down river of Tower Bridge. The Tower Bridge Pleasure Beach, as it became known, was built for the relaxation of the poor people of London, and it lasted several years before being dismantled.

Tradition has it that if you kiss your loved one as you pass underneath the bridge, it will bring you good luck!

Strange but True!

Tower Bridge is a favourite spot for committing suicide. The bodies of people who jump off the bridge tend to get washed up by the side of the bridge, and as a result of that, the Dead Man's Hole was constructed - a mortuary built into the base of one of the towers supporting the walkways. Tower Bridge is the only bridge in Britain that has its own mortuary, where the bodies were laid out awaiting collection by the relatives.


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