The 244-metre bascule and suspension bridge with its two monumental, 65-metre-high towers was opened in 1894, and now it is not only an iconic symbol of London and England, but also a vital, bustling crossing used daily by over 40 thousand people.
Tower Bridge is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the ‘London Bridge’, which is the next bridge upstream. Although the bridge is undoubtedly a landmark, it is sometimes criticised for its aesthetics. The high-level open air walkways between the towers have gained an unpleasant reputation as a haunt for prostitutes and pickpockets; they were seldom used by regular pedestrians, as they were only accessible by stairs. The walkways were closed in 1910 and reopened in 1982, as part of the Tower Bridge Exhibition, an exhibition now housed in the bridge’s twin towers, the high-level walkways and the Victorian engine rooms. The walkways, which are now enclosed, boast stunning views of the River Thames and many famous London sites, serving annually as viewing galleries for over 380,000 tourists.
The bridge consists of two towers tied together at the upper level by means of two horizontal walkways, designed to withstand the horizontal forces exerted by the suspended sections of the bridge. The bridge is 244 metres long, with two 65-metre-high towers built on piers. The ornate Victorian Gothic style façade makes it a distinctive landmark.
The central span of 61 metres between the towers is split into two equal bascules, which can be raised to an angle of 83 degrees to allow river traffic to pass. The bascules, weighing over 1000 tonnes each, are counterbalanced to minimise the required force and allow for raising the bridge in five minutes. The two side-spans are suspension bridges, each 82 metres long, with the suspension rods anchored both at the abutments and through rods contained within the bridge’s upper walkways. The pedestrian walkways are 44 metres above the river at high tide.
In the second half of the 19th century, increased commercial development in the East End of London led to a requirement for a new river crossing downstream of London Bridge. Construction started in 1886 and took eight years, with five major contractors and 432 construction workers employed. The total cost was £1,184,000 (£100 million as of 2012).
The five major contractors included Sir John Jackson (foundations), Baron Armstrong (hydraulics), William Webster, Sir H.H. Bartlett, and Sir William Arrol & Co. Two massive piers, containing over 70,000 tonnes of concrete, were sunk into the riverbed to support the construction. Over 11,000 tonnes of steel provided the framework for the towers and walkways. The bridge was officially opened on 30 June 1894 by the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), and his wife, the Princess of Wales (Alexandra of Denmark). Tower Bridge is now a busy and vital crossing of the Thames – it is crossed daily by over 40,000 people (motorists, cyclists and pedestrians).
The original raising mechanism was powered by pressurised water stored in several hydraulic accumulators. In 1974, the original operating mechanism was largely replaced by a new electro-hydraulic drive system.
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. 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.