It has been 125 years since the famous Tower Bridge opened for traffic. This remarkable structure over the river Thames was officially inaugurated on 30 June 1894 by HRH Prince of Wales – the future King Edward VII.
In second half of the 19th century the congestion of the growing metropolis was very much apparent (the problem that prevails to this day). It was increasingly difficult and time-consuming for merchants conducting their business to travel on roads from one river bank to the other, especially in the area around Tower of London or Butler’s Wharf where the warehouses were located. The Special Bridge or Subway Committee was created in 1876 to find solutions to problem and subsequently initiated public competition to design new river crossing. Over 50 designs plans were submitted for consideration. However, none was chosen at the time as different options (like for example digging tunnel) were being explored. Disagreements regarding design continued to boil until 1884 when design by architect Horace Jones and John Wolfe Barry was chosen as a winning one by the Committee whose chairman was also architect Jones himself. A year later the Royal Assent was granted to build the bridge.
After architect’s death in 1887, engineer John Wolfe Barry was put in charge of construction and reworked the design for it to work as bascule bridge. He also chose Jones’s assistant, George Stevenson to help him develop cladding which was put around structural steel framework inside the two towers that are connected by walkways. These walkways were added for pedestrians who did not want to wait around when the bridge was raised. In 1910 these walkways closed for lack of use as pedestrians preferred waiting by the bridge rather than carrying their loads up and down using stairs inside these towers.
After expensive restoration project in 1982 these walkways are once again accessible to paying members of public as part of the Tower Bridge Experience. At times it’s been also possible to glimpse raising of the bascules through the glass floors (as I have when I visited the walkways) which were recently added on the east and west walkways.
The bridge was originally painted in brown colour but then in 1977 in order to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee it was painted in red, white and blue. And again, after the restoration (in 1982) it was repainted in blue and white and these colours grace the bridge since. Approximately about 40,000 people are crossing the bridge in vehicles and on foot every day but even now the ships still have the right of way if their captains give at least 24 hours notice.
When I was celebrating New Year’s Eve on the South Bank near Tower Bridge in 1999, myself, my friend Vladimir and the huge crowds were witnessing extensive firework display above the bridge for the last time. Since the new millennium, the celebration has moved up the river (to another steel structure of London Eye). But the design and engineering of this iconic bridge still continues to fascinate new generations.