More than a century old, the Tower Bridge is still very much a part of London life. Officially opened on June 30, 1894 by the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII, the original ceremony was not short on grandeur. The Times newspaper reported on July 2, 1894, that on a clear day in front of tens of thousands of spectators, “the new Tower-bridge, which deserves to be reckoned among the greatest engineering triumphs of the Victorian age, was open for traffic by land and sea by the Prince of Wales with every circumstance of pomp and splendor.”
The Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London presents 120 Years of Tower Bridge (1894-2014) until mid-July, 2014. The gallery will showcase paintings, etchings and memorabilia that highlight the Tower Bridge history from its early commemorations to contemporary interpretations. Works include William Lionel Wyllie’s historical painting, The Opening of the Tower Bridge (1895). The exhibit will examine the different approaches artists have envisioned London’s most iconic bridge throughout its 120-year history.
Annually, the Tower Bridge, not to be confused with the London Bridge, opens and shuts approximately 1,000 times. Today, it is operational for vessels, sailing barges, cruises and warships, but when it was first opened, it took on a critical role in connecting all the different districts of the ever-expanding city.
Prior to its construction, London Bridge was the only junction on the Thames River, and as the city expanded, more bridges were required. However, they were all constructed to the west of London Bridge. In 1876, with the rising East End population, and the port on the east side active, London needed another bridge.
The City of London Corporation faced a huge challenge. They needed to construct a bridge downstream of London Bridge that would not interfere with river traffic. The “Special Bridge or Subway Committee” was created in 1876. It launched a public competition for a new crossing design.
Nearly 50 different designs were submitted, including one by civil engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, who is credited with designing London’s sewer system. However, in 1884, it was architect Horace Jones’ in partnership with engineer John Wofe-Barry who were chosen. The Act required the bridge design to be stylistically Gothic so as to preserve the style of the Tower’s antiquity.
Construction of the bridge cost £1, 184,000, and it took 432 men eight years to erect it. During the construction, 10 men died while working on it.
In order to support the actual construction and the 11,000 tons of steel that provided the framework, two massive piers were submerged into the Thames riverbed. The steel structure was concealed in Portland stone and Cornish granite in order to safeguard the steelwork foundation, and to give the Bridge a more aesthetically pleasing façade.
The result was a “typical Victorian product” that thoroughly reflected the perplexity between “engineering and architecture, historicism and technology,” representative of the Victorian Age. Beyond the cynicism of the critics, the Tower Bridge was considered the largest bascule bridge in the world, with the most advanced system of hydraulic power of its time.
Throughout the history of the Tower Bridge, it has played a role in several events and celebrations including the 1912 flight of a biplane that Frank Mclean had to maneuver between the bascules and the high-level walkways to avoid an accident. The Tower Bridge was colored red, white and blue to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and during the 2012 Olympics, David Beckham sped underneath the bridge in the opening ceremony on his way to deliver the Olympic torch to the stadium.
By Dawn Levesque