Tower Bridge was officially opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales on 30 June 1894, marking the end of a seventeen-year process to create a new crossing over the River Thames. To celebrate 125 years since it opened, RIBApix presents a selection of images from the RIBA Collections of one of London’s most iconic landmarks.
Increased commercial development and a growing population in the East End of London from the beginning of the nineteenth century, had led to an increasing need for a new river crossing downstream of London Bridge. The creation of many docks, beginning with West India Docks in 1802, to help protect against both theft and the slow pace of riverside wharves, brought increased job opportunities, resulting in a population of almost one million by the 1860s east of the City of London. Despite investment in either creating or replacing many bridges to the west of the City between the 1750s and 1860s, London Bridge was still the only way of crossing the Thames for people to the east. Tasked with solving the issue of providing access for people and vehicles across the river and maintaining access for sea vessels to the Pool of London, the ‘Special Bridge or Subway Committee’ chaired by Sir Albert Joseph Altman was formed in 1876. They held an open competition for engineers and architects to submit designs for the new river crossing. The competition had over fifty entries, including John Keith’s proposal of a tunnel he described as a “Subriverian Arcade” or railway engineer George Barclay Bruce’s suggestion of a ‘rolling’ bridge, a 300ft platform propelled by rollers. Other entries were dismissed as they included parts that would cause significant traffic issues, such as A.J. Sedley’s suspension bridge being accessed on the south side of the river by a spiral ramp, or Sidengham Duer proposing lifts on either side of a fixed high-level bridge. It was not until 1884 that the Chief Architect and Surveyor of the City of London Corporation, Horace Jones, a judge of the competition, and civil engineer John Wolfe Barry proposed what would be the winning submission.
Sir Horace Jones (1819-1887) was an experienced architect who had worked for the City of London Corporation since 1864, succeeding James Bunstone Bunning. During his time in the role, he designed the new Smithfield, Billingsgate and Leadenhall Market buildings, and the Temple Bar Memorial, created to mark the spot of the Sir Christopher Wren designed gate which was removed in 1878. Jones also served as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects between 1882 and 1884 and was knighted by Queen Victoria on 30 July 1886. Sir John Wolfe Barry (1836-1918) was an experienced civil engineer, who had previous experience with London river crossings, having been involved in the design and construction of the Cannon Street and Blackfriars railway bridges. He was the youngest son of architect Sir Charles Barry, known for his role in redesigning the Palace of Westminster and winner of the 1850 Royal Gold Medal for Architecture.
The final design was a hybrid of a suspension bridge and a bascule bridge. The bridge has two suspension bridge spans that reach from the river banks to two towers, mounted on piers in the middle of the river. The towers are connected by two elevated walkways and a bascule bridge. The elevated walkways were intended to provide constant pedestrian passage across the bridge, even when the bascules were raised to allow sea vessels access to the Pool of London. Once approved by the City of London Corporation, construction began in 1886. The construction took eight years and involved five major contractors and over 400 workers. Horace Jones died in 1887 and was replaced on the project by George D. Stevenson. One of the major changes Stevenson made was to switch the original brick façade with a combination of Cornish granite and Portland stone as he felt it fitted better with the nearby Tower of London.
In the years since its completion, Tower Bridge has also undergone work at various points to modernise it. In 1977, to coincide with the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the bridge was repainted red, white and blue, replacing the original brown colour. In 1974, the Victorian operating mechanisms were replaced with a new electro-hydraulic drive system. In 1982, the walkways above the bascules, which were closed to pedestrians in 1910 due to lack of use, were converted into an exhibition space. In 2000, a computer system was installed to control the raising and lowering of the bascules. The current blue and white colour scheme was painted in 2008, with Olympic rings temporarily added in 2012 to coincide with London hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Feature by Anthony Wilkinson