History of the London Tower Bridge

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History of the London Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge spans the River Thames in London. (tower bridge image by paul welford from Fotolia.com)

In a city full of famous architecture, Tower Bridge is one of the most well-known buildings in London. The bridge was the second to span the River Thames in London, and its design allows people and vehicles to cross the river, while at the same time allowing large ships to pass.

Need for a Bridge

The city of London was built on both sides of the River Thames, and originally London Bridge was the only way across. By the 19th century, the city had outgrown this single bridge. The East End in particular had become very densely populated, and the need to provide a second crossing point to the east of London Bridge became ever more pressing, since journeys between the busy port area and any destination south of the river were getting delayed by hours.


The problem for planners was that the area between London Bridge and the Tower of London was one of the most heavily used areas of the Thames, and access to this area would have to be maintained. The new bridge, to the east of this area, had the potential to cut the area off from sea access if it was badly designed.


In 1882, architect Horace Jones put forward a design. He hoped to prevent the new bridge blocking access to the river further west by designing a bridge that could open to allow ships to pass through. This type of bridge is known as a "bascule" bridge, drawing on the French word meaning "see-saw," in which the two sections of the roadway could swing upwards to allow a ship to pass through. The British Parliament rejected Jones' first design, but a second version was approved, and in 1885 parliament passed an Act authorising construction.


Jones died in 1887, only a year after construction had begun. The bridge took a further seven years and around £1 million to finish. Jones' assistant George Stevenson took over, changing some of the original design, for example using Portland stone and Cornish granite rather than the red brick Jones had preferred. The bridge was officially opened by the Prince of Wales in June 1894. According to architectural historian Nigel R. Jones, it "represents the power, the prestige, the innovation and the sheer bravura of the British Empire at its height."


Today the Tower Bridge is a popular tourist attraction. Visitors can view the bridge's interior, including the enormous steam-driven pumps which originally powered the bridge and a series of pedestrian walkways which had been closed to the public since 1910. Every 25 years, the bridge is given a full re-painting and stone-cleaning to ensure it remains in excellent condition.

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