The history of London’s Tower Bridge

London’s Tower Bridge, which survived the Blitz is a symbol of the capital’s resilience. Britain’s most famous landmarks
Credit: Travel Pic Collection/AWL Images

Is it true it was almost bought by an American? We tell the story of one of the capital’s most iconic landmarks: London’s Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge is such a symbol of London that an American oil baron apparently thought he was buying it in 1967 when he snapped up London Bridge, half a mile upstream. Robert McCulloch was building a new city in the Arizonian desert. What more could he want than a Gothic-style feat of Victorian engineering? McCulloch later denied he had mixed up the bridges, but the myth captures an important truth: think of a bridge in London and Tower Bridge springs to mind.

The bridge was built in the late 19th century to ease pressure on the capital’s infrastructure. London had become the world’s biggest city, with a population of 6.5 million. The design was the result of a competition in 1876 to create a Thames crossing that didn’t obstruct sailing ships. It was won by architect Sir Horace Jones, and developed with the help of engineer John Wolf Barry.

Work started in 1886 and took eight years. The cost was huge: £1,184,000 back then – the equivalent of £122 million today. Five constructors were involved and 432 labourers. Two piers were plunged into the river to support the structure, while more than 11,000 tons of steel provided the frame for the towers and walkways. The bridge was finished with Cornish granite and Portland stone. About 31,000,000 bricks were used and 22,000 litres of paint. The Gothic look, created by George D Stevenson, complemented the Tower of London, on the north bank.

The opening, on 30 June 1894, was a grand affair. The Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) and his wife, Alexandra of Denmark, cut the ribbon. Celebratory canons were fired from the Tower of London. Not everyone loved it, particularly architectural experts: HH Statham wrote in 1916 that it represented “the vice of tawdriness and pretentiousness”; F Brangwyn and WS Sparrow’s 1920 Book of Bridges described it as “absurd”.

But within decades, the bridge had come to symbolise the capital. The public warmed to its appearance, while its survival of the Blitz represented the strength of the city. The bridge even played a starring role in the London 2012 Olympic Games. Not only were a set of Olympic rings suspended from its centre, footballer and national treasure David Beckham also drove a speedboat underneath it during the Opening Ceremony.

On a regular visit, Beckham sightings are rare. But the historic Grade I listed construction has its own appeal. A combined bascule and suspension bridge, it consists of two 214-foot high towers connected by a pair of walkways. The central span between the towers measures 200 feet and is split into two bascules, which can be raised to an angle of 86 degrees.

Since 2010, the bridge has been a stylish blue and white. Earlier visitors may remember it as red, white and blue after it was painted (from the original brown) to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.

The classic London sight is to watch the bridge being raised and lowered. Twice daily times can be found on the Tower Bridge website. Boaters can also request additional lifts. The bascules open about 850 times a year. The first year, the bridge opened 6,194 times, an average of 17 times a day. River traffic takes priority as former US President Bill Clinton discovered on his visit to the capital in May 1997. Returning from a lunch with Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Clinton arrived at the bridge just as it was opening. His motorcade was duly split up.

Inside, you can see the steam engines that once operated the bridge. Until 1976, the bascules were driven by hydraulic power. Today they are powered by oil and electricity.

You can also cross the high walkways, which are now covered and fitted partly with a glass floor, providing a unique view of London 42 metres above the Thames.

Or, of course, you can join the 40,000 drivers, cyclists and pedestrians who cross the bridge every day. Even those who do so regularly can be caught glimpsing up at the turrets or gazing at the stonework and breathing a sigh of relief that Robert McCulloch took London Bridge for Arizona and that Tower Bridge has remained.

For the full feature, see Volume 86 Issue 1 of BRITAIN