Tower Bridge is one of London’s most iconic landmarks, but how much do you know about the renowned crossing? First off, make sure you’ve got the right bridge – most people confuse it with the plainer, more underwhelming London Bridge. Got that? Right, in numbers, it took 31,000,000 bricks, 2,000,000 rivets and 11,000 tons of steel to build the 143-foot structure. It also takes around five minutes to raise each bascule of the bridge’s central stretch. And did you know that ships get right of way too? US President Bill Clint learned the hard way in 1997 when he had to wait almost 20 minutes because sailing Thames barge Gladys took priority. Looking to learn more? Here are some seriously interesting facts about Tower Bridge in London.
Interesting facts about Tower Bridge
1. It’s newer than you think it is
As London’s most famous bridge and one of the city’s defining landmarks, most people assume that Tower Bridge must have stood here for hundreds of years. In fact, work only started on the bridge in 1886. The Prince and Princess of Wales officially opened the bridge in 1894.
By the 1870s, there were a million people living on the east side of London Bridge. Most of those people needed to travel to North London daily, which meant it could take hours to cross London Bridge – the only other bridge on that stretch of the Thames. London desperately needed a new bridge but as one of the world’s busiest port, they also needed to take into account river traffic too.
2. There was a competition to design the new bridge
The City of London faced a huge challenge in building the bridge since the downstream location needed to operate without disrupting the river activities. To generate ideas, a dedicated bridge committee formed in 1877 and launched a competition to find a design for the new crossing. There were over 50 design proposals in total, many of which you can now see at an exhibition inside the tower. In 1884, Sir Horace Jones and John Wolfe Barry were selected to design the tower.
It then took an incredible eight years, five major contractors and 432 workers to build the bridge.
3. A double-decker bus once jumped across it
On a quiet winter evening in December 1952, bus driver Albert Gunter was driving the number 78 bus over Tower Bridge towards Shoreditch. To his astonishment, the road in front of him started to fall away. He soon realised that the Bridge was opening and he was rising up on the bascule. Back in the 1950s, it was a watchman’s duty to ring a warning bell and close the gates before the Tower Bridge opened.
Gunter slammed his foot on the accelerator and manage to jump across the growing gap. He reached the other side of the bridge and safely delivered the 20 passengers on board, with only a broken leg. He was awarded a day off work and a tenner (the equivalent of around £290 today) for his quick thinking. Very James Bond.
4. It hasn’t always been blue
When the bridge was first built, it was a not-quite-so fetching shade of chocolate brown. It wasn’t painted until the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, decades after its constructions that it was painted red, white and blue. In 1982, the bridge was painted blue and white. It took around 22,000 litres of paint to cover the bridge.
5. There’s an imposter
Look closely at the bridge and you may notice something a little out of the ordinary. There’s a little chimney that has been carefully painted to blend in with the other tower lamposts. The cast-iron flue is connected to the Royal Fusiliers room, who could warm up there while on guard duty. In 1956 it was put out of service by the Clean Air Act. Today the room is Perkin Reveller, a posh cafe named after the protagonist of Chaucer’s ‘Cooks Tale’ in the Canterbury Tales.
6. It was once a Red Light district
Back when the bridge was first built, the designers figured that people would still need a way to cross the bridge when it was open. So, they built high-level walkways and plonked them between the towers. However, you had to climb a few hundred stairs to get to them and most Londoners couldn’t be bothered to expend the energy (if you’ve ever walked up the stairs at Covent Garden underground station, you’ll get it). The walkways became a popular haunt for prostitutes and pickpockets so the City of London had to close the walkways in 1910.
7. There’s a glass walkway
The original walkways may be long gone but there’s something even better now – a glass walkway. Rising 42 metres above the River Thames and 33.5 metres above road level, the new walkway offers an incredible birds-eye view of London life, from its red busses to river vessels below. There’s also a mirrored ceiling to ensure you get the perfect snap. You can do yoga here too.