Happy birthday Tower Bridge—you don’t look a day over 120

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge - Credit: Tower Bridge

The world’s most famous bridge is getting ready for its 120th anniversary this year with a design competition for kids to see if they could do better.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge - Credit: Tower Bridge

The iconic Tower Bridge has been recognised as the ‘gateway’ to London since the bascules were first raised in 1894 to let tall-mast ships pass into the Pool of London.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge - Credit: Tower Bridge

It was a masterstroke of Victorian engineering by Sir John Wolfe Barry and architect Horace Jones.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge - Credit: Tower Bridge

The Wolfe Barrys were at the centre of London’s Victorian engineering grandeur, on a par with Brunel and Bazalgette.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge - Credit: Tower Bridge

A decade before, Sir John had completed the Inner Circle railway in 1884 which is still the centrepiece of today’s huge London Underground network. It involved propping up expensive properties and widening thoroughfares around Aldgate and Tower Hill.


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His father, Sir Charles Barry, was famous for rebuilding the Houses of Parliament, installing Big Ben in 1859 and laying out Trafalgar Square.

Tower Bridge got the go-ahead from Parliament in 1885 with Royal Assent by Queen Victoria. Work started the following year and lasted till 1894.

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John Wolfe Barry’s great-grandson John, now 71, a retired chartered company secretary, often returns with his 36-year-old daughter Isabel to marvel at their ancestor’s work.

Isabel, living just a mile from her great-great grandfather’s masterpiece, is one of the judges in the competition announced this week for youngsters aged six to 14 to design how they would have done it.

“Tower Bridge is an iconic symbol of London revered throughout the world,” she tells you proudly.

“It was a legendary feat of engineering combining a double bascule and suspension bridge.

“Some doubted it could be done. My advice to the young brains entering this competition is to be inspired and don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done!”

Tens of thousands of Londoners gathered on the foreshore to watch the official opening on June 30, 1894, by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.

Cannons were fired from The Tower in salute as he set the hydraulic machinery in motion, after eight years’ construction costing more than £1 million, the East London Advertiser reported at the time.

It took 432 men to put the massive steel skeleton together, clad it in stone and install the 1,200-ton bascules.

But it wasn’t without danger, with 10 workers losing their lives during the construction.

The neo-Gothic design favoured by Queen Victoria was chosen in a competition out of 50 proposals.

The hydraulics lifting the huge bascules were originally generated by steam engines, but eventually switched to electric power in 1976.

The bridge was raised 6,160 times in the first year to let shipping through—17 openings a day.

The high-level walkways for pedestrians to cross when the bridge was raised were eventually closed off in 1910 due to lack of use—and the risk of suicide leaps. People much preferred using the street-level and watching the huge bascules rise.

It became a tourist attraction overnight. Tower Bridge nowadays draws a staggering half-a-million visitors a year, photographic the massive structure from every angle, rivalling the ancient Tower of London just yards away. It carries 40,000 vehicles every day as part of the London Inner Ring Road system.

There have been quirky moments in its history. A small biplane had to fly between the bascules and the walkway in 1911 to avoid crashing.

Strangest incident was in 1952 when traffic lights were late going red as the bridge started to open, just as a double-decker went through. The driver of the 78 bus from Shoreditch made a quick decision and put his foot down rather than risk sliding back down the rising bascule—and just managed to jump a three-foot gap. Barriers were added after that.

Tower Bridge was an obvious target for the Luftwaffe during the Blitz, but somehow got through the war unscathed. More likely, it would have been used as a ‘marker’ by German bombers to find their targets in the City and the London Docks.

Aspiring young artists, designers and wannabe engineers are being invited between February 7 and March 14 to draw their own version of London’s best-loved historical landmark.

The overall winner gets their work transformed into a 3D model for public display in the Tower Bridge Exhibition, seen by 2,000 visitors a day.

But they’ll have their work cut out trying to match Wolfe Barry’s unique neo-Gothic structure loved by generations around the world for 120 years.

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