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Tower Bridge reveals its construction secrets and the brave Victorian diver who dug its riverbed foundations

PUBLISHED: 13:32 26 June 2018 | UPDATED: 23:37 27 June 2018

1890s... rare photograph of Tower Bridge under construction. Picture: Metropolitan Archives

1890s... rare photograph of Tower Bridge under construction. Picture: Metropolitan Archives

Metropolitan Archives

The story of the brave Victorian diver who risked life and limb to help dig the vast foundations that anchor the 70,000-ton iconic Tower Bridge to the Thames riverbed is to be unveiled at a new heritage exhibition.

Friend Samuel Penney and his diving team who undertook perilous task of digging riverbed foundation trench to build Tower Bridge. Picrture source: Tower Bridge ExhibitionFriend Samuel Penney and his diving team who undertook perilous task of digging riverbed foundation trench to build Tower Bridge. Picrture source: Tower Bridge Exhibition

Historic research has uncovered archive footage of the bridge under construction in the 1890s which is being put onto the permanent show opening next month with vintage photographs of the workers.

The “human history” exhibition unveils the bravery of Friend Samuel Penney, head of the team of divers who risked their lives to build London’s most famous structure.

It celebrates the unsung engineering heroes who made the world’s biggest bascule bridge in its day and the fascinating story from its drawing board conception in 1886, the grand royal opening by the Prince of Wales in 1894 and through to the present day.

Tower Bridge high-level walkway after 2007 makeover. Picture source:  Corporation of LondonTower Bridge high-level walkway after 2007 makeover. Picture source: Corporation of London

Visitors can try on a real-life Victorian diver’s helmet and “meet the architects and workers” who have kept Tower Bridge running for the past 124 years.

There is the hair-raising episode of the London bus-driver who managed to hurl his 78 double-decker safely over the widening gap in 1952 when the huge bascule bridge suddenly began opening.

Another story is the exceptionally unlucky merchant ship Monte Urquiola, colliding into the bridge three times over the course of a decade.

Tower Bridge before the First World War with busy Pool of London shipping... an open-top double decker bus is seen crossing. Picture source: Metropolitan ArchivesTower Bridge before the First World War with busy Pool of London shipping... an open-top double decker bus is seen crossing. Picture source: Metropolitan Archives

The exhibition is the second phase of a three-year plan following the redevelopment of the original steam engine rooms in 2017 that powered the lifting mechanism until replaced by electric power in 1976.

Exhibition manager Dirk Bennett said: “We’re uncovering stories from the history of the Bridge.

“It’s a celebration of our cultural heritage, uniting the past and present with the special place Tower Bridge holds in the historical fabric London.”

Iconic Tower Bridge on a foggy day in London Town. Picture: Joe LordIconic Tower Bridge on a foggy day in London Town. Picture: Joe Lord

The permanent Tower Bridge exhibition opens to the public on July 27, It explores the extraordinary engineering feats achieved during construction, detailing the technical accomplishment of sinking the vast steel foundations into the riverbed.

Original objects from the lifespan of the Bridge are included alongside the rare images recorded by the Victorian photographers.

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