History

Tower Bridge has a long and fascinating history. Built between 1886 and 1894, the Bridge has spent more than a century as London's defining landmark, an icon of London and the United Kingdom.

Discover the historical events that led to the Bridge's construction, how Tower Bridge was built, and how it lifts the road for river traffic as well as some of the key and quirky events from the Bridge's history.

Looking to find out more about the Bridge? Discover more of Tower Bridge's history when you see inside Tower Bridge.

drawing of original design for tower bridge

Choosing the design for a new river crossing

A huge challenge faced the City of London Corporation - how to build a bridge downstream from London Bridge without disrupting river traffic activities. To generate ideas, the Special Bridge or Subway Committee was formed in 1876, and a public competition was launched to find a design for the new crossing.

Over 50 designs were submitted to the Committee for consideration, some of which are on display at Tower Bridge. It wasn't until October 1884 however, that Sir Horace Jones, the City Architect, in collaboration with John Wolfe Barry, offered the chosen design for Tower Bridge as a solution.

building the bridge

Building the Bridge

It took eight years, five major contractors and the relentless labour of 432 construction workers each day to build Tower Bridge.

Two massive piers were sunk into the riverbed to support the construction, and over 11,000 tons of steel provided the framework for the Towers and Walkways. This framework was clad in Cornish Granite and Portland Stone to protect the underlying steelwork and to give the Bridge a more pleasing appearance.

archive image of a bridge lift

How it works

When it was built, Tower Bridge was the largest and most sophisticated bascule bridge ever completed ('bascule' comes from the French word for 'seesaw'). These bascules were operated by hydraulics, using steam to power the enormous pumping engines. The energy created was stored in six massive accumulators, meaning that as soon as power was required to lift the Bridge, it was always readily available. The accumulators fed the driving engines, which drove the bascules up and down. Despite the complexity of the system, the bascules only took about a minute to raise to their maximum angle of 86 degrees.

Today, the bascules are still operated by hydraulic power, but since 1976 they have been driven by oil and electricity rather than steam. The original pumping engines, accumulators and boilers are now on display within Tower Bridge’s Engine Rooms.

Key dates

1886 - The construction of Tower Bridge began on 22 April.

1894 - Tower Bridge was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales with great celebrations, on 30 June.

1910 - The high-level Walkways, which were designed so that the public could still cross the Bridge when it was raised, were closed due to lack of use.

1912 - During a stunt, Frank McClean flew between the bascules and the high-level Walkways in his Short seaplane. He then proceeded to followed by fly under at least three other bridges on his way to Westminster.

1952 - The number 78 London bus driven by Albert Gunter on its way across the Bridge, had to leap from one bascule to the other when the Bridge began to rise.

1976 - Tower Bridge switches to electrified hydraulics, rather than the steam-driven system it was originally powered by.

1977 - Tower Bridge was painted red, white and blue to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee. The original colour of the Bridge was a chocolate brown colour.

1982 - Tower Bridge opened to the public for the first time since 1910 with a permanent exhibition inside called The Tower Bridge Experience.

2012 - Playing a focal point in the London Olympics, this year saw the Olympic rings suspended from the Walkways and James Bond and ‘the Queen’ fly through in a helicopter during the Opening Ceremony.