Why does Tower Bridge open?

It is known that Tower Bridge opens to let tall boats pass through, but have you ever wondered where those boats are going?

Today, most boats on this part of the Thames are tourist boats. That hasn’t always been the case though. When Tower Bridge was first built in 1894, ships sailing on the Thames were carrying other important types of cargoes.

The part of the Thames where Tower Bridge sits is called the Pool of London, which in the Victorian era was the busiest port in the world. Cargo ships were coming in from all over the world carrying goods such as cotton, sugar, and tea – all the things a growing city needed to sustain itself. These cargoes were offloaded into warehouses which lined the river banks between London Bridge and Limehouse, in East London. When a new bridge was proposed next to the Tower of London, all those involved in this industry were concerned with how would the cargo ships reach the warehouses on the other side of Tower Bridge?

Fortunately, their concerns were listened to.  A condition was made that Tower Bridge’s design would not obstruct the sailing ships which needed to pass though. Over 50 different designs were submitted; all of them taking into consideration this problem. The design which included opening roadways, or bascules, by Sir Horace Jones and Sir John Wolfe Barry, was deemed the best.

Even though these cargo ships have long gone, Tower Bridge still opens roughly between 700 to 1,000 times each year. Visit our Bridge Lifts page to see when Tower Bridge is opening next. 

How often does Tower Bridge open?

A visit to London just isn’t complete until you see Tower Bridge open for a passing ship.

In 2019, Tower Bridge opened 725 times, while a few years earlier, in 2015, its bascules raised 777 times. An average of twice a day.

You might feel these numbers are high enough, but in 1894, Tower Bridge’s opening year, its bascules were lifted 6,194 times. An average of 17 times per day!

Back then, staff at Tower Bridge were on the lookout 24 hours a day for any vessels ready to pass through, and bascules were opened as soon as the road was cleared. Since 1st January 1971, ships must book a Bridge lift at least 24 hours in advance, and all requests must be submitted in writing. The cost for opening Tower Bridge has remained the same though: it’s completely free.

If you are in London, whether during summer or winter, why not view this historic moment for yourself? For an extra special bird’s eye view, you could even watch the bascules raising beneath your feet from our famous Glass Floor across the high-level Walkaways inside Tower Bridge.

Do you have to pay to open Tower Bridge?

Visitors to Tower Bridge often ask whether boats need to pay to open Tower Bridge. As mentioned above, the answer is: no, it’s free!

River traffic has always had priority on this stretch of the Thames, and it was a condition of its design that Tower Bridge did not obstruct traffic on this stretch the Thames. This also meant that vessels could not be charged, and so lifts are funded by the Bridge House Estates.

The Bridge House Estates is a 700-year-old organisation that funds the upkeep of five of bridges in Central London. These are Tower Bridge, London Bridge, Southwark Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge, and most recently, to mark the year 2000, Millennium Bridge.

The conditions for opening Tower Bridge are that your vessel is more than 9m (30ft) tall and that you provide, in writing, a notice that at least 24 hours. Any changes in arrival or sailing times, must also be informed as soon as possible.

All of Tower Bridge’s lifts are published in advance on our website. Visit Bridge Lifts page for more information.