The Rhyming Cockney Riveters of Tower Bridge

The riveters of Tower Bridge were essential workers who helped to build the iconic structure you see today. It was dangerous work that required a huge amount of skill and precision. 

Many of these workers of our 1880s workforce would have spoken Cockney rhyming slang, which originated in the East End of London sometime in the 1840s. 

Brush up your lingo while learning some brass tacks (facts) about how Tower Bridge was built.

Arthur Cross

How dangerous was Tower Bridge to build?

When Tower Bridge was built in 1894, there was no such as thing as ‘health and safety’. At least not as we know it today!

There was certainly no tit for tat (hat) to protect your loaf of bread (head). When it came to protective clothing, the workers were on their Jack Jones (own).

There would be a team working each side of the shake and shiver (river). They toiled for 24 hours round the dickory dock (clock), and through all sorts of weather conditions, from the pleasure and pain (rain) to under the hot currant bun (sun). 

What was the job of the riveters?

The steel workers and riveters would work in gangs or teams of four or more. Here you could meet the ‘cook’, the ‘catcher’, the ‘holder-upper’ and the ‘basher’. You’ve gotta Adam and Eve it (believe) that each job was essential, dangerous and took plenty of skill.  

The cook would stand in the ground, planted firmly on his plates of meat (feet). The rivets would be heated until glowing in the furnace - they were so hot they would look white to the mince pies (eyes).

Using his tongs to grip each rivet, the cook would gaze up and with his north and south (mouth), yell and throw the rivet high up into the air to the catcher above. The catcher would then lean out to have a butchers hook (look), and with a leather or wooden bucket lined with ash, skilfully catch the red hot rivet. 

After inserting the rivet into the hole and passing to the holder-upper, it was time to turn back around and have another butchers to catch more rivets.

Now the holder-upper’s job was to secure the rivet in the hole using his chalk farm (arm), with the rounded side up. This allowed the basher to hit it with a hammer, banging the rivet in flush to the steel. As it cooled, it would contract and the join would be the Isle of Wight (tight). 

Tower Bridge 1994s workers

Where did workers come from?

As well as Londoners, many workers came down from Scotland and this would mean they brought the whole family with them. The pot and pan (the old man or father), the trouble and strife (wife) and the saucepan lids (kids) came as well. 

The company Sir William Arrol & Co. was responsible for providing most of the steel workers.

During the peak of construction, there could be at least 280 men and boys working just on the steel, earning their bees and honey (money). Many workers under William Arrol took up lodgings in the Jubilee buildings in Wapping.

Worker at the time of the construction of the Bridge

How young were workers?

The youngest worker was but a saucepan lid (kid) himself, just 15 years of age.

John Chalk and his family lived in poverty up in the north but managed to make the journey south to London. He had to work the same hours as adults and no slacking was allowed, otherwise he’d be in right barney rubble (trouble).

Rosie the Riveter

How important were the riveters?

The riveters played a crucial role in building Tower Bridge and riveting continued to be an important job for some time, with many ships and buildings constructed this way. 

During the Second World War, allegorical cultural icon ‘Rosie the Riveter’ was introduced to encourage the trouble and strife’s who were at home to come out and do the jobs for all their pots and pans.

So please remember, in order to have a riveting good time, especially when constructing a bridge, always wear a tit for tat to protect your loaf, let alone your ol’ barnet fair (hair).

Image: 'We Can Do It!' by J. Howard Miller, 1943 ©Wikimedia Commons

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Learn more about the workers of Tower Bridge by visiting the attraction.

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