The historic divers of Tower Bridge

As you take the stairs up the North Tower inside Tower Bridge, there is a display which stops most of our visitors in their tracks. Guests are greeted by a life-size Victorian diving suit and diving paraphernalia alongside a film showing the descent of one such historic diver.

The question that springs to mind is: what do divers have to do with the Bridge?

Designs for the Surrey (or southern) pier of Tower Bridge

An arduous task

The answer lies in the construction of Tower Bridge, specifically the two massive piers which were built into the bed of the River Thames to support the Bridge's two central towers. Starting in 1886, the construction of the piers was the responsibility of engineer, and later Member of Parliament, Sir John Jackson.

Jackson’s team of six divers carried out this arduous and dangerous task by first surveying, preparing and levelling the river bed. Huge metal cages called caissons were then lowered into the Thames creating a barrier between the river and the worksite.

Modern day caisson on River Thames

Inside the caissons

Once the caissons were in place, the divers would descend again, this time working inside the cages. Bit by bit, they excavated the gravel and clay that formed the riverbed. The more the divers dug, the further and further the caissons sank into the clay - under their own enormous weight.

Once they were deep enough, around 6m, the water inside them was pumped out leaving an environment ready for the construction of the piers. After three years of hard work, the divers’ work was done. 

Image: Modern day caisson in River Thames built for the Tideway super sewer project

Who were the divers?

Jack Ginger Bateman

The construction of Tower Bridge provided employment for a team of six divers throughout. And, being such a prestigious operation, the job attracted some of the country's best.

As these were some of the most renowned divers of their time, we know quite a bit about them, including their names: head diver Friend Samuel Penney; John "Jack/Ginger" William Bateman; Thomas Clucas; Stephen Nott Fry; James Rouse and James Thacker - each are now memorialised by a bronze plaque inside the Bridge. 

Preparing to dive

The leader of the team, Friend Samuel Penney, was a Quaker (hence his first name) and is said to have been of Scandinavian origin (you can listen to an interview with his great-granddaughter Carol). In the 1901 census, he is listed as a ‘submarine diver’. He was involved in many important projects at the time, including Southend Pier (then the longest pier in the world). Only a few years ago his family discovered a historic photograph of the divers preparing for descent at Tower Bridge (opposite).

Thomas Clucas gave up diving and continued to work for the Bridge as a labourer and liftman until well into the new century.

Stephen Nott Fry carried on with his profession as a diver. Towards the end of his career he opened the Panama Café, in Whitley Bay (pictured below), which featured the saloon from a shipwreck that he salvaged during a dive.

Earning a living as a diver

The men were paid well. In 1886, a labourer would earn 7 shillings a day and a bricklayer a shilling a day. The hire of a diver, his team and equipment (air-pumps, air lock, a diving suit and hoses, etc) reportedly cost 15 shillings a day*, and were supplied by the company Siebe Gorman & Co. It also paid for their support staff (Friend Samuel Penney is said to have preferred his own daughter operating the manual air pump – trusting no one but a blood relative to do this vital task). Due to the high wage, we can assume Sir John Jackson's foreman Mr Sinclair would have stood by with a stop watch in his hand!

So, next time you are at the Bridge and look down onto the river, remember the brave men who spent hours submerged in the murky brown waters of the River Thames helping to lay the foundations of this remarkable building.

*A previous version of this article reported the divers were paid up to £10 per minute. The £10 figure comes from a newspaper article reporting the death of the Widow of Friend Samuel Penny, which we now know is incorrect. The above figures are recorded as part of Tower Bridge, contract No 1 between the Corporation of London and John Jackson & Co, held by the London Metropolitan Archives.