What Tower Bridge might have been

Discover more about the alternative designs for Tower Bridge and how it might have looked. 

The need for a new bridge

For hundreds of years, London flourished with only one bridge across the Thames: London Bridge. 

Detail from 'Panorama of London' by Claes Van Visscher, 1616, showing Old London Bridge.

As its population grew, tunnels, subways and bridges were added to help people move about the city. Starting with the opening of Putney Bridge in 1729, followed by the London Bridges of Westminster, Blackfriars, Waterloo and Southwark.

However, during Queen Victoria's reign, London began to sprawl, traffic multiplied on the roads and the metropolis became transformed by steam power technologies and the innovations of the industrial revolution. 

Regardless of the new crossings, by the mid-19th century, London Bridge was still providing the principal route for those heading north and south each day. And this was a problem! About a third of those living east of London Bridge had no adequate local crossing to use. 

Just imagine the chaos as horse-drawn vehicles, crowds of commuters and farmers bringing their livestock to market squeezed across London Bridge each day. 

With the dismissal of trying to enlarge the existing width of London Bridge, the creation of a new crossing became key. 

A competition is launched

By this time, the Government and the City of London Corporation had received numerous petitions calling for a new crossing point to be established to the east of the Tower of London. And on 10 February 1876, the Corporation of London requested that City Bridge Foundation (historically known as Bridge Houses Estates) set up the Special Bridge or Subway Committee to consider how this could be done. 

The process to select the winning design was that of an informal competition, without a start or end date, engineers and architects began submitting their designs for the new crossing.

Alternative design for Tower Bridge_by Frederic Barnett 1876

Different bridge designs

In total, around 50 different entries were received by the committee, with a number of high-profile engineers taking part to design a new crossing situated next to the Tower of London, aptly dubbed 'Tower Bridge'.

They included low level bridges, which would have blocked the trade ships from passing underneath; duplex bridges with a lock gate system allowing road and river access simultaneously; and bridges with a rolling road, opening to let ships through.

You can see some of these alternative designs below and on display inside the attraction, but it is hard to imagine any of these alternative designs being as loved as our Tower Bridge.

drawing of original design for tower bridge

The winning design

Architect Sir Horace Jones's original Arch/Bascule design, as seen in this picture, was rejected in 1878 and the competition was abandoned in 1879.

Sir John Wolfe Barry was brought in to look at and modify Jones's original design in 1884 and a new design was proposed by Jones to the Court of Common Council on 28 October 1884 and then to Parliament in November 1884.

An Act to empower the Corporation of London to construct a bridge over the river Thames near the Tower of London (The Tower Bridge Act) received royal assent on 14 August 1885. 

WFC Holden glass design

A glass bridge?

In 1943, as bombs fell across London during the Second World War, architect WFC Holden proposed to encase Tower Bridge in glass to prevent the need to repair structural damages and make money housing offices.

Holden's plan was referred to the Consulting Engineers, but was quietly forgotten about as the landmark only suffered superficial damages.

Restoration work after the War was done between 1949-52, including repairs to the stonework and a new roof (Welsh slate was replaced by Westmorland Green slate).

More to explore

There is so much more to discover inside Tower Bridge, from the unique views of the city to the history
of London's defining landmark.