Episode 3: How and Who lifts Towers Bridge

In our third instalment, discover how Tower Bridge is lifted, and some of the people who have worked here in the last 125 years.


Thank you for joining me on the third episode of this four-part history series about Tower Bridge. My name is David Laird and I work as an Education and Marketing Officer at Tower Bridge. 

Over each episode:  I will share the history of London's defining landmark with you.

Today I will be describing how and who lifts Tower Bridge, with our final episode covering our favourite ‘historic tales of this world-famous river crossing’. If you missed our earlier episodes these can be found at www.towerbridge.org.uk/podcasts.

So we continue from episode two, as Tower Bridge stood complete and ready, across the river Thames. 

Now the date for the opening day was the 30th June 1894. Over 1,000 were officially invited with up to 10,000 lining the streets and riverbanks, on both sides of the bridge.

It was described in the times newspapers as follows:

“The opening of Tower Bridge on Saturday was a picturesque and stately ceremony, perfectly performed under the most favourable conditions…the decorations, both by land and water, were brilliant and profuse, the uniforms and robes splendid and varied, while the glorious sunshine brought out in full relief the many beauties of the great display and of the noble river which all true Englishmen love with a proud affection as the chiefest glory of their ancient capital.”

The Bridge was officially opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales, representing Queen Victoria.

Not to be outdone in pomp and ceremony, a silver urn was procured for the Prince to manoeuvre and signal the lifting of the Bridge, for the first time.

With this done, the great bascules rose, and a flotilla of 14 ships processed underneath.

The first to pass was the Harbour master’s vessel Daisy, followed by HMS Landrail, upon which a band played God Save the Queen.

Unfortunately, though, shortly after the bridge’s completion, criticism was soon to follow.

Initially viewed as a harmonising of engineering and architecture, two disciplines which traditionally diametrically opposed between flair and precision, attitudes soon began to shift.

Comments appeared in the press calling Tower Bridge ‘an elaborate and costly make believe’, an ‘architectural gimmick’ or even worse, simply an ‘eyesore’.

Regardless, from the summer of 1894, Tower Bridge was now fully in operation.

But how exactly does it all work?

To give an idea of the weight of each bascule, the moving central span of the bridge, these equate 150 double decker London buses stacked.

Therefore, whilst the concept of a Bascule bridge wasn’t new technology, their sheer weight meant that only the onset of steam power could successfully achieve each lift.

This system was the brainchild of Engineer William Armstrong. A leading British industrialist, whose hydraulic engine utilised water pressure to power the movement of the bascule.

Essentially the Engines produce a bridge lift via five key steps.

The first is the Coalboilers:

Here, a team of stokers worked to create the steam required for Armstrong’s engines.

These boilers could burn up to 25 tons of coal each week, generating the engines steam.

From the boilers this generated steam transferred to two steam engines, still visible today and used operationally up till 1976.

The steam, combined with the momentum of a turning flywheel, pushed and pulled hydraulic pumps.

These would then pressurise the water, located inside 6 giant accumulators.

The accumulators acted if you like as giant battery’s, ready to power the cogs and drive engines connected to the Bascules.

This in turn would lift the bridge.

Now Tower Bridge is still a working Bridge with a dedicated team of 6 fully trained Senior Technical or Technical Officers operating and managing the lifting process.

Today’s training can take up to 18 months to complete, with its focus on troubleshooting the merge  of Victorian bascules malfunctioning against our modern computer system.

On average the Bridge lifts just over 1000 times per year, at an average of 3 times per day.

I will say that lifts are weighted more toward the spring and summer months with a fleet of cruise ships, pleasure boats and Thames sailing barges passing through each year.

Todays operation is however a far cry from the process that opened the Bridge 126 years ago.

So how to open the bridge19th century style?

First, I need to mentioned that by law, river traffic always has priority over road users.

And today, every lift must be booked at least 24 hours prior.

Historically this was not the case.

Originally requiring a staff of 80 to keep the bridge functioning and opening.

Amongst these roles we had: engine drivers to physically operate the bridge, signalmen to control the approaching ships and determine whether a lift would be required.

Watchmen to make sure the shipping and roadways were clear to pass, a delegation of policemen to control the waiting traffic and a maintenance team of up to 30 to keep the bridge operating correctly and lift the Bridge at a moment's notice'

Part of this team included a blacksmith and number of horses, stabled underneath the southern Tower Bridge approach. These were tasked with repairing components and removing debris prior to each lift. 

The senior team that historically managed the bridge were two individuals: a Resident Engineer and the Bridgemaster himself.

Both were residents on site, the Bridge was required to be manned 24 hours per day.

The Superintendent Engineer had overall responsibility for the staff and operation of the Bridge. It was his role to select the bridge drivers each day and inspect both machinery and presentation to military precision.

From 1894, the first Superintendent Engineer was George Edward Wilson Crutwell, who as John Wolfe Barry’s Resident engineer, had been at the bridge from the onset of construction. The Bridgemaster was Lieutenant Bertie Cator, appointed 6 weeks before the official opening. He oversaw traffic control and in this initial year 6,160 lifts

Cator's appointment didn’t just come with onsite bed and board, he was also provided with a cook.

Whilst little information about many of the domestic staff has trickled down into Tower Bridge's story, we do know of Hannah Griggs.

Hannah was born at St Olaves workhouse 200 yards from the Tower Bridge on Tooley Street. She was employed between 1902 to 1915 initially “in Service” for the Bridgemaster and his family before ultimately going on to work as the resident cook for the Bridge's staff.

Progression amongst staff was common, with initial ‘entry’ jobs allowing for a clear career path to develop.

Apart from Hannah another example is that of Charles Bull. Born in Camberwell, Charles worked in the construction of Tower Bridge, before entering employment with the City of London here in 1896 as a stocker. He would go on to progress to Assistant Bridge Driver within only 6 years of arriving.

Each of these roles were among the throng of others undertaken on the Bridge, would remain the same for the best part of 80 years.

Though calls had been made for modernisation of the lifting mechanism from the early 20th century, incredibly the bridge would function in largely the same way till its engine’s electrification in 1976.

And so, as the years past from the opening day till 1982, Tower Bridge became first a local, then international icon of the London’s skyline.

It was during these years that many bizarre goings on took place.

Well folks, that’s the end of how and who lifts Tower Bridge, I will be back again soon to tell you more our favourite ‘historic tales of Tower Bridge’. Goodbye for now.