History of Tower Bridge Podcast: Episode 4

Episode 4: Fantastic Feat and amazing anecdotes of Tower Bridge

In our final of four podcasts exploring the history of Tower Bridge, David Laird, Education and Marketing Officer at Tower Bridge, explores some of the amazing stories associated with Tower Bridge.

Transcript

Thank you for joining me on the final 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.

Throughout each episode, I have walked you through the history of London's defining Landmark and today I will be describing 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 three, as bizarre tales of Tower Bridge began to emerge within only a few years of opening.

An early quirky story, taking place in 1917, by a man called Thomas Orde-Lees. Lees was involved in testing parachutes from the Bridges road level on to waiting boats below. This is believed to have provided an inspiration in exploring the viability of forming a Parachute Regiment for the British Army.

This was preceded in 1912 by a different journey at Tower Bridge.

Only nine years after the Wright Brothers' initial flight, aviator Frank McClean flew through Tower Bridge. Starting from the Isle of Sheppey, McClean piloted his Short-Farman hydroplane between the road and upper walkways of Tower Bridge. Not satisfied with his first exploit, he continued upstream, dipping under every remaining bridge as far up the Thames as Westminster.

He later told the press “It isn't so risky as it appears, For the arches of the bridges are tremendous things when you get close to them."

McLean’s confidence however would be short lived.

On the return trip, a sidewind hooked him into the water as he was attempting to fly under Tower Bridge. Fortunately, though, McClean was unhurt, and his beloved seaplane was towed to shore for repair.

This was certainly not the only time that pilots would fly between the road and walkways.

In 1968: A RAF pilot, angered by the decisions of his high command, broke formation, and flew over London.

His name was Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock, who decided to fly his Hawker Hunter jet, measuring a 10m in wingspan, low over the Houses of Parliament in protest at Harold Wilson's government, who it transpired had been stripping back on financing the air force.

Pollock was also dissatisfied at the lack-luster plans to mark the RAF's 50th anniversary.

In a one-man air display, he flew his plane through the gap in Tower Bridge, before going on to buzz several airfields.

He said "It was easy enough to fly over it, but the idea of flying through the spans suddenly struck me. I had just 10 seconds to grapple with the seductive proposition which few ground attack pilots of any nationality could have resisted. My brain started racing to reach a decision. Years of fast low-level strike flying made the decision simple...".

This was the first and last time a jet plane was flown under the bridge's walkways.

But it was not be the most audacious story to take place on Tower Bridge.

On the 30th December 1952, Bus Driver Albert Gunter was happily going about his day job, driving the number 78 bus over Tower Bridge towards London’s Shoreditch

It was on passing the middle of the bascules when, to his utter surprise, the road in front of him seemed to drop away. Gunter described the sensation as of the ground beginning to open. A gap opened up of roughly a metre with a drop of close to two metres. He quickly realised that the bridge was opening and his bus was stuck on the rising bascule!

A tank driver during World War Two, Albert slammed his foot down on the accelerator and managed to jump the gap in the bridge and successfully reach the other side.

In doing so Albert managed to get all of his passengers across safely – barring one who unfortunately broke a bone, and another reported to have never got on the bus again.

For this act of bravery and quick thinking, Albert was awarded a day off work and a reward of £10.

With his newfound time off and wealth, Albert did still find time to appear in the local newspaper. He can be seen looking slightly stunned and showing the position of the bascules with his hands.

Now I mentioned briefing World War two. Tower Bridge has of course survived two world wars. With bombing of the city in the 1910s incomparable to the Blitz of  the1940s, the Bridge was largely unscathed during the Great War.

Likewise, as the Luftwaffe rained down bombs on the docks of east London, Tower Bridge incredibly only sustained only minor damage. Continuing to operate throughout the conflict.

One such reason to explain the lack of damage, was Bridges dominant position as a local landmark for German bombers tracking the City’s port.

Now regardless of the bridge's survival, plans were proposed to change the face of Tower Bridge, encasing it in glass and turning the structure into modern office space.

Thankfully this would never come to pass, though the postwar years would mark a decline in Tower Bridges need to lift for approaching cargo ships.

An overall decline in the position of the London docks from the 1960s in the pool of London dramatically cut the number of lifts taking place.

Whilst the surrounding area was changing, so to the bridge would receive a facelift in the form of red, white and blue paint – replacing the drab grey and white to celebrate the silver jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s 25 years as monarch.

Changes weren’t only taking place on the exterior of Tower Bridge. Since the 1910s, the high-level walkways, due a lack of use, were closed off to history off to history till 1982.

It was in this year that these spaces would be opened once again.

Nearly a century in existence, had seen the bridge align with the status of St Pauls Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and Westminster’s Parliament as an established landmark of the city.

So it was decided that a new Tower Bridge Exhibition would open.

Coming at a time of intense redevelopment for the bankside of the River Thames, as warehouses were pulled down and replaced with hotels, bars and restaurants.

And the arrival of the HMS Belfast under the guardianship of the Imperial War Museum.

Our southern bank has increasingly become a trendy destination and home to many.

So since 1982, Tower Bridge has continued to welcome visitors from all over the World.

Indeed, travel the world and it won’t be long till you find the image of the bridge advertising everything, from visits to the capital, to ... well, anything remotely British, cementing its place as the capital's or even the nation's defining landmark.'

Today we still operate as a working bridge, employing a team of Engineers, Technical Officers and Assistants to make sure that our core function of lifting for passing shipping remains viable. 

On the other side, we have a team of roughly 150, tasked with welcoming close to 1 million visitors each year.

We do this via guided tours, concerts in our bascule chambers, schools visits and even early morning yoga sessions.

Open to the public all year round, Tower Bridge has consistently increased those coming in through our recent installation of a glass walkway, providing yet another unique view of our lifting bascules.

Though visitors come to us from all over the world, like our workforce since 1894, we always encourage local people to visit, enjoy and learn a bit more about our connections.

It must also be said that Tower Bridge is often said to mean many different things to many people.

A popular tourist spot for wedding proposals today as it was in Edwardian London, I wanted to end on my favourite fact about the bridge.

It involves a woman called Beatrice Quick.

An honoured guest at the opening of our exhibition in 1982.

Beatrice, in her nineties at the time, was remarkable for having attended the previous opening in 1894.

She recalled how when only 4, her father working as an engineer on the construction, had made sure that she was the first little girl to cross Tower Bridge. She certainly wouldn’t be the last. Thank you

Well folks, I hope you enjoyed this journey through the history of Tower Bridge. Let us know what you think on Facebook and Twitter, where you can also share these podcasts with your friends and family. I've been David Laird and I hope to see you inside Tower Bridge soon.