The Voices of Tower Bridge: Friend Samuel Penny

In this episode exploring the oral history of Tower Bridge, David Laird speaks to Carol Douglas, the great-granddaughter of Friend Samuel Penny, who worked on the construction of Tower Bridge's foundations from 1886.


David: Thank you for joining me for another episode in this series on Tower Bridge. My name is David Laird and I work as an Education and Marketing Officer at Tower Bridge. 

Over each episode, we will dive deep into our oral history archive to bring you interviews from our former employees and their families, as we explore their connections with London's Defining Landmark.

Today we will be hearing from Carol Douglas, the great-granddaughter of Friend Samuel Penny. Samuel was in his 30s when he came to Tower Bridge as a diver, working deep under the river on the Bridge’s foundations. Join us as Carol describes the career, family and significance of Samuel’s time working across the Thames. 

If you wish to catch up or explore more of Tower Bridge’s history, our podcast series can be found at

So, we began by asking Carol to describe her own experience of growing up in London. 

Carol: I went to Crampton Primary in Walworth and then and then St Saviour's and St Olave’s Grammar School for young ladies on the New Kent Road. Although I wasn’t born until December ’56, there was still a lot of bomb damage all around. The big shopping centre at Elephant and Castle, that was only just starting to be built and some of the first high-rise buildings were being built opposite where we lived.

We lived in a three-floored Edwardian house, which no longer exists - that was part of the clearance in the 70s - they [the local authority] cleared a lot of decent housing out and built blocks of flats there.

There was a lot of rubble and even when I was at my primary school, the school had taken a hit during the second world war so for one year we were in huts, for one year we had to go to a school at Kennington, while they rebuilt our school. Right into the mid-sixties there was still a lot of work going on. 

David: We asked Carol, What started her interest in researching her family?

Carol: Friend Samuel Penny was my great-grandfather on my maternal side. My husband looked into our family tree. A picture of Friend Samuel Penny came up, now, we [as a family] have no photos of this man. Looking into that, it’s evident that this came from a newspaper article - I think it was the South London Press - but it was talking about Tower Bridge. It showed a picture of him. From that point, we could then [research] further.

David: With our attention grabbed, carol told how old Samuel was when working at Tower Bridge and a bit more about his home life. 

Carol: His parents where Charles Penny and Sarah Penny. Charles was born in 1819 and died in 1875 when Friend was 20. And, Sarah 1819 to 1881. His father was a ship’s carpenter and joiner from Rotherhithe.

Friend Penny was 5ft 1 and 3/4 inches. We can’t read what is complexion is but his hair is brown and his eyes are grey and the ship in which he volunteers is the Fizgard and he’s listed on that as ‘boy - 2nd class’. It does say further on that he had a tattoo on his arm of an anchor and he signed up [to the Navy] for 10 years.

He didn’t last very long, he only lasted about a year and a half - he was retired out as ‘invalided’. But it’s very personal for us because it actually shows his signature and he can write his name, obviously and he [also] gets his parents to sign as well. It’s nice to see something from so far back.

It does state the ships he was on. He was on LOADS of ships for a just a year an a half. He was on the SS Ganges, The Implacable, The Caledonia, The Duke of Wellington, Lord Warden, back on the Duke of Wellington and then he was at the barracks when he was ‘invalided’ out.

David: Taking the pre-name of ‘Friend’ – we asked Carol if what she knew about Samuel’s background as a Quaker. Rumours have also circulated that Samuel’s family came from a Scandinavian background. Carol described both these and his education to us. 

Carol: His name is Friend Penny, which is obviously a Quaker name. They have Friend’s meeting houses - I’m really not sure as I haven’t really got any evidence of any Quaker house that he attended. I’ve done my DNA and it does say that there’s a significant percentage that is Scandinavian. 

And my father ’s side - my father was Irish - and I’m 55% Irish, they didn’t move much and it’s  from just one region of Connacht, which is near Galway in Ireland. The Scandinavian side, if any percentage at all is obviously on my maternal side. 

I do know he had a propensity towards learning languages and that it was often mentioned that he could speak seven languages - I don’t know the languages - but that he could speak seven language. And I think that helped, obviously, when he travelled abroad to do his work. 

David: Next we asked how long did Samuel work at Tower Bridge and what was his previous career prior to diving?

Carol: I was always led to believe that [he was employed] for the period of time that that level of input was needed. As I understood it, he worked for a company called Siebe Gorman - whether it was contracted in from that or subcontracted in to do the foundation diving work - that’s the way it was explained.

We know that, probably, his first work would have been the Navy work. After that, once he was ‘invalided’ out of the Navy - I do know that all of his siblings and his father and Grandfather, all worked in the Docklands as carpenters and ship’s carpenters - so with a Navy background and that [his familial connection to working life on the docks], somehow he got into diving.

We’ve got a record of him where he’s a diver in Madras and it was his reference, so he’s obviously travelling the world a bit. That comes before Tower Bridge.

The other information that we’ve got is for his children, whenever his children got married  or any [document] that he had to put his career on, he was always stated as a diver, right the way throughout his life. 

A consistent theme came across that he worked on the building of some sea piers. Southend Pier, definitely, he did the foundations for that. Now, we’re not sure [on this one] it’s either Margate or Brighton Pier. I know that Margate Pier was extended in 1875 and that Brighton Pier had it’s palace pier built in 1899 and I don’t know which one, or whether it was both, but it was certainly one of them which he worked on. 

Other work that we found interesting as a family, was that he worked on the Underground service. He worked for either the development of the Bakerloo and/or the Northern line - and that was to do with tributaries of rivers that had to be held back as part of their construction [works]. And I think his knowledge and expertise was called in for that sort of work.

David: Diving still remains a highly skilled role. We were surprised to hear that Samuel often allowed help from an unexpected source.

Carol: He trusted very few people to work the pump to do with air flow into the diver’s apparatus and he only trusted my nan to do that, so from an early age she used to come along to his jobs and manually work a pump to help him to carry on with his job. 

Oh, it was dangerous. The machinery, the equipment, everything must have been so in their earliest stages of development and it would have relied a lot on the person themselves to be strong enough to withstand the role they’re being asked to do. Because they’re being asked to work, they aren’t just standing idly - they’re being asked to work underwater.

I think it would be hard now given all the equipment they have now, let alone then, going back to the 1870s and 80s.

David: Carol then explain about his later life.

Carol: He died in 1932 in Poplar in Tower Hamlets aged 77. He was in St. Clements hospital for the chronically ill, which is in Bow Road, Poplar [East London] and the cause of death was chronic myocarditis and chronic bronchitis. But he was also put into workhouses twice in his life - the workhouses were also used as hospitals as there wasn’t a National Health Service - and he was classified as ‘aged and infirm’ at 59 when he first went in. He had periods in there of about a year / a year and a half, and the heart problem is something that does come round in spells. You can be very ill for a period of time. 

But I remember my mum saying that great-granddad got the job as a diver because he was strong enough, his lungs were strong enough and rarely did people have lungs as strong as that and only very few people got to do that job.

David: Our final question, we asked if Carol could explain what it means to her to have Samuel Penny work here at Tower Bridge.

Carol: I would say, if not the [most iconic], it’s gotta be in the top five of the most iconic buildings in Britain. I mean, you think of Tower Bridge and you think of it as a national building - it’s of national pride and to have someone in my family involved in that is just amazing to me. but more than that, I used to, when I was at school, sing Gregorian chant at Southwark Cathedral. As we’d walk down to rehearse and sing in the cathedral, you’d see Tower Bridge because you’d walk down Tooley Street. 

This area is my area - it’s the area I was brought up and, even without the connection of Friend Samuel Penny, to have a connection with Tower Bridge, anything to do with Tower Bridge is very personal to me. It feels part of us, as south Londoners.

David: Well folks, that is the end of our interview with Carol Douglas, thank you to Carol for sharing her memories of Friend Samuel Penny.

The original recording was by Dirk Bennett and Diane Timmins, edited by Diane Timmins with music from Sam Kilwin.Voice over by me, David Laird

I will be back again soon for more tales from our archive.

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Goodbye for now.