What does a Bridge Driver do?

Behind the spectacle that is a Bridge Lift, there is a highly skilled Bridge Driver. Raising Tower Bridge’s mighty bascules requires expert knowledge; these professionals must have an excellent understanding of hydraulics and mechanical systems. 

Take a deep dive into the history of Bridge Drivers, discover how the role has changed in the past century and find out what it takes to train for such a truly unique job.

Bridge Driver

The Victorian Bridge Drivers

In 1894, when the Bridge first opened to the public, Bridge Drivers worked eight-hour shifts across a seven-day week with only one day off every three weeks. This averaged 55 hours per week. They were a team of six, so there was always a Driver on duty, day or night. There were also 12 Assistant Bridge Drivers, who mostly cleaned and kept the machinery in order. 

This team of Bridge Drivers earned 42 shillings per week (around £21 in today’s money, so approx. £1,095 per annum). If a Driver was sick, their colleagues were expected to cover for them: there was no such thing as sick pay! They also only had one week of holiday per year.

Unknown Driver © London Metropolitan Archives, City of London

The management in 1894

George Edward Wilson Cruttwell was the Superintending Engineer, with a salary of £500 per annum (roughly £60K in 2023). This was supplemented by free accommodation in the abutments, which are the two smaller towers at each end of the Bridge. John Gass was the Superintending of Machinery. John's younger brother, James Gass, was one of the very first Bridge Drivers.

John Gass took over the role of Superintending Engineer from Cruttwell in 1897. James was promoted, only retiring in 1936 as First Assistant Engineer.

Returning to the Bridge Drivers, the team in 1894 was completed by A Bowditel, Robert Brown, Thomas Turner Trobs, John James Crapper and James Smith. These Drivers wore a uniform comprising of cap, coat, vest, and trousers. Fortunately for all, in 1913, a six-week work week was introduced, and Relief Drivers were employed to cover absences. By then, the career progression for operational staff went from Stoker to Pumping Engine Driver, Assistant Bridge Driver and, finally, Bridge Driver.

Unknown Bridge Driver

In between the wars

Captain Richard Roberts served as Bridge Master from 1899 and was in post when, on 10 August 1912, Frank McClean flew his Short-Farman hydroplane between the Walkways and road during a daring stunt.

Several years later, in 1917, John Gass was promoted to Bridge Master, but also continued with his position of Superintending Engineer, thus merging these two positions.

Not much is known about the Bridge Drivers working between the First and Second World Wars. However, in 1938, we do know that Charles Frederick Adams was one of them. He was a local boy, born in 1903 in Bermondsey. His father, John Adams, was himself a former Bridge Driver, who later became a Fitter. There’s also Charles Henry Thomas Carter, who was a Bridge Driver and Hydraulic Engineer at the Bridge, according to the 1939 Register. John William Follows is also recorded as an Assistant Bridge Driver in January 1931. He enlisted in the Navy in 1939 and earned a medal for his service on the ‘HMS Blenheim’. 

The 1940s and 1950s are even more of a mystery when it comes to Bridge Drivers. Lt John Buchanan RN, the Bridge Master who succeeded John Gass, kept Tower Bridge running through the trials of World War Two. Buchanan retired in 1949 and was succeeded by Leslie Harold Priestly, who was promoted from the position of First Assistant Engineer.

Unknown Driver © London Metropolitan Archives, City of London

Bill Skinner

A switch to electricity

Tower Bridge switched to electricity in 1976. The hydraulic system was previously steam-powered. The transition began two years earlier, in 1974, propelled by a desire to improve the efficiency of Bridge Lifts and reduce fossil fuel emissions. But what did that mean for the Drivers?  

Prior to the change, a large team of Bridge Drivers, Relief Drivers, and Assistant Bridge Drivers were needed because of the way the bascules were lifted. Pre-electrification, a Bridge Driver lifted one bascule from the north side, while a second Driver lifted the other bascule from the south side. Since 1976, however, a single Driver can lift both bascules from the one Control Cabin and at the same time. 

Scottish-born Bill Skinner worked at the Bridge for 32 years, starting in 1961, and saw all these changes and more. He started as an Apprentice Electrician, eventually being promoted to Bridge Driver and Technical Officer. Skinner’s daughter, Audrey Hudson, told us: ‘He took the job on for a few months, after he finished working at the Merchant Navy. Those few months lasted 32 years. He loved the job.'

Bill Skinner © Courtesy of Audrey Hudson

Into modern times

Peter Thurkle joined the workforce at the Bridge in 1979. He was trained by Skinner and fellow Driver Fred Storey. Apart from Bridge Lifts, he did all types of jobs, from cleaning the giant accumulators in the Engine Rooms to security work. Thurkle retired in 2015, having played a part in a tale that has become one of the Bridge’s most famous stories.  

In May 1997, veteran Bridge Driver Glen Ellis was carrying out a Lift at 22:00, with Thurkle supporting from the south side, when blue flashing lights appeared all over the place. To their surprise, it was US President Bill Clinton. Clinton had just enjoyed dinner with the then Prime Minister Tony Blair when his motorcade was split by the Bridge Lift, leaving his limousine stuck behind the gates.

A Scotland Yard call followed: ‘Put the Bridge down!’. Ellis responded that he could not, otherwise the vessel would be jeopardised. Clinton just had to wait on the south side, while Blair’s convoy managed to cross the bascules in time.

Much like Ellis, Bridge Driver and Senior Technical Officer Charles Lotter is a legend amongst the Bridge’s Operational team. Lotter trained as an engineer in his native South Africa and got a job at the Bridge soon after moving to the UK. He retired in June 2023, following over 27 years of service. In 2010, he told The Guardian: ‘It’s the best job I’ve ever had. Every day is a challenge. It is never boring.’

Vijay Jain

What does it take to be a Bridge Driver?

The existing procedure to qualify for the role of Bridge Driver was developed over time and is in line with the ever-changing demand. This procedure is comprised of a whopping 200 Lifts, a practical test, and a written test. As in 1894, two Drivers are always on duty, but shift patterns and holiday allowance have greatly improved since then!

When they aren't performing Bridge Lifts, Drivers keep busy doing a variety of hands-on tasks. These tasks vary from general maintenance and repair work to servicing the machinery and leaving the Bascule Chambers in good working condition.

A modern-day Bridge Driver © Carla Valois Lobo/Tower Bridge

The Götheborg of Sweden by Edward Hasler

A beautiful sight

Ships must give 24-hours' notice if they wish to cross the Bridge, which is done via email. The Drivers then schedule the Lift and, on the day, get in touch with the ship’s captain via radio. Large vessels like cruise ships take longer to pass than sailing boats. One of our senior Drivers, Jamie, told us: ‘You've got to be a lot more aware of your surroundings because there is a lot going on in the river.’ 

An experienced Bridge Driver will have hundreds of Bridge Lifts under their belt. Some Lifts, however, are more memorable than others. In 2022, the Bridge raised its bascules for the Götheborg of Sweden, the world's largest ocean-going sailing ship and a replica of an 18th century ship that sank in 1745. ‘I actually opened for it’, Jamie remembered excitedly.

Jonathan and Vijay, Jamie's fellow Drivers, prefer the cruise ships, like the MS Hamburg. ‘Cruise ships are great fun. It's quite a dramatic thing to watch the Bridge so wide open. It’s just a beautiful a sight!’ said Vijay.

Götheborg of Sweden crossing Tower Bridge in June 2022 © Edward Hasler

Being a Bridge Driver is just so unique. Probably not something most children would dream of. After all, what other bridge opens for vessels to pass?  

When reflecting on what their 10-year-old selves would think, today's Drivers concede it is quite an unbelievable job. ‘My parents and I came to London when I was around 15, and we've got a picture outside the Bridge. I wouldn't have thought then that I would be working here, 25 years later!’, revealed Jonathan.

Behind-the-Scenes Tours

Ever wondered what goes on behind-the-scenes at Tower Bridge?

Visit inside the iconic Towers, high-level Walkways and Engine Rooms, and get

exclusive access to the Control Cabin, Machinery Room and the immense Bascule Chambers.

Find out more