Voices of Tower Bridge: Peter Thurkle

In this episode exploring the oral history of Tower Bridge, David Laird speaks to Peter Thurkle, who joined Tower Bridge in 1979 doing all types of jobs, from Bridge Lifts to security work, and retired in August 2015.


David: Thank you for joining me, for another episode, in this series, on Tower Bridge. My name is David, and I work as an Education Officer at Tower Bridge. Over each episode, we dive deep into our oral history archive to bring you interviews by former employees and their families and explore their connections with London’s defining landmark.

Today, we will be speaking to Peter Thurkle. Peter worked at Tower Bridge, starting in 1970 as a ‘general hand’. Join us as Peter describes his memories of 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 www.towerbridge.org.uk/podcasts. And so, we join Peter, as he introduces us to his early life in the shadow of Tower Bridge.

Peter: Father was a docker right next door here, up Mark Brown's Wharf. The Russian and the Polish boats used to come in here and get off-loaded by my father and his brothers and all the other guys there. My mum was a secretary for Pickfords British Road Service, BRS, and she also worked some nights at, I remember that, Shuttleworths, a chocolate factory in Bermondsey. We used to get the reject rabbits that had no ears, chocolate rabbits, as kids.

David: We moved on to hear about Peter’s school, education, and his early years in the army.

Peter: Oh, to start with I went to Southwark Park Primary and then we moved to the other side of the park and I changed schools and went to Rotherhithe. So, from about seven years old till I was eleven when I went to secondary school, Paragon at the Bricklayers Arms. And I did City and Guilds Welding. and then I went to a nautical training school outside Bristol, Portishead. T.S. Formidable. That was brilliant. And I was only fifteen then, nearly sixteen. And from there, I was there for about a year or so, and recruiting teams used to come around. I spent five and a half months at Deal, then went to Lympstone and then went to Plymouth. I wasn't there a lot. Northern Ireland, Norway, Cyprus, Belize, Caribbean, bit of America, so we got about a bit. Most of the UK, that was cold, wet, and miserable. Normally up North off Scotland, around the Isle of Arran and that. Came out.

David: Peter then told us about his arrival at Tower Bridge.

Peter: Started here October the 15th. I still remember my first day funnily enough. Came in and you came through the black gate at the top and you went down the yard into the stores. And Mr Eamons who was another foreman was waiting for us. And he gave us a couple of pairs of overalls, and he said 'right I'm going to show you around the Bridge'. So, he showed us all around in the morning, we went to lunch, came back in the afternoon, it was quite funny. Went out the stores and there was brand new silver mop bucket, mop, stiff broom, soft broom, all the accoutrement you wanted to go over the north side and start cleaning it up.

David: We move on, as Peter describes the average day’s work.

Peter: At that time, the Bridge Master was Commander Rabbit who was a submarine engineer, and Mr Bywater was the Assistant Bridge Master. Mr Bywater was a very knowledgeable, clever man. And on the wall he had a chart, an engineering chart of jobs. And he would go in and he would check that chart and if need be the foreman, or the duty officers as they liked to call themselves back then, would end up with a pair of overalls on and would be dragged all round the Bridge looking for faults and jobs. And they would come out with a list of jobs to be done. And all them things used to get ticked off: quarterly, half annually, annual maintenance, half yearly maintenance all the jobs had to be done, and he checked it thoroughly. I mean we used to spend really long days here, we would come in for six, seven o'clock in the mornings and maybe not get away until two in the morning, because of Bridge lifts during the summer. You'd be up there all night long, putting the Bridge up and down. Coming down having a cup of tea, going back up, putting the Bridge up again and you would do it in three-hour blocks. But yeah, you could be here most of the night, but fortunately I was only living in Bermondsey then so I could get home quite easy. But a lot of them use to sleep in the mess room and shower in the mornings, things like that.

David: We now found out about the need for teamwork and support when working on Tower Bridge.

Peter: A lot of the jobs here couldn't get done if you wasn't flexible. So everybody was just flexible and everything got done. But we did back then projects. Them engines with the flywheel they are original where they are. All they are, are water pumps. They just push water up the Bridge, yeah.

David: One unusual job involved going deep under the Engine Rooms.

Peter: You've got the Engine Room there and there's a flight of stairs that go down the basement and then there's another flight of stairs goes down which takes you out into the yard. In the corner, you would find an opening and that would take you down to the reservoir. And what it is, it's Victorian bricked arches. And when you open the valves up the Thames would come in, fill that reservoir up, close it before the tide went out and that water was used for boilers, turned into steam and such like. Went through a cleaning process first obviously. And I think it was once a month some of the day men would put on, they called them dead men, big waders, and they would go down in the reservoir and clean it up. All the muck that was down there, all the mud and that, that had come in.

David: One specific job was emptying the huge accumulators on the Bridge of the iron with which they were filled.

Peter: Me and a team of guys emptied them of all the pig iron. They used to weigh a hundred tons of pig iron in there. So, you've got the wonderful job of getting in there and getting it all out. So, we set up a scaffold and a chute to a skip and we got in there, oh my god. Talk about compact, with dirt in it as well to stop it. And this pig iron, some of it was six foot tall and about a foot diameter or something, maybe bigger some of it. And you had to have a sledgehammer down there and you'd lean it against a wall and you'd break it, because it was too heavy to pull up on its own.

David: He now describes the process of opening the Bridge before its electrification.

Peter: You had one down the Engine Room and a couple in the cabins. Because two cabins was look outs and two cabins was for driving. So, as soon as a ship came around from Cherry Garden coming into the Pool of London, I think he'd give something like three long blows on his horn, something like that. And that meant that the look-outs would start going through the process of clearing the Bridge, getting the gates closed because it was all manual back then and then the Bridge would be lifted. But the thing back then, it wasn't lifted from one side it would have to be lifted from both sides apparently. And it had to be synchronized otherwise it would have been like that. You’d get phone calls apparently. Complaints.

David: Peter then explained his process of discovering the secrets buried deep inside Tower Bridge.

Peter: In the south abutment, underneath in the cupboards there they had all the old logbooks. And amazing writing, really smart writing and spelling. I would sit there and read them. And there was a story of when the Bridge got bombed during the War. And the bomb hit the walkway and ricocheted off and it blew up the Tower Bridge tug including the engineer and some of the crew. The Tower Bridge tug was just a ship that would pull ships through and that. And the most openings in a 24-hour working period was sixty-two. I think that was back in the late fifties, early sixties. I read that in one of the logbooks. I think all these logbooks have gone over to the Guildhall.

David: Peter described the sensory experience of working down in the Engine Rooms.

Peter: Noisy, when them engines ran they were quite noisy. They were kept really clean actually. Because on a daily basis, if you worked the boilers, you not only stoked, you had to keep the boiler bright work all cleaned and such like, functioning. Same on the engines you didn't just stand there while there was no Bridge lifts going on, you wiped the engines over, you polished this and got this. Because the Bridge Master, all the Bridge Masters were ex-military, engineering of some sort: naval or army. And they would always walk, do the rounds. Always checking up, just like in the military.

David: During his time, Peter played an unexpected part in a tale that has become part of Tower Bridge legend.

Peter: We had a quarter past ten Bridge lift at night. And there was two of them on the north side and I was on the south side on my own and Glen called me up he went 'boat's come in early is that alright with you?' I said 'yeah yeah that's great, get away'. So as we're going through the proceedings of clearing the Bridge I notice these flashing cars go across the Bridge, didn't take much notice of it. Road gates closed, everything's calmed down, Bridge is going up. I can hear a big commotion under the road arch. So, I thought, ah I better go and have a look. So, I walked around there, and I always walk up to the gate and I always called it punching distance, so nobody can like reach out and get you. I'm standing there looking. It's three people in trench coats giving it verbal with me. 'You don't know what trouble you're in mister. That's it you've had it now' blah, blah, blah. 'Put this Bridge down immediately you don't know what you've done’. And originally, I thought, drunks from the City, because you get a lot of that anyway. And this woman come up to me and she was really aggressive right and giving it. I'm like 'maddam, behave'. And it was only when the police outrider came up, two of them: 'what you doing mate?' I said 'well the Bridge is up what do you think I'm doing?' He said 'do you know what you've done?' It was only when I looked, I saw the limo with President Clinton looking out the window, Tony Blair on the north side: split the convoy. Bells are ringing, and then the radio went it was quite funny, it was like Glen went 'somebody winding me up? I've got Scotland Yard on the phone here'. Helicopter search lights god damn yeah, 1997 that was. Yeah, split the convoy. Great!

David: We went on to discuss the wages and early years working across the Thames.

Peter: I know that the permanent staff that worked here would earn good money back in the '60s. I think my old man used to bring home fourteen, fifteen pound a week, sometimes twenty, which was not bad money then. Here, if you look in the old wage books, which I've seen, they were taking home twenty-five, thirty pounds a week sometimes: which was, they were buying their own houses and driving nice cars, Tower Bridge workers.

David: As Britain changed through the economic turmoil of the 1980s, so Peter explained how this affected Tower Bridge.

Peter: For my first two to three years, it was quiet here, really quiet. And I was only here really then because there was a recession, early 8os, big recession we had. And then in '82, when we opened up to tourism, it was not long after that that we started to get more vessels coming through. And you'd get some big vessels come through up here, yeah. And they'd stay for a day, moor up by the Belfast everybody off, see London, everybody back on and back out that night, or early hours of the morning. Yeah. So, I would say around about the mid '80s it really picked up.

David: Peter then reflected on his initial days as a Bridge Driver.

Peter: I was trained by Bill Skinner and Fred Storey, yeah. And then what you would do, basically you had to do your checks first, go under the Bridge, make sure there was no obstructions, make sure the moving parts in the engines weren't obstructed by anything: like someone who'd been working there hadn't left their gear there. Go upstairs into the cabin, just turn the motors on, make sure they're all running perfectly, turn them back off again, check everything is all right in the cabin and then you wait for the ship to turn up around the bend. And then back then, if it was coming from Cherry Garden, you'd let the ship come down and there was a filling station on the River for shipping, when it got to there you start going through the process of opening the Bridge. Basically, you had your motors here, your jacks here for bypassing anything and there you had your lever and a little, what looked like a Scalextrics, but flat, yeah, with the piers, the lights, and the switches. And all we did was turn the switches and that would turn the traffic lights to red, so as the traffic lights stop you'd shut the gates. Meanwhile, the guys outside would be keeping the people behind the pedestrian gates. You'd check the cameras that it was all clear, then you shut the pedestrian gates. Make sure you've got a clear Bridge, and then you start unlocking it, you've got the four nosebolts unlocked, and then the pawls in each corner would drop back. That means then, you've got an ‘all green’ system, once you touch that lever, it goes boom and it goes up. First time you ever do that it's like... because that's like 1500 tonnes with the counterweight. It's a lot with that little lever you're like jeez, yeah. It's amazing really and it's such a clever simple system, the way it works. Because you've got the engines over the other side of the road. And then you've got the drive shaft that goes into the counterweight, with a cog on it. On the back of the counterweight, you've got a rack, so you've got a cog and a rack basically. Soon as that engine starts turning, and it's all unlocked it just pulls it up. And it's got brakes as well, but it will swivel, it’s so finely balanced anyway, it could go on its own. It's just such a simple clever structure.

David: To finish, Peter told us about his pride and appreciation for Tower Bridge.

Peter: Jobs that you are given to do you try to do to the best of your ability because you care about it, you know. It's been there a long time it's going to be here a long time after hopefully, yeah. And it is a wonderful structure, yeah. And when you work in it, you realise that although it is a big, wonderful structure, it's so simple the way it's all been done and clever. Yeah, especially back then and the way it was all built like manually basically: no hydraulic cranes back then and such like. Yeah, yeah it just gets to you. Had a lot of laughs here, I've got a lot of good memories of this place. I don't think a lot of people can say that about their jobs, a lot of good memories.

David: Well folks, that’s the end of interview with Peter Thurkle. Thank you to Peter, for sharing his memories of his time at Tower Bridge. We will be back again soon, for more tales from our archive. Till then, don’t forget, you can find more podcasts like this one at www.towerbridge.org.uk/podcasts. Goodbye for now.