Voices of Tower Bridge: Bill Skinner

In this episode exploring the oral history of Tower Bridge, Education Officer David Laird talks to Audrey Hudson, the daughter of Bill Skinner, who worked at Tower Bridge for over 30 years.


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 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 Audrey Hudson about her father, Bill Skinner. Bill worked at Tower Bridge for over 30 years. Join us as Audrey 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 Audrey as she introduces us to her early life growing up in South London. 

Audrey: I was born in London, in Brook Drive Hospital, which wasn't far from where we lived as we lived in Lambeth Walk. Yes, I am a South Londoner through and through, and my local school was Saint George's Cathedral, which is just off St George’s Road. So, I'm a local girl.   

Life was nice. I had a cosy home upbringing. You know, family, always around me. 

David: Audrey went on to describe how her parents met. 

Audrey: Well, my mom was from Malta and my father was from Aberdeen in Scotland. Mum and Dad actually met at James Burrough, which is in Vauxhall. You know, the Beefeater factory? And my mum was there as part of a working holiday. And my dad was on leave from the Merchant Navy at the time. That's how they met, basically. They were working in the same place; my dad asked my mum out for a date and from there...that's how they got together.  

My dad was a real character, and my mum was as well. Sometimes it was very difficult between the two and when they were talking, my dad used to look at my mum to see what she was saying and vice versa. My mum said: ‘what did he say?’, because they couldn't understand each other's accents. 

David: We were then introduced to Bill in his early career at Tower Bridge. 

Audrey: He took the job on here at Tower Bridge for a few months, basically. After he finished working in the Merchant Navy. Those few months lasted 32 years. He loved the job here. He really did. He used to make tea and he then furthered himself after a few weeks and then he became an Apprentice Electrician. And then from there, he then became one of the duty officers on Tower Bridge. He did most of his work on the Bridge, cleaning the engine room, he did a lot of the flood lights that were on the Bridge on extremely high levels without any safety things. 

David: Audrey described Bill's day-to-day job at Tower Bridge. 

Audrey: When I was a little girl, I used to remember him getting up very early in the morning, maybe 5-6 o'clock. He used to have to be at work for 7:00 o’clock, and they'd had their breakfast downstairs, and then he'd get on with the daily tasks that you would be set out to do. He didn't work weekends. I don't remember him working weekends when I was very young, but when he became a duty officer then he had weekends. They had to do shift patterns. 

David: Wages for Bill increased as his time at Tower Bridge continued, and he progressed through the ranks. 

Audrey: In the early days, he used to get, probably about £10-15, when he started. I know that doesn't sound a lot now, but in those days, it probably was a good wage. And then when he became a duty officer, I always remember my mom saying: ‘Cool. We've got more money than we actually need’. 

David: Bill became no stranger to Bridge Lifts, and the occasional perilous moments that they could pose. 

Audrey: He did many a Bridge Lift. And I remember him, one-, well in the 1980s. Sometimes I can't remember what year it was. And my mum said to me something happened on Tower Bridge. We saw the newsreels as well on television, and I said ‘Oh, what's happened?’, I said. ‘He's alright though, Dad - isn't he?’. ’Oh yeah, he's all right. But something's happened. I'm not sure what’. Anyway, we saw it on the television that this ship had come through and hit the Bridge, but from my dad's point of view, what had happened: he saw this boat coming through, and my dad looked at it, and he could judge whether something was gonna come through all right or whether something looked like ‘Whooops! I think we might have to duck here’, and he said that boat’s not coming through here, that's going to hit the Bridge and the Bridge Master at the time said ‘no, they've assured us that this will go’, he said. It's not going to go through, what it'. And as it came it knocked the top. And my dad said: ‘I told you so, didn't I?’, and he didn't come home. I remember till about 5-6 o'clock the following morning because he had to work all night - because they had to get engineers down the Head Engineer from the Guildhall had to come down. They had all sundry here. The newsreels were taking place as well at the same time. So yeah, that was one of the big episodes that I remember.

David: Audrey talks now about the advantage of having her dad working on this iconic landmark. 

Audrey: I used to be with like my friend. Maybe we'd be passing, I’d say ‘Oh, let's go and see if that my dad's working. Let's go and see if he's around’. We didn't have the tourists there, so it was that you had a point where you could go to them and say, ‘oh, is Bill Skinner around or whatever’, you know? And my dad used to take me and my friends round the Bridge, and take me to some of the areas where it wasn't known to the public, like the Walkways - but they weren't open to the public at that time. 

David: Audrey shared a memorable moment with her dad on Tower Bridge. 

Audrey: I've got a funny story to tell you. When I came up to my dad once and we went into this tiny lift, the one that we came up in today, it wasn't like that. It was all meshed rather than so you could sort of see the outside of where the lift shaft was. And on the wall was this tiny, little flashlight. Little square one, it was. With a tiny switch at the side, but underneath it had this arrow saying ‘Push up to put the light on’ I looked at it, when I went up with my dad and I said 'Wasn't that obvious then?’ You click this switch’. And my dad said ‘don't go there’; he said, ‘don't ask me’. He said we had the Head Engineer from the Guildhall came up here. He said what silly person put this up on the Bridge. 

David: During those years at Tower Bridge, change began with the arrival of tourism to the Walkways. 

Audrey: The most significant change, I think, was when Tower Bridge was going to open to the general public again and that took form from all sorts of directions. The engineering side, the painting of the Bridge. That was probably one of the things I do remember about it because they put a colour of paint on the Bridge, first of all, which was the wrong colour. And I, you know, it did take a while, but I've got to say, it does look it does look extraordinary now. 

David: Never one to shy away, Bill's image would often accompany that of Tower Bridge. 

Audrey: My dad was notorious for being one of the most photographed people on Tower Bridge. I don't know why, but he was so he ended up in so many magazines like the ‘Shell’ magazine. He was in the ‘’Women's Only even. He was photographed many, many times - when they've had television people from America coming over. 

David: Unwelcome visitors could also be found with the change of shift from night to day. 

Audrey: So, they used to have night watchmen on the Bridge, and it wasn't my dad, but it was him that was telling me the story of this. They were filming down in the bascules, and they were doing a horror film. It was the something like the monster from the lagoon. So, what they did, somebody that was on the night shift knew about this, but when the next person in the morning took over, forgot to tell the person in the morning what was going on downstairs in the basement and this guy went down there and there was this monster in like 3-foot of water down there, and there with this eyes all ablaze and puffing coming out of this.  And he ran up this place where he was, nearly had a heart attack he did, but I found it so funny. Everyone was warned that in future, everyone doing the night shift must notify the morning shift what has been happening overnight - because they were filming in the nighttime, you see. 

David: Audrey finished by telling us about Bill's pride, working for Tower Bridge and the joy it brought him throughout his career. 

Audrey: Because he worked here for so long, it was almost like, it's dad's Bridge, if you like. There's that sense of personal element about it. I'm very proud that he worked here, and I think he would be very proud as well, knowing that I've come here to talk to you today about this. After he left the Merchant Navy, he used to love the ships, and this was one of the ways that he could be surrounded by the river, by the boats, and working in the engineering side is like cleaning the engines of the ships, really. 

The most important thing to me is that my dad got job satisfaction and I think in today's day and age, not many people get job satisfaction. He had that and I feel good that he got that. He enjoyed the engineering side of things; he was that way inclined. It's nice to know that he lived his life doing things he wanted to do. 

David: Well, folks, that's the end of our interview on Bill Skinner. Thank you to Audrey for sharing her memories of Bill's time at Tower Bridge. We'll 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