By Jonathan Reed
Video supplied by Tower Bridge©
Photography supplied by Reed Gallery©
Across the skyline of London there are many iconic landmarks. The London Eye is a feat of modern-day engineering; the Tower of London is an imposing emblem of medieval law and order. But there is one which is instantly recognisable, that has become a figurehead for Britain’s ingenuity and industry. It has quite literally bridged together our glorious capital city and ensured our creative future for generations to come.
Tower Bridge is unlike any other on Earth and whilst its instalment was necessary to the growing population, its design was specified by Queen Victoria herself. At first the Queen was against the bridge’s construction. She felt that the Tower of London – an ancient totem of regal power – didn’t need a river crossing to improve its standing. In a letter she would write: “to those who say the bridge will increase the defensive strength of the Tower and improve the beauty and historical associations of the place. All I can say is bosh!”
But regardless of royal rejections, Victoria was overruled, and a competition was instigated for architects to design the bridge. Out of hundreds of submissions – some more outlandish than others – one was picked, one which would cause controversy.
Sir Horace Jones would be bestowed the enviable task of bringing Tower Bridge to life, but as a judge for the competition, many were angry that he was allowed to submit a design. Though submit he did, and in 1885 Jones’ bascule bridge with two Gothic towers and upper pedestrian walkways was formally adopted.
Using the most up-to-date technology of its age, Tower Bridge was powered by steam hydraulics, and would be built entirely of steel. And yet, to look at it today, it could easily be mistaken for an ancient stone castle, constructed around the same time as the Tower of London sitting beside it. This wasn’t by accident; by request of the Queen, every brick and turret were decisively placed to ensure that Tower Bridge blended with its surroundings.
What was originally projected as a mammoth operation of four years and at a cost of £585,000, had grown astronomically to £1,184,000 within eight. With no safety netting and working heights of 100 feet, 29 workers were seriously injured and 10 were killed.
As is with the Victorian era, tragedy was quickly replaced with celebration and London opened Tower Bridge with a lavish ceremony on 30 June 1894. Attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales, a procession of horse-drawn carriages was led across the newly opened bridge, whilst thousands lined the Thames. Hundreds of gaily decorated boats and barges transported guests to take a closer look.
Today those barges, packed with Londoners adoring the splendour of Tower Bridge, wouldn’t look upon the original bright chocolate brown of the Victorian era. Since its opening day in 1894, the Bridge’s colour scheme has changed with the times. During the Second World War brown made way for battleship grey to ensure it was camouflaged from enemy planes making bombing raids. Fast-forward to 1977 and in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee, a patriotic colour scheme of red, white and blue was adopted.
This colour scheme is retained up until present day, and after the entire bridge received a complete makeover between 2009 and 2011, which included 22,000 litres of a specially developed type of hard-wearing paint, it has reduced the cost for future maintenance projects.
What is evident when standing beneath the soaring Gothic towers of Tower Bridge, is the metaphoric presence matches the physical. Rarely does a piece of architecture become a symbol of its entire country, instantly recognisable, emoting both a bygone era and prosperous future. Tower Bridge is an icon of the industrial revolution, harking back to a time when Britain led the world in ingenuity and creativity.
It is also a friend, reminding Brits and tourists of our cultural and historic significance. Throughout the Olympic Games in 2012, Tower Bridge became the archetypal image of Britain. Tall, strong, magnificent, stable and enduring – themes which launched Team GB into one of our greatest performances at any Olympic Games.
But these themes were projected across all corners of the land, and specifically London, with the outbreak of war. As the Capital was bombarded with the Blitz and young men left for Europe to fight in two brutal World Wars, Tower Bridge shone as a beacon of continuity, hope and endurance.
Today, Tower Bridge continues to fascinate, becoming one of the most photographed landmarks in the world. It is hugely popular with film makers, having been used in numerous productions including the James Bond series.
The bridge’s relevance both onscreen and off cannot be undervalued enough. Tower Bridge, all 18 tons of it, is a mirror onto the staple image of British values. It has connected a city for over a hundred years and has consistently reminded us of the achievements of Britain’s inventiveness and prosperous nature.
It is unique, not just for its impressive design or industrial feat, but for what it represents – a country forever transforming, evolving beyond the parameters of what is deemed possible. Tower Bridge is so much more than an emblem of Britain, it is our North Star, our old friend, ceaselessly adapting to changing times. It exists on the foundations of the ambitious, bridging a gap between a city, communities, business and that everlasting element of which we all live by – time.
Thanks to Tower Bridge Exhibitions and all the Tower Bridge staff for their wonderful help!