The once-in-a-century battle to keep Tower Bridge on the move

A team of dedicated engineers are working to replace North and South bearing pads for the bridge
A team of dedicated engineers are working to replace North and South bearing pads for the bridge - JULIAN SIMMONDS

On the day before New Year’s Eve 1952, Albert Gunter drove the number 78 bus north from Peckham through Bermondsey and towards Shoreditch. With 10 stops to go before the end of his route, he approached Tower Bridge. He could see it was down, so pulled forward. If ever the bascules (the movable parts of the bridge) were about to be raised, the watchman would ring a warning bell and close the gates. On that particular day, the watchman got distracted.

Storming towards the middle of the bridge, the road seemed to drop away as the south bascule began to open. Gunter was faced with two options: either he could stop the bus and hope someone realised quickly enough that they would stop the bridge from rising and save the bus and its passengers from toppling into the river, or he could slam on the accelerator and jump the gap. Gunter had driven tanks during the war, so he launched the double decker across.

A broken leg (Gunter’s) later, and the passengers on the bus were safely delivered to the north side of Tower Bridge. Gunter was awarded a day off work and £10 for his bravery. “Five for me, and five for the missus,” he said.

Save for that winter’s day 71 years ago (and not forgetting the time Victoria Beckham jumped the gap in a Union Jack bus in the 1997 film Spice World, screaming to her fellow bandmates to “hold onto your knickers girls!”) Tower Bridge has been rising and falling without a hitch for almost 130 years.

Opened in 1894 by the then Prince and Princess of Wales, it was constructed to allow tall ships to sail into the City of London as far as London Bridge, delivering cargo to one of the many wharfs and warehouses that lined the river before sailing back out east. It was painted brown, Queen Victoria’s favourite colour, made from 11,000 tons of steel and clad in Cornish granite and Portland stone. It is, says one engineer currently working on it, still in “extremely good condition”, but even great feats of Victorian engineering need a bit of TLC after more than a century of wear and tear.

Tower Bridge in its raised position, allowing a boat to sail under
Tower Bridge in its raised position, allowing a boat to sail beneath - JULIAN SIMMONDS

A steel plate inside one of the bascule chambers, which helps lock the bridge in the down position, has split. That plate acts as a bearing pad where around 79 tons of hardware come to rest when the bridge is in the flat position. “It’s quite a clean crack,” says Paul Monaghan, who is in charge of the engineering on all five City of London bridges (Blackfriars, Southwark, Millennium, London and Tower).

“We inspect the bridge regularly and we started to notice the alignment wasn’t quite right,” he explains. “We were trying to work out what that was and detailed close inspection showed the broken [pad]. We don’t know what [caused the crack] – we’re going to send it away for microscopic testing.”

For three days in August, Monaghan’s team closed the bridge in order to replace all four bearing pads underneath the north and south towers. When I visit, travelling down a spiral staircase into the chamber (into which the south bascule slips when it rises), they are making their final tests, tightening nuts and bolts with a comically large spanner.

Engineers working inside the bascule chamber
Engineers working inside the bascule chamber - JULIAN SIMMONDS

As I make my way down, past the old control room with its gleaming brass dials and the enormous accumulator, which stored the steam that used to power the motors, it seems extraordinary to think a structure of this scale used to rely on little more than Victorian hydraulics and manpower to make it run. In the past century, all that has really changed is a switch to electrified hydraulics rather than a steam system.

When you’re standing several feet underneath the Thames, it’s hard not to ponder how much of that murky water might be swirling around above your head, not to mention the 10,000 or so tons of steel. “The water you can see down here is just from rain,” says Monaghan, spotting me eyeing the pools on the floor. “We’ve not sprung a leak. It drops down here when [the bridge is] in the open position.”

Paul Monaghan, Assistant Director of Engineering for the City of London Engineers Office
Paul Monaghan is in charge of the engineering on all five City of London bridges - JULIAN SIMMONDS

Save for the odd repair and a couple of fresh paint jobs (the brown was replaced with gun-metal grey, then given the red, white and blue we know today in 1977 for the late Queen’s Silver Jubilee), Tower Bridge has needed relatively little attention down the years. It’s maintained at no cost to the taxpayer, using funds from the Bridge House Estates, a charitable trust that dates back to the 11th century, when it was funded by bridge tolls.

“This bridge is unique,” says engineer Rob Carter, who has worked on Tower Bridge on and off since 2007, installing the glass walkways in 2014. “I get a little bit complacent as I’ve been on it for quite a few years. But we are bridge engineers and, at the end of the day, this is the most famous bridge in the world.”

“You’ve seen some not so good ones haven’t you?” Monaghan chips in. “Oh yes, a lot of the old rail bridges are of a similar age,” Carter replies. What about Hammersmith Bridge, I wonder, opened seven years before Tower Bridge and (having been closed for repairs for four years and counting) the cause of much of west London’s traffic problems? “I wouldn’t comment on that one,” says Monaghan, laughing.

Tower Bridge isn’t quite the gateway into London it once was. In 1894, the bascules were lifted 6,194 times, an average of 17 times a day. Watchmen were on the lookout 24 hours a day for approaching vessels that might need to get through.

These days, it lifts around 800 times a year, and for cruise ships and tourist barges rather than tall ships. But it remains one of our best-loved landmarks, whether it is boasting a set of Olympic rings (as it did in 2012), giving the Red Arrows something to fly over en route to Buckingham Palace, or raising to a full 90-degree salute (which it does on major royal days).

According to Carla Valois Lobo, of the City of London Corporation, when Tower Bridge was first constructed, it was meant to last 99 years. “It was so well built that we are at almost 130,” she says.