Tower Bridge leads over the Thames and connects London city centre with the suburb Southwark. The Tower is situated nearby, the former notorious prison in London which gave the bridge its name.
With the economic upswing in the second half of the 19th century, the docks to the east of the city became more and more important and the population increased constantly. Traffic in this suburb could only reach the other river bank by crossing London Bridge. As it was completely overburdened, the journey to the opposite side of the Thames could last several hours. Not even two newly-built tunnels were able to solve the problem. Finally a new bridge was commissioned. It was already popular with tourists and onlookers while being built. At that time it was an outstanding symbol for the technical progress of the 19th century with its spectacular style. It took eight years to complete. On 30 June 1894 Tower Bridge was ceremoniously opened by Queen Victoria.
It consists of a steel construction in Victorian style, lined with granite and Portland stone. 33 metres above the road walkways lead between the two bridge towers to the other river bank. The road can be lifted at both sides to allow larger ships to pass through. The anchorage of the bascules and some machines are built into the bridge piers. The system has been operated by electricity since 1976. On the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 Tower Bridge was painted red, white and blue. An exhibition in the towers and on the walkways illustrates the construction and the history of the bridge. The former engine rooms can also be visited. Shortly after opening, the bridge was lifted about 650 times a month. Nowadays this happens about 500 times a year and a passage through it has to be applied for 24 hours in advance. The bascules are not lifted for passenger ships sailing near Tower Bridge. This is only necessary with large cruise liners, as the container docks have been moved about 30 km further downstream. The bridge is also opened for smaller ships as a sign of honour and respect as, for example, for Churchill’s funeral procession in 1965.
The walkways were closed in 1910 because of lack of use. In spite of the fantastic view, most people preferred to wait at the bottom in order to watch the bascules being lifted. Two involuntary feats are also part of the history of Tower Bridge. In 1912 a pilot had to make an emergency landing and wasn’t able to fly over the bridge. Without further ado he steered his biplane between the road and the walkways. Several aerobatic pilots have copied this spectacular activity since then. In 1952 the bascules were lifted by mistake, although a bus was still on the bridge. The driver had no other choice but to leap from one bascule to the other with a bus full of passengers. As a consequence new security and surveillance systems were installed.