Ever since the first FoSH blog post about the Tower Bridge bascule chamber concert in 2015 I have wanted to experience this unique venue for myself. My wish was finally fulfilled last week when I was privileged to attend the preview of the latest audio visual experience in the bascule chamber. The event lived up to all my expectations and more.
The magic of the occasion began as soon as we stepped from entrance into the stairwell and began the descent down the 115 steps to the chamber deep below the tower. An eerie blue light, image projections on the walls and electronic music with voices set the atmosphere for what was to come. We entered the bascule chamber, a vast, damp, brick-lined space with a steeply stepped curved wall to the front and massive steel plates of the counterweight above. Our seating was at the very base, with space for only 50 people. Even without the cold of the chamber I was chilled at the thought that, should the bridge be opened, the 1200 tons above my head would come down and fill the space where I was sitting. But all that was forgotten as soon as the audio visual installation began. Tower Bridge: 125 years of London’s defining landmark was created by artists of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to celebrate the people who built, maintained and operated the bridge since construction began in 1886. Archive images passed before our eyes across the stepped wall as we listened to a haunting electronic soundtrack and voices of actors portraying characters from the past.
We were transported through the ages by photographs of the workers and the bridge at various stages of construction and operation, passing through times of war and changing cultural fashions through the decades, culminating with the bridge’s display for the 2012 Olympic games.
The following day I took the opportunity to revisit the Tower Bridge Exhibition. The last time I had visited was over 4 years before and at that time could find no reference to Sir William Arrol or the workers who had constructed the bridge. Since then the content of the exhibition has been greatly developed and the focus is very much on the working people who contributed to the life of the bridge.
Climbing the stairs of the north tower the story of construction of the bridge and the people involved unfolds amidst the riveted girders of the staircase. Profiles of people like Andrew Stephenson Biggart, Arrol’s general manager for the steelwork, and images of the steelworkers are portrayed alongside text and images of other construction workers, including divers and stonemasons. At the top of the stairs we are greeted by the portrait of Sir William Arrol in pride of place beside Horace Jones, John Wolfe Barry and Sir William Armstrong. Continuing on through the exhibition we find stories and images with audio recordings of some of the people who worked on and operated the bridge. Many of these ordinary workers have been immortalised in brass plaques in Tower Bridge’s ‘Walk of fame’, a blue line which leads visitors from the south tower to the engine rooms and shop.
I was very pleased to walk along this and see plaques dedicated to some of steelworkers that I had researched and written about in my blog post, Tower Bridge and the work of its men of steel, men like John Heaney, riveter; Andrew Dick, blacksmith; Edward Heaney, crane driver and, a personal favourite, John Chalk, 15 year old rivet boy.
Kirsty Menzies, FoSH Committee
Many thanks to Tower Bridge for the invitation to the preview of the bascule chamber event and Tower Bridge Exhibition.