Celebrating 125 years of Tower Bridge and the work of its ‘men of steel’

Yesterday we celebrated with Tower Bridge the 125th anniversary of its opening on 30 June 1894.  On anniversaries like these we always remember the bridge designers and main contractors, but we should also remember the individual construction workers whose toil and skill helped build this iconic structure. Little is written about these men and boys but research carried out by FoSH committee member, Kirsty Menzies, for Tower Bridge helped to reveal stories of some of the steelworkers.

Colour photograph of Tower Bridge showing the central towers, bascules and side spans.

Tower Bridge, London

Today we take a look back at these ‘men of steel’ in a blog post based on this research and published on our Sir William Arrol website.  The stories of the workers demonstrate the high level of skill that Sir William Arrol & Company Limited required of them.  It also tells of the experienced men who were deployed to Tower Bridge to ensure the successful completion of its steel structure.

Read more about the Tower Bridge ‘men of steel’.

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Tower Bridge : Acknowledging Sir William Arrol’s contribution

Tower Bridge in London is considered by many to be the finest bascule bridge in the world, an icon of bridge building. Designed by Horace Jones and John Wolfe Barry, its construction owes much to Sir William Arrol’s innovation and engineering expertise. His company – one of five main contractors – was responsible for the construction of the central steel structure that is hidden from view, but provides the bridge’s core strength. His success in constructing, in steel, the Forth Bridge – another of the world’s iconic bridges – led to the significant commission at Tower Bridge.

Colour photograph of Tower Bridge showing the central towers, bascules and side spans.

Tower Bridge, London

Construction of Tower Bridge took eight years. Arrol’s construction of the bascules, side spans, towers and walkways involved over 11,000 tonnes of steel, each section manufactured at the Dalmarnock Works in Glasgow and shipped to London. The visible stone structure is both protective of the steel core and decorative.

Until the summer of this year, Arrol’s role in the construction of this iconic bridge was lesser known. Through our website, FoSH was contacted by Dirk Bennett, Tower Bridge’s new Exhibition Development Manager, who knew of Sir William’s contribution and wished to make it visible. FoSH was delighted to provide background detail. In July, Sir William Arrol’s portrait was placed alongside those of Horace Jones, John Wolfe Barry and Sir William Armstrong, the hydraulics engineer, in Tower Bridge’s main exhibition hall.

colour photograph showing the 4 portraits on display at Tower Bridge Exhibition.

Portraits in Tower Bridge Exhibition: Sir Horace Jones, Sir William Arrol, Sir William Armstong, Sir John Wolfe Barry. Photograph ©Tower Bridge Exhibition

 

Sadly, the research for the Tower Bridge element of the engineering and construction series that Rob Bell presented for Channel 5’s current series, “Britain’s Greatest Bridges: Discover how six of Britain’s most iconic bridges were designed and constructed”, did not reference Sir William Arrol. Indeed – surprisingly, given the programme title – those responsible for Tower Bridge’s construction were entirely overlooked. Happily, in the previous programme on the Forth Bridge, Rob Bell paid full tribute to Arrol’s innovation and construction prowess.

Engineering Music at Tower Bridge

As part of the Totally Thames Festival in September there will be a novel opportunity to see some of Sir William Arrol’s engineering, inside the Tower Bridge bascule chambers, whilst listening to a performance of Iain Chamber’s composition “Bascule Chambers”.

Bascule Chamber by Martin Deutsch - on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/qJJrVB under Creative Commons

Bascule Chamber by Martin Deutsch – on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/qJJrVB under Creative Commons

All the steelwork for Tower Bridge was manufactured by William Arrol & Co. Ltd. in Glasgow and shipped down to London for construction. Bascules are the steel sections of the bridge which lift to allow passage of tall ships underneath. The bascule chambers are massive, brick-lined spaces which house the counterweights that enable the bascules to be raised. Iain Chamber’s composition is based around the sounds made as the bascules are raised, so essentially the bridge becomes the musical instrument and is supported by 4 brass players.  The premiere of the composition will be the first ever public performance inside the chamber.

Sir William Arrol was very fond of music and often held live performances in the large wooden panelled hall at Seafield House. I don’t suppose  that, as he supervised work on Tower Bridge, he ever imagined that the chambers would be used as a venue for a musical performance although he may have commented on the acoustics of the cave-like space.

Performances of “Bascule Chambers” are being held on 26th and 27th September.  Further information can be found on Iain Chamber’s website and the Tower Bridge Exhibition website.