Trip to Tower Bridge and its bascule chamber AV installation

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.

Photograph of a sepia photograph of Tower Bridge projected onto a wall with blue lights below.

Image projected on the stepped wall of the bascule chamber

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.

photograph of a brass plaque in a blue painted line leading across the walkway on Tower Bridge

Edward Roughley’s plaque in the ‘Walk of fame’

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.

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’.

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.