Tower Bridge: Uncovering the history of a London landmark

From a mysterious early parachute jumper to the Victorian construction workers who risked their lives over the Thames, the history of Tower Bridge is full of fascinating personal stories. Dirk Bennett looks back at some of the unsung heroes connected to the London landmark…

Tower Bridge bridgemaster AP Rabbit and his crew. The unsung heroes of the bridg
Tower Bridge bridgemaster AP Rabbit and his crew. The unsung heroes of the bridge’s history are being celebrated in a new exhibition. (Tower Bridge)
 
The story of Tower Bridge really begins well before its official opening on 30 June 1894. Throughout the 19th century the growing traffic congestion in London increased the calls for an additional river crossing and finally in 1876, a special sub-committee was set up to tackle the issue. After some public wrangling, a royal assent for a new bridge was granted in 1885, and the Corporation of London (since renamed the City of London Corporation) launched a design competition. The winner was architect and surveyor Horace Jones. In 1886, under Jones’s supervision, a mammoth building project began.
 
After eight years of construction, employing at times nearly 1,000 workers, Tower Bridge opened in 1894 and quickly became not only an essential part of London’s urban infrastructure but also an undisputed symbol of the city. 
 

An invitation to the official opening of Tower Bridge in 1894. (Getty Images)
 

Dangerous construction work

 
Steelworkers, divers, carpenters, painters, riveters, platers, steam crane drivers, holder-ups; countless different trades and companies were involved in the bridge’s construction. Most of the companies involved in the project have since disappeared and the records of their workers with them. Until several years ago, little more than the names of the major architects and engineers were known. Some of these men were real Victorian success stories. William Arrol & Co of Glasgow, for example, was responsible for the steelworks. At the time of construction Arrol’s firm was one of Britain’s leading civil-engineering businesses, involved in major construction projects including the Forth Bridge, Tay Bridge and the gantry [a huge scaffold around a ship’s hull] of the Titanic.  
 
In some cases, like in Newcastle and the Glasgow City Archives, lists and documents have survived. The latter holds the records of William Arrol’s staff, providing a rich source of personal stories, work records and social history. It is because of these records that we now know the names of some of the riveting gangs; the teams of men and boys responsible for hammering the millions of rivets into place that hold the bridge's structure together. These gangs were often made up of families who worked in tandem on site. One such family were the Heaneys: father John, a riveter, and his sons, William, John and Edward. 
 

Work on Tower Bridge could be strenuous and dangerous. (Tower Bridge Exhibition)
 
The salary for rivet gangs was one pence per rivet; for one week’s work in April 1892 the Heaneys were paid £11 9s 6d as a team. However, the physical exertion and likely hearing damage associated with the job must have taken their toll. Edward’s later army records describe him as 5ft 5in tall with a burn scar on the inside of his right arm - most probably an injury sustained during his gruelling work as a riveter. 
 
Working on Tower bridge could be extremely dangerous, and the building project witnessed tragic fatalities. On 25 April 1888, 20-year-old Richard Bacon fell to his death in the caissons [large cases lowered into the Thames to build the piers]. His death certificate, coroner’s report and the notification for his funeral are still in the family’s possession – a poignant reminder of the often treacherous work involved in building the bridge.
 
The first known female employee at Tower Bridge was Hannah Griggs, who worked as a cook between 1911 and 1915. Griggs is one of the few women who worked at the bridge in the early years. We know only two more women’s names from this early period, Laura Gass, a tracer [who did drawings and copies of drawings] and Alice Lilly Bode, a clerk. It may well be that both were attracted to the job because of existing family links to the bridge. It was a common occurrence among the bridge’s workforce to already have fathers, siblings or friends working here.
 

Hannah Griggs, the first known female employee at the Tower Bridge. Griggs worked as a cook between 1911 and 1915. (Tower Bridge Exhibition)

 

Stunts and capers

 
The bridge has been a constant magnet for all kinds of reckless, cheeky and occasionally downright criminal behaviour. There is, for example, faded film footage of a strange and intriguing incident in 1917. It shows a man throwing himself off the high-level walkways. He falls for a few seconds towards the river dragging a blooming cloud of dark cloth behind him before splashing into the waters beneath. At that time the walkways were already closed to the public due to lack of use. We do not know if there was an agreement with the then bridge master, John Gass, or if the perpetrator illegally climbed and jumped off the structure, but the fact that the stunt was filmed indicates careful preparation. The jumper’s name was Thomas Hans Orde-Lees, a British adventurer and inventor, born in Aachen, Germany. His aim was to convince the Royal Flying Corps of the benefits of parachutes for the pilots of the fledgling Royal Air Force. His demonstration was successful and the bridge became considered the surprising birthplace of the Royal Parachute Regiment.
 
Tower Bridge has also been an attractive landmark for attention-grabbing aerial displays, starting in 1912 with Frank McLean – the first of many fly-throughs between the towers and underneath the high-level walkways. Today, of course, such stunts are strictly prohibited.   
 

Capturing imaginations

 
Kevin McClory may be better known as a producer and writer on the James Bond films Thunderball and Never Say Never Again but in 1959 he directed a little cinematic gem that today is almost forgotten. It is just one example of the bridge’s enormous appeal that transcends its role as a mere river crossing. The Boy and the Bridge tells the story of Tommy, a little boy who runs away to Tower Bridge after a misunderstanding with his father. He strikes up a friendship with a seagull and sets himself up high inside the north tower.
 
Shot entirely on location, the film is full of fascinating views of a London that still bears the scars of the Second World War. Particularly intriguing are the views from Tommy’s lookout in the north tower of the bridge. He looks over a London cityscape that, apart from a few unmovable landmarks, is near unrecognisable to modern eyes. The contrast becomes all the more striking when night falls and London descends into utter darkness, interrupted by only occasional shards of light – a marked contrast to the shimmering, sparkling, glittering panorama that unfolds today once the sun has set. 
 
The Frederick Cook painting ‘A Flying-bomb Over Tower Bridge’, which depicts the bridge in the midst of the Second World War. Following the war, the London cityscape seen from Tower Bridge was “near unrecognisable to modern eyes”, says Dirk Bennett. (IWM via Getty Images)
 
The bridge’s appeal in popular culture remains to this day, as indicated by its appearance in blockbuster films such as Mission Impossible and even in computer games such as Assassin’s Creed and Horizon Zero Dawn
 

Uncovering the lost voices of Tower Bridge

 
The bridge has always been an important workplace, however, our knowledge about those who worked there had been scant until a few years ago. Thanks to members of the public sharing their stories and our own targeted research our awareness has now vastly increased.
 
Finding names of past employees of the bridge resembles detective work: far less is known than you might expect. Some details can be found in the London Metropolitan Archives, but much of it remains the stuff of family folklore, proudly preserved. Visitors can often be overheard referring to relatives who worked at the bridge and much of what is now on display in our new permanent exhibition in the Victorian Engine Rooms is the result of our many conversations with these visitors. Many of the new records come from visitors, descendants of former employees, who often keep documents, photographs and personal mementoes in the family. 
 

Stan Fletcher, a bridge foreman. “Finding names of past employees of the bridge resembles detective work”, says Dirk Bennett. (Tower Bridge Exhibition)
 
The findings are often surprising, even to the families. After his death, one former employee, Edward ‘Ted’ Forrest, was found to have kept two scrap books documenting his time at the bridge. For more than 30 years he collected information about events and incidents, often forgotten but always fascinating. Thanks to his son, some of that information is now accessible to visitors. Another visitor, whose great-grandfather Charles Bull rose from stoker to bridge driver in the early 20th century, felt compelled to start her own research project and has since uncovered the names of over 150 members of staff who worked at the bridge since 1894. 
 
Preserving these voices is a task that the bridge’s current staff embrace. They are not just part of the story of a national landmark but also of London’s social and cultural history. The names of many of those involved in the bridge’s history are now celebrated in a ‘Walk of Fame’; a series of plaques on the bridge’s south-east footpath unveiled in Spring 2017. 
 
Yet there is still much more research to be done. For example, the names of the divers who in long and tiring shifts worked to clear the riverbed in preparation for the bridge’s massive foundations are yet to be uncovered. And so our research goes on. As do our conversations with the relatives of the unsung heroes who helped make Tower Bridge the national treasure it is today.
 
Dirk Bennett is the Exhibition Development Manager at the Tower Bridge Exhibition. If you have any personal stories or family connections to Tower Bridge, Dirk’s team would love to hear from you at people@towerbridge.org.uk.
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