Forgotten Images of Tower Bridge as it Might Have Been

Tower Bridge was designed to reconcile the conflicting interests of road and river traffic at a time when London was the world’s most populous city and also its greatest port.

But before the globally famous design we know today was chosen, a host of eminent Victorian architects and engineers proposed some very different solutions to the problem of allowing increased road traffic without impeding large vessels on the river.

In 1876 designs for a new Thames crossing were invited by the Corporation of London. F.J. Palmer submitted this plan in 1877.

Tower Bridge as it Might Have Been - Design by F.J Palmer 1877

Tower Bridge as it Might Have Been – Design by F.J Palmer 1877

Palmer’s bridge, inspired by earlier designs, had two moveable platforms at either end of the bridge and it was intended that at each one a roadway would always be in place, even when vessels were passing through.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette, chief commissioner to the Metropolitan Board of Works, proposed a series of designs for a very high-level bridge that would have allowed shipping to pass beneath.

As the architect of London’s great sewer, the Victoria & Albert Embankments, Putney, Hammersmith and Battersea bridges and much else, Bazalgette’s proposals were perhaps the most credible of the 50 different designs submitted.

Tower Bridge as it Might Have Been - Design for a lattice girder bridge by Sir Joseph Bazalgette 1878

Tower Bridge as it Might Have Been – Design for a lattice girder bridge by Sir Joseph Bazalgette 1878

Tower Bridge as it Might Have Been - Design for a cantilever bridge by Sir Joseph Bazalgette 1878

Tower Bridge as it Might Have Been – Design for a cantilever bridge by Sir Joseph Bazalgette 1878

Tower Bridge as it Might Have Been - Design for a single span bridge by Sir Joseph Bazalgette 1878

Tower Bridge as it Might Have Been – Design for a single span bridge by Sir Joseph Bazalgette 1878

But all three of Bazalgette’s designs would have required an enormous spiral ramp on the southern bank of the Thames to enable traffic to descend at a reasonable gradient.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette's proposed spiral southern approach gradient for Tower Bridge

Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s proposed spiral southern approach gradient for Tower Bridge

Other proposals included:

  • Various other low-level bridges with openings in the roadways
  • A low level bridge with an uninterrupted roadway ( not acceptable to shipping and wharf owners).
  • A high-level bridge with hydraulic lifts to raise and lower traffic.
  • A tunnel with hydraulic lifts and a tunnel with inclined approaches.
  • A ferry (seen as impractical on account of delays caused by fog and frost).

In 1878 Horace Jones, Chief Architect and Surveyor to the Corporation of London and one of the judges on the panel assigned to choose the final design, must have been pleasantly surprised to discover that his own design for a low level bridge with twin drawbridges (bascules) was considered to be the front runner.

Jones wasn’t the first person to propose a lifting bridge, philosopher Jeremy Bentham‘s brother General Samuel Bentham had proposed a bascule bridge as far back as 1801.

Tower Bridge as it Might Have Been - Design by Horace Jones 1878

Tower Bridge as it Might Have Been – Design by Horace Jones 1878

Glasgow based engineers Bell & Miller were not happy with the officially sanctioned Jones design and introduced their own Bill into Parliament in an attempt to build their design for a “duplex” bridge.

Tower Bridge as it Might Have Been - Design by Bell & Miller 1884

Tower Bridge as it Might Have Been – Design by Bell & Miller 1884

Bell & Miller’s Bill failed and so this gigantic pair of “locks” closed by swing bridges and set into a hexagonal roadway were never built.

Instead, in 1886 work began on the Jones plan, after substantial revisions made in collaboration with James Wolfe-Barry. Jones died one month into the construction and so it fell to Wolfe-Barry to complete the bridge in its current form (Jones had wanted to clad the steel structure in brick rather than stone).

The final design by Horace Jones and James Wolfe Barry 1885

The final design by Horace Jones and James Wolfe Barry 1885

Eight years, and the loss of ten lives, later, Tower Bridge opened in all its steel and stone magnificence on the 30th June 1894.

The Tower Bridge from a drawing by C.W.Wyllie 1894

The Tower Bridge from a drawing by C.W.Wyllie 1894

All the above images come from an original copy of The Tower Bridge – Its history and construction from the date of the earliest project to the present time by J.E. Tuit published by The Engineer, London, in 1894.The book contains many other potential designs as well as building plans for the bridge and images of its construction.

This is a rare book and a copy will set you back around £100-£150 but it has been scanned and uploaded by Unz.org so you can read it for free here.

The author of this blog is a fully qualified and insured City of Westminster Tour Guide who runs unique walking tours and private tours in London.

All Public Walking Tours are bookable here via Eventbrite.

I also offer Private Tours, Private Events and provide Consultancy Services for media and education professionals in London. You can read Reviews of  Walks and see some recent projects here. Please feel free to contact me about any of these services.

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