Tower Bridge: build of a lifetime

The major project for which John Wolfe Barry is best known was the construction of Tower Bridge between 1886 and 1894.

As in his father’s New Palace of Westminster the architectural style was not of his choosing, but his was the technical achievement, together with his close business partner Henry Brunel – this included huge hydraulic bascules supplied by W.G Armstrong which had to be raised and lowered regularly and quickly to let the busy Thames traffic pass over and through. John received a certain amount of advice from his close friend Sir Benjamin Baker, engineer of the Forth Railway Bridge, with whom Barry would work on the design and construction of the Royal Edward Dock in Avonmouth. He also depended very much on the services of steelmaster William Arrol, who with Baker was constructing the unprecedented Forth Railway Bridge in Scotland.

A number of proposals had been put forward in the 1870s and early 1880s but still were rejected, mainly because of interference with shipping. In 1884 Wolfe Barry joined the City Architect Horace Jones in proposing a bascule bridge with clear headroom of 135 ft above Trinity high water over the whole of its 200 ft opening span. This not only satisfied the shipping interests but, with its long suspended side spans, it also minimised interference with the river flow. The overhead walkway ensured that pedestrian access need never be interrupted. Visually Horace Jones’s medieval-style masonry cladding was accepted as complementing the stone of the adjacent Tower of London. All objections were thus overcome and the Act was passed in August 1885.

In February 1885 Henry Brunel had written to his friend the hydraulic engineer John George Gamble about plans to build a new bridge at the Tower for the Corporation of London and included an elevation sketch. By June 1886 he was telling another acquaintance that John Wolfe Barry looked very nice in gold lace and a sword at the laying of the Memorial stone for the bridge, construction having begun in April of that year.

Horace Jones was knighted and when he died in May 1887, Wolfe Barry was put in full charge of the completion of the design and building of the bridge. He in turn engaged George Stevenson, Jones’s assistant, to help him develop the architectural cladding to the structural steel of the towers.

The bridge was opened in 1894.