On 30 June 2019 London and possibly the world will celebrate a day that commemorates 125 years since the opening of a well-known bridge.
No, not the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, opened in 1883, nor the Forth Railway Bridge in Scotland opened in 1890, though both deserve special mention for their uniqueness as huge structures, still in use, which employed steel in a ground-breaking way.
This bridge is of course Tower Bridge.
Not everyone knows that the two famous towers which encapsulate the bridge are also made from steel. It is the same Scottish steel used to build the Forth Bridge first, and then almost immediately shipped down to London for the next big project.
In the case of Tower Bridge, the steel framework was clad in stone, which while acting to protect it from corrosion, was also needed to meet the architectural requirement that the bridge blend with the medieval Tower of London next to it. There was much controversy at the time about this.
The enormous bascule leaves, which still open and shut for river traffic, were a wonder to behold for the royals and public who attended the opening ceremony and were only surpassed in length a few decades later in the United States. I write about them in my forthcoming book on Sir John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel (the civil engineers for the bridge), which will also cover their famous fathers Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Charles Barry.
Footnote: Dan Cruikshank, the TV broadcaster specialising in architectural history, has presented programmes on Tower Bridge which are sadly no longer available via broadcast networks. But for an intro to the history of London’s bridges see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8n15w-s1qIM. Tower Bridge itself start from 47:30 minutes in.
I’ve had the privilege of working with leading civil and structural engineers over the period since early 2016.
I am not one of them, in the sense that I don’t have their knowledge, understanding and skills in the technical requirements of civil and structural engineering. However, I do understand much better some of their key attributes and motivations.
One that stands out is their approach to solving problems. If a building or a bridge falls down killing and injuring people then the first question asked is: who built it? There may be some context for this, in the sense that if the structural failure was due to an ‘Act of God’ such as an earthquake or tidal wave, then some leeway is given to the identified responsible person. However, if as in the Grenfell Tower inferno, or the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, there is some sense that the blame was entirely linked to human neglect, then the repercussions can be very severe for those found wanting.
On the other hand, progress through technical advances is only really made as a response to a crisis of some kind. If we had no crises then life might appear easier for all of us, but there would be costly consequences. Society would become stale and complacent, more susceptible to potential threats that could have much bigger impacts for larger numbers of victims. There are difficult choices to be made with pros and cons each way.
Civil and structural engineers therefore solve problems as ‘scientifically’ as they can, based on hard evidence of past failures and successes, but also with due acknowledgement to present circumstances and future possibilities. The professional standards they set for themselves assure that this is the case, and if the public is not sufficiently convinced then Government legislates as a further safeguard.
The 19th Century Barrys, about whom I am currently writing, faced these same issues as builders of structures. They also tried to guide the conversation through their involvement with developing professional bodies in architecture and civil engineering. Charles Barry junior and John Wolfe Barry were both Presidents of their Institutions (RIBA and ICE) and Sir Charles Barry won a preeminent Royal Gold Medal from Queen Victoria for his professional services to architecture.
The British Houses of Parliament have been in the news lately because of the laborious process for leaving the EU.
This process was clearly set up to discourage any state from doing a Brexit, Grexit or Frexit. Perhaps call it Nexit to be clear? The British people just want a clear decision to avoid current uncertainty.
As I watched the debates in the House of Commons last week I couldn’t help but admire the chamber in which the Members of Parliament sit, assuming they can find a spare place. It was deliberately designed by Charles Barry senior to be cosy, at the express wishes of the 19th Century incumbents who feared it would look vast and empty during an average poorly attended session!
Once completed by Edward Middleton Barry, the New Palace of Westminster would see numerous debates and committee sessions, including an inquiry into building a bridge across the adjacent Thames further downriver next to the Tower of London. One of the expert witnesses was Sir Charles’ other son John Wolfe Barry by then a respected civil engineer, who reassured MPs that despite vociferous opposition from some local commercial interests, the proposed bascule bridge would be a huge benefit to road traffic and a minor hindrance to river traffic. Tower Bridge still operates on this premise over a century later.
The benefit of hindsight ….
New Year’s Eve will mark the end of the Year of Engineering 2018.
This has been a UK Government led campaign to promote engineering as a career option to young people. Simultaneously, it coincided with the bicentenary of the founding of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1818 and the launch of a similar video-based campaign by the Royal Academy of Engineering called ‘This is Engineering’.
I have been privileged to be a small part of this all through my day job as Education Manager at the Institution of Structural Engineers. We published our own careers videos at the start of this year.
What can we now expect of the legacy?
To be honest it’s difficult to tell currently as the Year of Engineering website continues to list and seek submissions for engineering related events into 2019.
What would I like to happen?
I’d like the Government and the engineering sector to broaden out the messages to all those interested in careers in ‘design and build’, but particularly those defined audiences who could be helped to overcome any cultural or other barriers to success. This might include people with specific age, gender, race and other personal characteristics, depending on the nature of any barriers and the proposed solutions to removing them.
This could kick start a new era of design and build capturing the spirit of global volunteer programmes such as Bridges to Prosperity or the Grenfell Tower and similar schemes that have sprung up locally as a result of a terrible tragedy.
As blogged before, next summer will mark 125 years since Tower Bridge was opened.
I’ve added a couple of extra pages to this site which is about the man who built the bridge. The first is on how John Wolfe Barry persuaded Parliament to approve the plans for a bascule bridge across the Thames. The second covers the pivotal role of William Arrol in manufacturing and installing the steel framework for the towers that supported the huge bascules. I will add further pages as we get closer to the date.
You can also keep an eye on Tower Bridge’s own plans at its Facebook page and via its Twitter handle @towerbridge .
At least one new book about the history of the bridge will be published, but in the meantime you can read Honor Godfrey’s excellent softback of 1988 through library loans or Amazon.
On 30 June 2019 many of us will be celebrating 125 years since Tower Bridge was first opened to the public.
More than a year ago I started putting content on this website about the builder of Tower Bridge with the aim of completing it by 22 January this year, the centenary of Sir John Wolfe Barry’s death. I was actually ahead of target.
So I’ll set myself another goal for the 8 plus months until we reach the end of June next year: add more content to this website specifically about Tower Bridge, but obviously relevant to what is already here. As I did with John Wolfe Barry’s biography, I will blog as I go along. Tomorrow I will start with the beginnings of JWB’s involvement with the project to span the Thames further east than had ever previously been achieved with a bridge.
Hope you come back to have a look.