Join me on my weekly travels in my Time Machine as I go back to a year in London’s past.
A recent trip took me back to London in 1882, back to see one of the great Wimbledon Tennis finals with defending champion William Renshaw playing his twin brother Ernest. This was an enthralling 5-set thriller, with Willie winning 6-1, 2-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. Those onlookers would have looked on in wonder if suddenly the roof started to close due to rain! it Imagine the look on their faces!
While I was back in the summer of 1882 I also took a Hansom Cab across London Bridge. Goodness me, I spent nearly an hour listening to the driver bemoaning the traffic on the bridge – he would just have loved the freedom of the bus lanes that today’s cabbies have! Sitting in this gridlock convinced me the government of this time got it spot on – with the need to build another bridge a little further downstream.
My research pre-travel revealed that London Bridge had around 110,000 people and over 22,000 horse and hand drawn vehicles crossing it in just one day!
London Bridge has always been a route into the capital’s financial district, where the heart of this city beats. Under too much strain with London growing for many years and not just to the west, but further east, a new bridge was urgently needed to take off some of the pressure.
My next thought was why not go back to 30th June 1894, the day that Edward, Prince of Wales (Queen Victoria’s oldest son) officially opened the new River Thames crossing, Tower Bridge.
The Thames is the lifeblood of London and has an energy you can almost touch. London vibrates on each of its banks with a vitality I’ve not seen anywhere else in the world – and believe me, I’ve been around.
Construction commenced on Tower Bridge in 1888, a magnificent job completed 6 years later – and despite a cost of nearly £1.2 million, it was badly needed.
Designed by Horace Jones in collaboration with John Wolfe Barry, it was built by 8 different contractors responsible for different areas of the structure.
Now finished and being officially opened by Prince Edward (also known as ‘Bertie’) – and I was there as a member of the public, those rejoicing spectators plus the press of the day.
Sitting in a royal horse drawn carriage, the Prince travelled across the bridge a number of times before alighting and pulling a lever to a 10 gun salute to raise the bridge, allowing a flotilla of 12 steamships to pass underneath the bascules.
It was fantastic! The crowd cheered as the bridge opened and cheered louder as the droppings from the Prince’s horses slid down with a splat!
Don’t worry about the poop, as there were men on standby to clear the mess!
Can you imagine if no one was employed to clear up the horse manure in London streets? Can you imagine the shower of droppings (I’m being polite here!). These were among the 80 members of staff originally employed to work on the bridge! Yes 80 people employed just on Tower Bridge – 57 men alone to operate the machinery! All in stark contrast to today.
What a wondrous bridge she is, yes, ‘She.’ There is something elegant about this design, built of steel and having a concrete cladding added to the façade as a nod to the Tower of London, the bridge displays a stylishness not seen at this end of the Thames.
Looking west, I am struck by the contrast of London Bridge compared to this one. Standing on Tower Bridge today I am deeply impressed not only by her design and her beauty, but also her functionality! Time is money and the bridge needs to be opened again quickly to continue to allow trade to flow up and down the Thames.
I walked to the centre of the bridge to watch as HMS Gannett was lost from sight taking the bend in the river, east towards the estuary – and you can still see her today at Chatham Dockyard, and even board her too.
Looking up at the gantries above my head, I think of the movie Sherlock with Robert Downey Junior and also that old American favourite John Wayne, as Brannigan, running across the bridge gun in hand – and wonder what would the people here at today’s opening ceremony think of that!
I know the overhead walkways proved unpopular at first, and were closed early in the 20th Century. The raising of the bridge took 7-10 minutes, and pedestrians couldn’t be bothered to walk up the steps to cross over the river by the walkways when it was quicker to wait for the bascules to return to horizontal to walk across.
The steam engines were replaced in 1976 by electricity and now only 13 members of staff are employed on the bridge, and it now takes just one of them to open and close it!
I cannot help but feel proud of this amazing feat of engineering, and the crowds around me are waving as Bertie and the rest of his Royal entourage leave the bridge and return to Buckingham Palace.
Looking around at these onlookers and thinking forward to 2020 it doesn’t seem very different – except for the fact that today we have tourists from all over the world crossing our unique London icon. The backdrop of our really unique bridge is a ‘must have’ for those special photos sent back home to family and friends.
I’m off back to 2020. Be back soon with another time travelling visit to one of my favourite tourist spots. See you soon.