28 March 2019

"Tower Bridge: History - Engineering - Design" by Kenneth Powell

Tower Bridge: History - Engineering - Design (Thames and Hudson, 192pp hardback, amazon.co.uk) has recently been published to mark the occasion of the bridge's 125th anniversary (which falls on 30th June this year).

The bridge is one of the most iconic and memorable in the world, and it certainly merits this excellently researched and beautifully presented volume.

The title is a good guide to the contents, which emphasise the achievement of the engineers involved and avoid the temptation to focus on the bridge as an architectural artefact.

The book starts out not with the bridge but with the River Thames itself, the earlier river crossings, and the role of the Pool of London as a key part of the city's port facilities prior to the construction of new docks at the Isle of Dogs in the early 19th century. Setting the tone for the rest of the book, this section is copiously illustrated with old photographs, plans and paintings.

Until the Dartford Crossing was finished in 1991, Tower Bridge was the last bridge across the Thames before the sea. Prior to its completion in 1894, that honour had been held by London Bridge for over 600 years.

As well as discussing the history of several of the key Thames crossings (both bridges and tunnels), the book features several that were never built, such as George Dance the Younger's 1800 idea to replace London Bridge with two parallel bridges, and Thomas Telford's 1801 proposal for a huge cast iron arch.

This is all interesting, but the story of Tower Bridge really began in the 1870s. London Bridge was increasingly congested and a committee was established by the City Corporation to investigate the possibility of a new bridge or subway. Numerous schemes were developed, some by well known engineers such as Joseph Bazalgette and Rowland Mason Ordish, and Powell's book covers these well, including some great illustrations of what now look like quite absurd ideas.

The twin bascule solution was originally proposed by City Architect Horace Jones in 1878, and is shown in detailed original drawings included in the book. This was a drawbridge design, with ornate towers helping to support an arch from which, in turn, the bascules were slung.

The involvement of engineer John Wolfe Barry in the project from 1884 led to the change to a design essentially similar to what was eventually built, with suspended side spans anchored to two elevated, horizontal tie girders, which eliminated the risk of the original arch being struck by tall ships and also served as walkways.

Powell's book does well to cover the many key individuals who were responsible for the bridge's design and construction. These include John Jackson, the lead contractor; William Arrol, whose firm fabricated the steelwork (most of it hidden behind the tower cladding); and William Armstrong, whose firm supplied the hydraulic operating machinery.

Horace Jones died in 1887, a year after the laying of the bridge's foundation stone, and the task of preparing the architectural detail drawings fell to George Daniel Stevenson, who later established his own architectural practice. Several of Stevenson's beautiful drawings are reproduced in the book, along with a handful of engineering drawings and plans. I'd happily have seen more of these, but the book is judicious in its choices.

After describing the architecture, structural engineering and construction work, the book devotes a full chapter to the machinery and operation of the bridge, with more excellent photographs and diagrams. The engineering aspects are well-explained, and I think the level of detail given is about right for a lay-readership - informative without being too extensive.

A chapter towards the end of the book addresses Tower Bridge's life following construction and its status as an icon, although I think there was more that could have been said here (compare, for example, Peter Spearritt's book on Sydney Harbour Bridge). The Tower Bridge clone in Suzhou, China, doesn't even get a mention!

The final chapter discusses a few of the people involved in the bridge during its operational life, such as the various Bridge Masters, and although this is very welcome I think it would have been better to integrate these tales into the body of the book. There are also chapter notes, a bibliography and helpful index.

Overall, this is a genuinely excellent book about a bridge which certainly merits this level of in-depth attention. In addition to the historic images, there are many very high quality photographs of the bridge today, which make the book a joy to look through. It should certainly appeal to bridge enthusiasts, but more widely to readers interested in London, architecture and engineering.

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