The helmet-less heroes that built Tower Bridge

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London’s Tower Bridge is a monument to Victorian invention and extravagant vision, but also to the endeavour of the men – and women – that built and worked in it.

Research by Royal Holloway, University of London, in partnership with the bridge’s own archive has revealed some of the personalities behind what has become a worldwide symbol for the capital of the United Kingdom.

They include the Rivet Boys that mostly came from Glasgow and Newcastle; John Black the driller who made some of the three million holes in the steel frame; and Charlotte Olive Dora Burch, known as Olive, who was the assistant of the first bridgemaster, Angelo Cater.

In the 1870s the growing trade of London’s East End and Docklands caused catastrophic traffic jams on London Bridge, the only crossing downstream on the Thames. Tower Bridge was devised to ease the congestion and a committee was set up to find either a bridge design or a tunnel. The competition to find a design opened in 1877 attracted more than 50 submissions – including one by the designer of London's sewerage system, Joseph Bazalgette – and after fierce debate the eventual winners on 1884 were the engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry and the architect Sir Horace Jones.

Their plan was for a cross between a bascule bridge – a drawbridge that could be raised to allow ships to pass through to and from the Pool of London -and a suspension bridge. Construction started in 1886 with that contract going to Sir William Arrol & Co of Glasgow. It opened in 1894.

Because nearly all the companies that were concerned in the construction have now disappeared, records of their workers have too, but research via their families has reconstructed some of their stories. Dirk Bennett, the Tower Bridge exhibition development manager, has collated hitherto unpublished details about some of those involved in building the neo-gothic wonder.

The 11,000 ton steel frame was built on Glasgow and transported by steamers with loads of no more than 100 tons each, and Bennett’s researchers have discovered that Arrol’s Clydsiders came to London to constrict it making up a large proportion of 440 workforce. Labourers came from locations such as Bridgeton, Bathgate, Portsea, Bankhead and even, like the Heaney family, from Ireland; many, like the hydraulic engineers, came from the North-East. Some, like John Heaney, never returned home, and John Chalk, a rivet boy, later emigrated to New Zealand. Many workers also came from the London boroughs around the bridge.

“One interesting aspect” says Bennett “is the pay of the workers - which was up to 6d (two-and-a-half pence) per day - and what they could afford to buy for it. We can see from bills of the 1890s that a pot of marmalade cost half a shilling – about £5 in modern money. As 1one shilling was 12 pence a Tower Bridge worker would have had to work for roughly two days, if not more, for one jar of marmalade.”

The workers also worked in what would today be an unacceptably unsafe environment. “There are people without harnesses, safety equipment, helmets etc, and dressed in suit trousers and waistcoats climbing around on the site” Bennett says. “It was a very hierarchical structure, too: you recognise the workers by their fat caps, the foremen by their bowler hats and the engineers by their top hats (and much better clothes!)”. And the workforce was almost completely white and male.

Hannah Griggs (above) was one of the few females working on the bridge. Born to an unmarried mother in 1888 she began working life as a kitchen maid but joined the Bridge compliment probably to work for the bridgemaster. She left when she married a railway firefighter. The phototroph of Hannah now in the exhibition came from grand-daughter, Susan Belcher.

The first woman to be recruited was Olive Burch, who also worked for the first bridgemaster Angelo Bertie Cator, who had been born in Devonport, Plymouth. In 2018 her story was enlarged on by her grand-daughter, Liz Hunter, a retired schoolteacher. Olive married and lived in Brixton where her husband’s family had a wheelwright’s business, where she later went to work as an accountant. She died in1920.

One of the more surprising discoveries for Bennett has come from beneath the river’s surface. “It was finding the names of the divers who went down into the Thames to prepare the foundations for the massive piers that anchor the bridge in the river” he says. “We now have the names of the whole crew - John "Jack Ginger" William Bateman, Thomas Clucas, Stephen Nott Fry, Friend Samuel Penney (Foreman), James Rouse, James Thacker   - and we are even in touch with some of their families.”

But there’s also a fascinating exception to the “all white” profile of the bridge crew that only came to light in 2019. “He was the Indian engineer, Keshavji Shamji Budhbhatti, who came over in 1885 from his native Bhuj to study at the Royal Indian Engineering College, Cooper’s Hill near Windsor. He found employment at the bridge in 1889 and stayed until its completion before returning to India.

“His family report that his mother was initially very concerned about him having  turned into too much of an Englishman, bringing back new-fangled ideas and habits which were unfamiliar and unsuitable for the sub-continent” says Bennett. 

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