Considering how iconic Tower Bridge is as a symbol of London, it’s difficult to believe that just 50 years ago there were plans to replace it with a tunnel.
In 1963 it was announced that the City of London was looking at replacing the bridge with a tunnel. It emerged when the Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples was attending an event down the road to mark the start of work on the Blackfriars bridgehead improvement.
His concern, and that of the City was that the bridge’s famous lifting spans were a “serious obstruction” to road traffic, and as far as the government was concerned, the sooner they were removed the better. A City spokesman confirmed that they were working on plans for a tunnel, but that they were at the moment at a very early stage.
As it happens, the Bridge was nearly a tunnel from the very start – when the competition was announced for a river crossing, one of the close favourites was a tunnel instead of a bridge.
If a tunnel were to be built, then it would have been funded by the Bridge House Estates, a 740 year old trust fund managed by the City of London to cover the costs of maintaining bridges across the Thames at no cost to the taxpayer.
At the time, the trust fund had reserves of £2.7 million, which it expected to reach £10 million by 1985, enough to cover half the cost of the tunnel – with the rest funded from a loan.
The regular opening of the bridge being seen as an impediment to road traffic was not to last though, with the demise of London’s docks, and the collapse of river traffic in central London. The bridge was looking even less of a functional impediment by 1969 when Hay’s Wharf closed as a warehouse, and the bridge’s famous bascules were rarely opened after that.
The bridge was saved. Or was it?
In May 1970, the Greater London Council was warning that Tower Bridge could become a pedestrian only bridge by 1980 as it would be unsafe for heavy road traffic. The GLC’s environmental planning committee also wanted a tunnel to take the road traffic load — running from Jamaica Road on the south to Thomas More Street on the north side, but at least they considered keeping the bridge, as a tourist attraction.
At the time, Robert Vigars, chair of the GLC’s committee told the press that “The City Corporation have informed us that Tower Bridge may not be safe for the amount of heavy traffic expected after about 1980. A new river crossing for traffic must be planned, but I hope the bridge will be retained at least as a pedestrian link,”
However, the high costs of demolishing housing to construct the approaches to a new road meant that Tower Bridge was still at risk.
However, instead in 1974 it was decided to upgrade the engines that powered the bridge lifting mechanism, and the bridge road sections strengthened, and the opening of the second Blackwall Tunnel a decade earlier had significantly reduced heavy road traffic on the bridge.
There is still a weight and speed limit on the bridge to this day though.
Now seen as an icon of London, demolishing it was seen as unthinkable, and when the LDDC was set up in 1981 to redevelop London’s docklands, Tower Bridge was chosen for its logo.
Naturally, the tunnel was never built, but the reserves held by the Bridge House Estates to fund the tunnel rose by far more than would have been needed – and today stand at around £1.5 billion, but being constrained to only fund the bridges over the Thames, and by then having far too much money to be able to spend, in 1995 they secured a change in the law to set up the City Bridge Trust, as a charitable foundation which now gives around £20 million a year to charity.
So we still have a famous bridge, and gained a charity that gives lots of money to charity. Which is so much better than the road tunnel we could have ended up with.
Coventry Evening Telegraph – Monday 08 July 1963
Daily Mirror – Saturday 30 May 1970