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.

Sources:

Coventry Evening TelegraphMonday 08 July 1963

Daily MirrorSaturday 30 May 1970

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9 comments on “Unbuilt London: Replacing Tower Bridge with a tunnel
  1. J.Carson says:

    There was a tunnel under the Thames before Tower Bridge was built.Called the Tower Subway it was built in 1869 and initially carried passengers in small cable operated coaches.It stopped in December 1870 and the tunnel was then used as a pedestrian walkway.This then closed when the bridge was built.The tunnel is now used to carry water mains.

  2. Al says:

    Do any maps exist for this proposed tunnel, whether from Jamaica Road to Thomas More Street or any other nearby alternative route?

    It is difficult to visualize though viewing other road map schemes from the 1946 Abercrombie London road plan and more, it would appear some form of tunnel or crossing was considered via the Arterial A-Ring section between Abbey Street and Aldgate.

  3. Matthew says:

    So could the Bridge House Estates fund have been used to pay for the proposed new pedestrian/ cycle bridge across the Thames from Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf that TFL recently canned as it was too expensive for them?

    • ianvisits says:

      The trust generally doesn’t pay for new bridges — it didn’t pay for the millennium bridge — just the maintenance of them, and they have to be within the borders of the City of London.

  4. TJ says:

    I think it can be used to replace a bridge did it pay for the new London bridge! Anyway the similar Rochester Bridge fund can also pay for replacements, as well as maintenance. Of course these funds were designed to produce a regular income to fund repairs and replacements indefinitely. This means the terms of the trust have to stop trustees from wasting the money! Seems a good system, if only more of these schemes could be set up.

  5. Chris H says:

    Re the Trust paying for “…the maintenance of them and they have to be within the boundaries of the City of London”: Tower Bridge is not within the City at all, being some 350m downstream of the City of London boundary connecting the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Southwark.
    For that matter Southwark Bridge and the Wobbly Bridge are each half in Southwark as the boundary is the centre of the river. London and Blackfriars Bridges however are wholly in the City of London as the boundary makes a diversion from the centre of the river so as to include the whole of each bridge in the City. (And also creates two small plots of land where it is possible to stand in the City of London whilst being on the south of the river.)
    https://www.mapping.cityoflondon.gov.uk/geocortex/mapping/?viewer=compass
    Re Bridge House funds paying for new bridges, not only did it pay for the new London Bridge as mentioned by TJ, I think it also paid for the London Bridge before that and for Blackfriars Bridge, and although the Millennium Commission paid for part of the Wobbly Bridge, Bridge House paid for the rest. It didn’t pay to build Southwark – for that one, it paid to buy it from the owners – another use of the fund.

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