London's most famous bridge is 125 years old in 2019, but for all the marvellous facts there's only really one story anybody wants to hear. Is it true that a double decker bus once cleared the gap as the bridge was opening? Annunciata Elwes and Toby Keel investigate.
What’s 143ft tall, incorporates 31 million bricks and is stepped on by 40,000 Londoners every day?
If you said ‘Tower Bridge’, congratulations; if you didn’t, please let us know what it was about the headline and picture on this story that failed to give it away.
The most famous bridge in London – and arguably the world – was opened 125 years ago this June to combat rising traffic in the capital, after eight years of construction, during which two massive piers were sunk into the riverbed to support the weight of 11,000 tons of steel clad in Portland stone and Cornish granite.
When the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) declared it open in 1894, it was the largest and most sophisticated bascule bridge in the world, a ‘bascule’ being the needlessly obscure word used by the engineers to describe the hinged roadway. Although it was originally operated by steam power, electricity and oil have taken over, but visitors today can see the original engine rooms and boilers. What they will no longer see are the prostitutes and pickpockets who quickly discovered that the walkways were a fine place to ply their trade; it got so bad that the walkways were actually closed for most of the 20th century.
For all the extraordinary facts about this bridge (did you know that it was originally painted chocolate brown, only changing to red, white and blue for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977?) there is really only one story that people want to know about the bridge: is it true that a London bus once jumped the gap as the bridge accidentally opened before the traffic had cleared?
Rather brilliantly, this is a curious question to which we can answer a clear and emphatic ‘yes’. The incident took place on December 30, 1952, as a number 78 bus from Shoreditch to Dulwich was travelling across as the bascules began to lift.
The bus was doing just 12mph at the time – the foot speed of a decent runner –but the driver, Albert Gunter, realised he didn’t have the space to come to a halt. Instead, he made a gut decision to slam down on the accelerator; luckily, the south side of the bridge was slower to rise and the bus made the jump of around six feet intact.
The passengers were all thrown from their seats but no one was too badly hurt and in fact it was Gunter himself who came off worst, breaking his leg. Yet that blow was softened by the fact that he became a minor celebrity, received a £10 bonus for his quick thinking and even went on to be best man at the wedding of one of the passengers.
Not all stunts involving the bridge have been so spontaneous. In 1912 the daredevil aviator Frank McClean pulled off something just as spectacular, flying his seaplane between the towers, beneath the walkways and above the bascules.
It was a triumphant moment, but like all good daredevils, McClean was unable to leave well enough alone: he proceeded to fly under all the rest of London’s bridges as far as Westminster, then turned his plane around and tried to fly back through in the other direction. All went well until he reached Tower Bridge once more, when a gust of wind saw him crash into the murky Thames.
Thankfully, he survived – as did Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock in 1968, when he roared through the gap in a Hawker Hunter jet while staging a fly-past demonstration in anger at the government’s treatment of the RAF.
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