Tower Bridge and its men of steel

Yesterday Tower Bridge, London, celebrated the 125th anniversary of its opening on the 30 June 1894. It is our most iconic bridge, recognised the world over as a symbol of London and of Britain.  As people applaud Horace Jones and John Wolfe Barry for their design and the 8 contractors who built the bridge and hydraulics, we must also remember the workers whose skill and labour contributed to its success.

Colour photograph of Tower Bridge stretching across the River Thames

Tower Bridge, London

On outward appearance it looks like a stone bridge but, like another of our iconic bridges, the Forth Rail Bridge, it is in fact a steel bridge.  These two bridges also have in common that their steel structures were built by Sir William Arrol & Company Ltd. Over the summer of 1893, at the peak of construction, there were over 280 men and boys working on the steelwork alone.  The men worked in two independent teams, one on the north bank of the River Thames, under the supervision of David Harris, and the other on the south bank, under the supervision of David Muirhead.  There were also workers at the West India Dock, half a mile away, where all the steel girders and plates shipped from the Dalmarnock Works in Glasgow were unloaded onto barges for transfer to the Tower Bridge site. Work was carried out round the clock with day shift running from 6.00am to 5.15pm and night shift from 5.45pm to 5.45am. Each man worked an average of 56.5 hours a week, Monday to Saturday.    Their working time was recorded to the nearest ¼ hour and most were paid on an hourly rate ranging from 2.5d to 9d per hour.

Carpenters were paid the highest rates.  It was their job to build the scaffolding, ladders, walkways and platforms that allowed the workers to move around the site and carry out their work.  Temporary working platforms, built at heights up to 140 feet above the high water mark, had to safely support the teams of men who plated, drilled and riveted the steel components, as well as the heavy equipment they used.  This was all highly skilled work and very dangerous.  Workers were exposed to extremes of weather, with rain, high winds and freezing temperatures making for hazardous working conditions. There was a risk of falling off the platforms as handrails were the only barriers provided. Workers also had to be very careful not to drop materials and tools which could hit boats and people below, with the risk of damage, injury and even death.  Some of the men were engaged at Tower Bridge because they had previously worked on other Arrol bridge constructions, or were from the shipyards and highly skilled and experienced in working at heights.

Black and white photograph of the steel towers of Tower Bridge and upper walkways partially built

Tower Bridge construction, 1892

George Aitken had previously worked as a fitter at the Arrol Works in Dalmarnock and then foreman fitter on the Forth Bridge construction works.  George was foreman of the team brought in at the initial stages of the Arrol works at Tower Bridge and, unlike most of the workers who were paid an hourly rate, George was salaried, earning £3 per week.  James Sommerville, a 24 years old fitter worked in George’s squad and earned 7d per hour.  He had worked with George on the Forth Bridge and had been best man at George’s wedding, just a few months prior to the London job. James lived in Jubilee Buildings on Wapping High Street, where many of the Arrol workers lived while working on the bridge. George Black also lived there. Born in South Queensferry in the days when the only way to cross the Forth estuary was by ferry, it is likely that George also worked on the Forth Bridge.  He was employed at the Tower Bridge works for the 4 years of construction, initially as a labourer, then craneman, earning 6.5d per hour. He lodged at Jubilee Buildings with fellow workers, Peter Irvine (striker, 32 years), James Lothian (carpenter) and Alexander Bremner (craneman, 35 years).  Edward Roughley was another craneman who had previously worked on the Forth Bridge. He was born in Lancashire in 1854 and started his working life in a colliery before moving to South Queensferry for bridge work.  He was a winchman and crane driver on Tower Bridge, living with his family in Vine Street Buildings in Horsleydown  with other workers, including John Merker (craneman from South Queensferry, 27 years). Andrew and John Dick, a blacksmith and riveter, were brothers working together on the bridge and living at Jubilee Buildings.  They were both born and brought up in Dundee and at the ages of 16 years and 12 years would have seen the disastrous collapse of the first Tay Bridge in 1879. It is possible that Andrew worked on the replacement Tay Bridge and at 27 years old, was one of the best paid workers on Tower Bridge, earning 9d per hour.

Black and white photograph of 5 men standing beside a crane surrounded by rails and girders

Cranemen at Tower Bridge works, c1890.    Photo courtesy of Tower Bridge.

It was not unusual for families to work together. Heaney & Co. was a riveting gang headed up by John Heaney with two of his sons on the team.  John was born in Glasgow in 1841 and grew up in Dalmarnock long before William Arrol & Co. ever existed there.  It may have been the Dalmarnock  connection that brought him to work on Tower Bridge. For years he worked as a blacksmith in the north of England, eventually as a riveter in the shipyards.  The years of experience served him well and in 1891 at 50 years he was running the riveting gang at Tower Bridge.  Riveting gangs were often paid in piecework by the number of rivets worked, and in a week Heaney & Co. earned over £11. The youngest son, Edward (18 years), was a rivet heater and it was his job to heat the rivets in a small oil-fired furnace until they were red hot.   He would then pass the rivet to his brother John (19 years), a holder-up who would hold the rivet in place using tongs, ready for the riveter to hammer it in. Usually riveters worked in pairs hammering the rivet quickly with alternating blows so that the hot metal would expand in the hole and form a tight seal as it cooled.  Where Arrol’s invention, the hydraulic riveting machine was used, only one riveter was needed to position the machine and control the levers which engaged the hydraulic ram. The rivet heater and holder-up were at risk of being burned by the red-hot rivets and it is evident from Edward Heaney’s army service record  that this was the case as it describes him as having a burn scar on the inside of his right arm.

black and white etching showing men working on wooden scaffolding, ladders and platforms

Illustration of Tower Bridge workers by Henri Lanos, 1892

Another worker from the shipyards was Matthew Kirkland who was born in Govan into the shipbuilding tradition. His father worked in the Govan shipyards as a caulker, sealing seams in iron ships.  After leaving school Matthew followed in his father’s footsteps becoming an apprentice in the shipyards, where his younger brother James was already working as a rivet boy. Matthew developed his skills as a ships plater and his experience working in the shipyards led him to Tower Bridge, where he started working in December 1890 at the age of 26 years.   James Stein was also an experienced ships plater who had work in shipyards in Dunfermline, Dundee and Newcastle before coming to work on Tower Bridge.

One of the youngest workers was 15 year old John Chalk. He was born in Durham but, at the age of 5 years, was living in poverty with his mother and sisters in Portsea Island Union Workhouse.  By 1891 the Chalk family circumstances had improved and they were living at 8 Red Mead Lane, Wapping taking in 3 lodgers engaged at the Tower Bridge works, Alexander Langlands (riveter, 24 years), Oliver Dare (holder up, 26 years) and Fred Bishop (nightwatchman, 50 years). John started working at Tower Bridge as a storekeeper’s boy but within a couple of years was working as a rivet boy.  Despite his age he worked the same hours as everyone else on the bridge, for which he was paid considerably less, only 2.5d per hour.  After the bridge was completed John continued to live in London, where he married and brought up his children until 1913 when they emigrated to New Zealand.

Black and white photograph of the Tower Bridge steel work with the masonry being built around the towers.

Tower Bridge construction, 1892

Some of the workers, like the blacksmith Andrew Dick and craneman Edward Roughley continued to work in London after Tower Bridge was completed. The only ones known to have continued working at Tower Bridge itself were brothers Thomas and John Freeston.  They came from Nottingham and started working on the bridge as labourers alongside their brother Charles.  After the bridge opened, Thomas continued to work there, initially as an oiler and then bridge driver, helping to keep the machinery in working order.  His brother John worked beside him as an engineer’s labourer but Charles returned home to Nottingham.  Many others workers also moved back home.  Plater, Matthew Kirkland, returned to Scotland, becoming a foreman in bridge construction and George Black returned to Dalmarnock where he continued working as a craneman.

These are just a few of the stories of  men and boys who worked on the bridge which show the high level of skill that Sir William Arrol & Company Ltd demanded of their workers.  Some of the stories have been brought to life in the Tower Bridge  exhibition walk of fame, which celebrates the workers who helped to build, maintain and operate the bridge.


Sir William Arrol & Company Ltd pay books for the Tower Bridge works, April 1890 to May 1894. (TD208/24/10-13) held by Glasgow City Archives.

UK census and birth, marriage and death records accessed in the ScotlandsPeople website and Ancestry website.