It was claimed that John Gass had the best job in London during his 24-year reign as the longest-serving bridge master of Tower Bridge.
Though he found himself as superintendent of London’s proudest feat of civil engineers, Gass was born in 1852 in Carlisle, and learnt his trade as an engineer in Gateshead upon Tyne.
Gass landed his first job at the bridge in 1886, as a foreman during its eight-year construction.
He stayed on after work had finished in 1894 to become its first ever superintendent of machinery at the Elswick works. He was employed by Sir W. G. Armstrong, Mitchell and Company, and oversaw the erection of hydraulic machinery and armaments of H.M.S. Sans Pareil, and other warships.
Two years later he was promoted to bridge master. He had the vital role of keeping the state of the art engines and machinery working, so it could open and close for passing ships at a time when the Thames was still heaving with industry and cargo boats.
His other responsibilities included: paying the workers’ wages; ordering stores and materials; producing drawings; certifying the accounts; reporting monthly and annually to the Bridge-House Estates Committee. For this he was paid £380 per year with residence.
He was elected to associate membership of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1898, and was made an official member in 1901.
In 1930, aged 78, he retired and moved from Bermondsey to live in Catford, until his death in February 12, 1938, and was buried in Hither Green Cemetery with other members of his family.
Construction of Tower Bridge commenced in 1887, cost £1,184,000 (Today’s equivalent of £122m), and took eight years with five major contractors. The resident engineer for the bridge’s construction was E. W. Crutwell.
Its foundations were laid by Sir John Jackson, the hydraulics were by Baron Armstrong, with the rest of the assembly taken on by William Webster, Sir H.H. Bartlett, and Sir William Arrol & Amp Co. Together they employed 432 workers. Two massive piers containing over 70,000 tons of concrete were sunk into the riverbed to support the construction.
Over 11,000 tons of steel provided the framework for the towers and walkways, then clad in Cornish granite and Portland stone.
The bridge was officially opened on June 30, 1894.
John Gass will feature amongst a new permanent Walk of Fame exhibition at the Tower Bridge Exhibition, organised with Historic England, which will celebrate some of the unsung heroes throughout its 120-year history.
The exhibition is set among the original steam engines that once powered the mighty bridge lifts. It will include the names of 40 workers, from cooks to coal stokers, labourers and bridge drivers; each profiled with a decorative plaque. The plaques have also been designed with help from pupils at the City of London Academy in Bermondsey and the London Sculpture Workshop.
Curators of the exhibition are also hoping that locals may be able to provide new case studies, in relatives who may have worked on the bridge in its early years. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch with the team.