Trailblazing former kitchen maid is the star of a new exhibition celebrating the unsung heroes of an engineering masterpiece
When Dirk Bennett first gazed into the eyes of Hannah Griggs, he recalls that the hair literally stood up on the back of his arms.
In the faded photograph Griggs, a poor young woman born to an unmarried mother in 1888 who probably began work as a kitchen maid in her early teens, is elegant and smilingly composed. She is also the first woman known to have worked at Tower Bridge in London.
Bennett thinks she must have worked for the bridge master, a uniformed job which came with a handsome redbrick house complete with offices. The labourers inside the bridge, however, would have fended for themselves down among the great machines: another reminiscence he has collected is of the smell of breakfast cooking on an iron stove mingling with engine oil and the coke-burning steam boilers.
Griggs, who gave up her job when she married a railway fireman and later became mother to their daughter Elsie in 1915, would undoubtedly be stunned to know that her battered little photograph has now been blown up into a 12-feet panel, making her the star of a new exhibition in the bridge museum.
The displays celebrate the previously unrecorded stories of people who worked on the bridge, including labourers, blacksmiths, engineers, clerks, night watchmen and engine drivers crucial members of the team who kept the lifting mechanism powered by steam until 1976. Her name is one of those on a walk of fame bronze plaques newly embedded in the pavement of the bridge itself.
The photograph was treasured by her granddaughter, Susan Belcher, one of hundreds of members of the public who have got in touch with the museum in the bridge to tell their stories. When Bennett, who is German with London roots his grandfather was mayor of Bethnal Green arrived to work at the museum he found that the story of heroic construction and engineering triumphs had been told, but that the stories of the people who have kept the bridge working since 1894 remained in the shadows.
He noticed that many visitors spoke of family connections as they went round the displays, and encouraged the staff to urge them to get in touch and pass on their memories. Hundreds of names have now been researched by Royal Holloway university, with stories still coming in: only three weeks ago he heard from a descendant of a labourer killed while working on the enormous piers which support the bridge one of 10 fatalities out of the 800 people who worked on its construction.
Without the direct links, the names of most would never have been known to the public, but a few became briefly famous: Leslie Priestley was the bridge master in December 1952 when the system for alerting traffic and closing the bridge before the central section lifted failed.
Albert Gunton, the driver of a No 78 red double-decker bus, realised what was happening and made a split-second decision. He accelerated instead of braking, and jumped the bus across the 6ft and widening gap. Priestley, one newspaper recorded, put on his overcoat and bowler hat and was inspecting the bridge within minutes.
Several bridge families have been revealed, particularly among engineers and firemen: John Gass joined as foreman before the bridge actually opened, worked on until 1930, serving as chief engineer and eventually bridge master, and was awarded the freedom of the city in 1901. Two of his children, brought up in the bridge masters house, followed him into working in the bridge.
Hannah Griggs died aged just 58, but by then she and William Howard had two daughters, and were living in a house in Hornchurch encouragingly called Cosy Nook. She really is one of our heroes, says Bennett.