There are lots of interesting small moments in history that often slip by people – after all, much of history focuses on the big battles, the big people, the defining moments of how we got to where we are today. But many of the smaller moments can bring us joy, amusement, and interest, and so this new series seeks to find these small snippets of history to share with you all. These posts will be shorter than others, for obvious reasons, but there’s nothing like a little bite-sized piece of history to make you go “huh”.
The 30th December 1952 seemed like an ordinary day for bus driver Albert Gunter. He was a driver on the bus route 78 which passed across Tower Bridge. Tower Bridge had been built between 1886 and 1894, crossing the River Thames in London, and it was designed to split into two sections which would raise when large boats needed to pass under. By the time that Albert was driving his bus on that fateful day, Tower Bridge had been raised around 300,000 times previously.
There was a series of systems designed to hold traffic back prior to the bridge raising – a gateman would ring a warning bell and close the gates, and when the bridge was clear a watchman would order the bridge to be raised. However, human error meant that as Albert and his bus full of passengers approached the bridge, the light was green for a safe crossing.
Tower Bridge with the arms raised for a passing boat. Image Credit.
As Albert crossed the bridge, suddenly the road seemed to drop away in front of him, and he realised that the bridge was raising with them on it. With no other option, Albert astutely and bravely moved down two gears, slammed on the accelerator, and jumped the 3-6 foot gap across the water below, landing on the lower piece of road on the other side which was slower to rise. Amazingly, out of 20 passengers, no one was seriously injured. The bus conductor broke his leg, and an 11 year old boy fractured his collarbone, but the other passengers were released after a precautionary hospital visit.
Albert was hailed as a hero for his quick thinking, and was heavily rewarded – he was given a gift of £10 from London Transport (and one whole day off of work!), and the City of London awarded him £35. Huge amounts for the time! Albert, though, remained humble about the incident, claiming that he couldn’t understand “what the fuss is all about”.
A postcard with an artistic imagining of how the jump would have looked.
One of the passengers on the bus was a Miss May Walshaw, and after the event she (understandably) was left with a strong fear of travelling on public transport. Seven months after the incident, she decided to tackle her fear and undertook the same bus journey across the bridge – with Albert as the driver. The drive went without a hitch, and two weeks later May got married with Albert as her best man.
A photograph of Albert Gunter.
Albert Gunter is remembered with fondness today, and it is still one of the most-told stories about Tower Bridge. Hopefully safety systems today mean that another such incident will not happen again! Albert, meanwhile, continued with a relatively quiet life – if now as a minor local celebrity – and was teased by his colleagues at Dalston Bus Garage who called him “Parachute Gunter and Waterwings”. I’m sure he took it with good humour.
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