Newcastle Bridges

William Armstrong's Swing Bridge is the lowest one here, painted red and white.

The Tyne Swing Road Bridge, Newcastle (1868-76), a Grade I listed structure designed by W. G. Armstrong & Co., with the Tyne Improvement Commission constructing the foundations and abutments (see Linsley 99). Painted red and white, it is seen here between two neighbouring crossings — the high steel arch of the later New Tyne Road Bridge of 1925-28, designed by R. Burns Dick, and the earlier double-deck High Level Bridge, which had been designed by Robert Stephenson and completed in 1849. In the distance, painted blue, is the much more recent Metro Bridge of 1981.

Swing Bridge open

A woodcut showing the Swing Bridge open, when it was still "The New Swing Bridge," letting masted vessels pass on both sides. Source: Guthrie, following p. 144.

Among the proposals of John Francis Ure, appointed engineer to the Tyne Improvement Commissioners in late 1858, was one to "construct a new low level bridge in lieu of the existing Town Bridge, on a plan that would enable the two centre spans to be opened for the passage of masted ships" (qtd.in Guthrie 131). Indeed, the Georgian stone bridge here had become "an intolerable obstacle" (Hearnshaw 119), and the proposal was adopted. The earlier bridge was demolished, a temporary bridge built in 1864-65, and work duly commenced on the new one. Armstrong had a special interest here, in that the new bridge would allow ships to reach his armament factory upriver. The first ship to pass through was an Italian one, the Europa, on her way to collect from his works "a 104-ton gun — the largest gun ever constructed" (Heald 138), for the Italian government.

The Swing Bridge rests on cast-iron cylinders going down into the rock below. The section in the middle, with the control tower at the top, can pivot round on its axis to align with a long central platform, thus leaving two channels of 103' feet each on either side. This allows taller vessels to pass back or forth freely. Leading up to this moveable section are two fixed spans on each side of varying lengths, taking account of the different needs on the respective quays (see Rennison 48). The swing mechanism is driven by hydraulic engines in the central pier — Armstrong's engines now being powered with the help of electric rather than steam pumps. According to John Grundy and his Pevsner co-authors: "Since it began life in 1876, nearly half a million ships have passed through" (459). The bridge still opens for boats, though infrequently now.

The Swing Bridge might look modest and even diminutive when seen between its neighbouring bridges, but when it was built it was the largest bridge of this kind in the world (see Grundy et al. 459). The facts and figures are still impressive. Its superstructure as a whole reaches 281' in length and weighs 1,450 tons (see Grundy et al. 459), while the roadway is 22' wide, with 8'-wide footpaths on either side (see Rennison 48, and picture below right). Revolutionary for its time, the bridge attracted considerable attention: the Europa's historic passage on 17 July 1876 was featured in the Illustrated London News of 29 July 1876. Not all the attention was good: on 23 July 1877, for instance, the Daily Gazette reported the suicide of the labourer George Storey, who "was observed to take off his coat and throw it down, and deliberately jump over the bridge at the Gateshead side into the river Tyne" ("Suicide").

William Armstrong (1810-1900) already had a reputation for swing-bridge mechanisms when he worked on this one. Particularly noteworthy is his railway bridge over the River Ouse near Goole, which was opened in 1869 (see Heald 109). Later, Armstrong would be responsible for the original mechanism that raised London's Tower Bridge. As for the Swing Bridge itself, this is still of practical use as well as being a key component of Newcastle's justly famous riverscape.

Photographs, image download and text by Jacqueline Banerjee. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer or source and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. [Click on pictures for larger images.]

The superstructure: approaching the swing section with its wrought-iron latticework sides, and the central cupola from which the swing mechanism is controlled.

Related Material

Sources

Grundy, John, et al. The Buildings of England: Northumberland. 2nd (revised) ed. London: Penguin, 1992.

Guthrie, James. The River Tyne: Its History and Resources. London: Longmans & Co., 1880. Internet Archive. Contributed by Cornell University Library. Web. 22 September 2014.

Heald, Henrietta. William Armstrong: Magician of the North. Newcastle upon Tyne: Northumbria Press, 2010.

Hearnshaw, F.J.C. Newcastle-On-Tyne (in The Story of English Towns series). London: Sheldon Press, 1924. (Note: Hearnshaw, who wrote this book while Professor of History at King’s College, London, was previously a Professor at the Armstrong College, Newcastle, which in 1963 amalgamated with Newcastle’s College of Medicine to produce the University of Newcastle.)

Rennison, Robert William, ed. Civil Engineering Heritage: Northern England. London: Thomas Telford, 1996.

"Suicide from the Swing Bridge, Newcastle." The Daily Gazette (Middlesbrough). Monday 23 July 1877: 3. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II. Web. 22 September 2014.


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Last modified 22 September 2014