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The Tyne Bridges: A Modern Pictorial Guide

Through the words of Ken Smith and the photographs of Dr Tom Yellowley, this piece will take you on a guided tour of Tyneside's bridges west to east - from the Victorian engineering marvels to the more modern cultural centrepoints.

A spectacular procession of great bridges span the River Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead. In the Tyne Gorge they tower over the waterway as impressive monuments to the engineering skill and endeavour of the North-East.

These crossings endow the Tyne with a special grandeur few rivers can equal.

Five particularly bright stars shine out among this fascinating array of giant structures.

The Swing Bridge provides, at a much lower level, a stirring reminder of a time when many collier ships steamed past its open arm to the up-river coal-loading staiths. Also passing through on their way down river for delivery to many nations were warships built at Armstrong's Elswick Yard, famed during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies for its cruisers and battleships.

The King Edward VII Bridge evokes memories of the Flying Scotsman and other great steam locomotives which once crossed its sturdy deck bound for Newcastle's Central Station and onwards to Edinburgh. It is still a constantly busy main line crossing today.

The famed Tyne Bridge, which many would regard as the greatest star of all, is a never-to-be-forgotten sight, its great arched superstructure of steel rising and falling across the river with a beauty that delights the eye. Completed in 1928, the bridge has come to represent all that is best in North-East workmanship and the spirit of its people.

The last crossing down river before the Tyne eventually reaches the sea, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, appears as a wonderfully curved, modern companion to the older bridges, displaying innovation and graceful lines.

Although these mighty crossings stand out as exceptional, a total of eleven bridges cross the river between Newburn and the centre of Newcastle and Gateshead.

The most westerly is Newburn Road Bridge, completed in 1893. It is a steel, lattice structure supported by piers of wrought iron and concrete. The crossing was built by Head Wrightson of Thornaby-on-Tees and designed by Sandeman and Moncrieff of Newcastle.

Moving eastwards, the next crossing is the modern Blaydon Bridge, completed in 1990. The opening ceremony was performed by the late Queen Elizabeth II in December of that year. This concrete road bridge carries the Newcastle and Gateshead Western By-pass. It is supported by two wide piers.

Further down river, the disused Scotswood Rail Bridge, which opened in 1871, stands as a somewhat sad reminder that in former years the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway crossed the river at this point. Three other rail bridges preceded the present structure, the earliest of which was completed in 1839. However, this first crossing – built of timber - was destroyed by fire. The present bridge was last crossed by a train in 1982 and since then has stood silent. Yet it remains of important use carrying gas and water pipes.

A short distance to the east comes the steel-arched Scotswood Road Bridge, opened in 1967 and designed by Mott, Hay & Anderson. This crossing replaced a fine suspension bridge that dated to 1831.

The Scotswood Suspension Bridge, or Chain Bridge as it was often called, is mentioned by George Ridley in his famed Tyneside anthem, The Blaydon Races. It was opened in 1831 and designed by renowned Newcastle architect John Green senior.

The Scotswood Suspension Bridge, also known as the Chain Bridge, pictured in its final days. It was completed in 1831. Photo: Tom Yellowley

The Chain Bridge was freed from tolls in 1907 and during the 1930s the crossing was strengthened and widened. The latest Scotswood bridge presents a contrast in design with its double-arched superstructure and broad road deck.

Further eastwards, appears the slender-outlined, concrete Redheugh Bridge, completed in 1983, and designed by Mott, Hay & Anderson in co-operation with Tyne and Wear County Council. This bridge replaced two earlier crossings, the first of which was opened in 1871 and the second in 1901. The first Redheugh Bridge was designed by Thomas Bouch, and carried gas and water mains as well as vehicles and pedestrians. However, the structure eventually suffered from damage and corrosion. It was therefore demolished and a second Redheugh Bridge built, being completed in 1901.

The steel bridge of 1901 featured a toll house, which still stands today on the Gateshead side. The remains of the southern abutment of this now demolished crossing can be easily seen, close to the new Redheugh Bridge of 1983.

The old (second) Redheugh Bridge pictured shortly before its demolition. The crossing was completed in 1901. Photo: Tom Yellowley

Redheugh Bridge from the Gateshead side. Photo: Tom Yellowley

Further down river, the King Edward VII Bridge brings the main East Coast rail line into Newcastle Central Station from London, York, Darlington and Durham. The King Edward VII Bridge was designed by Charles Augustus Harrison, a chief engineer with the North Eastern Railway. The builders were the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company of Darlington. It was completed in 1906.

Appropriately, the opening ceremony was performed by Edward VII in July of that year. The bridge was fully opened for rail traffic in October 1906.

This magnificent structure features steel lattice girders and is supported by granite piers. The bridge carries four tracks. Its deck towers around 83ft above the high water mark.

The modern Redheugh Bridge, with the King Edward VII bridge just behind in 2022. Photo: Kieran Carter

Only a short distance eastwards from the King Edward, the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge carries the Tyne and Wear Metro rail lines. Designed by W.A. Fairhurst & Partners, it is of steel construction and was built in prefabricated sections. The crossing, always bustling with Metro trains, was opened by the late Queen Elizabeth in 1981.

The Redheugh, King Edward VII and Queen Elizabeth II bridges facing Forth Banks and the Quayside, Newcastle. Photo: Kieran Carter

Down river from the Metro bridge comes a great masterpiece of civil engineering, the grand High Level Bridge with its two decks, the upper one for rail traffic and the lower for road vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. This was the first bridge to bring the railway line from the South across the Tyne into Newcastle.

As mentioned previously, it was designed by renowned civil and locomotive engineer Robert Stephenson, son of steam locomotive pioneer George Stephenson. Both had been born on the banks of the Tyne. Working plans for the bridge were drawn up by Thomas Elliot Harrison, later chief engineer of the North Eastern Railway, whose nephew Charles Augustus Harrison designed the King Edward VII Bridge.

The High Level Bridge was completed in 1849. Queen Victoria was among the first to use the crossing. Watched by crowds of onlookers, her train stopped on the centre of the bridge as she journeyed from Scotland to London in September of that year. She was accompanied by Prince Albert.

The High Level Bridge, completed in 1849, towers over the Tyne in this imposing shot. Photo: Tom Yellowley

The royal couple did not leave their carriage and there was no formal opening ceremony. However, an address from the mayors and corporations of Newcastle and Gateshead was read to her and guns boomed out in salute from Newcastle's Castle. The bells of St Nicholas Church (later cathedral) also greeted the monarch.

The fact that Victoria did not step out of her carriage may have given rise to the legend that she disliked Newcastle. There seems to be no proof that this is the case. She visited Newcastle to open its new Central Station the following year.

This great cast and wrought iron structure is supported by massive sandstone masonry piers on huge timber piles. Its lower deck is suspended around 85ft above high water. The rail deck is 112ft above high water. Tolls were charged by the North Eastern Railway (later the London and North Eastern Railway) for use of the road deck until 1937.

The High Level Bridge in 2022 from Gateshead. Photo: Kieran Carter

The main ironwork of the bridge was the work of Hawks Crawshay & Sons of Gateshead, but other ironwork was manufactured by John Abbot & Co, also of Gateshead, and Losh Wilson and Bell, of Walker, Newcastle. The huge masonry piers were the work of Rush and Lawton of York who were also responsible for the approach viaducts on the northern bank. Wilson and Gibson of Newcastle built the southern approaches.

The cost of the High Level was more than £491,000, a very large sum for the first half of the 19th Century.

A train crosses the upper deck of the High Level Bridge bound for Newcastle Central Station. Photo: Tom Yellowley

The next crossing down river, only a very short distance away, is the Swing Bridge of 1876. Its iron superstructure and hydraulic opening machinery were built by Sir W.G Armstrong & Company, of Elswick, Newcastle, and the supporting stone piers and abutments by the Tyne Improvement Commission.

Today, the bridge is still operated by hydraulic power, although since 1959 electric pumps have replaced those operated by steam.

Beauty at night. The lights of the Swing and High Level bridges. Photo: Tom Yellowley

The completion of the Swing Bridge proved to be a momentous development. Hitherto, an 18th Century stone bridge of low arches had barred the passage of ships to and from the upper reaches of the Tyne. The Old Tyne Bridge had also been obstructive to larger vessels.

The new bridge, with its ability to swing sideways to let ships pass, and the dredging operations of the Tyne Improvement Commission enabled the industrial development of the western half of Newcastle and Gateshead to accelerate.

In particular, Armstrong's company could begin launching warships at its Elswick base, 12 miles from the sea. The first large vessel to pass through the Swing Bridge was the Italian warship Europa. She was on her way to Armstrong's works to collect a 100-ton gun for the Italian navy.

The coal trade also gained immensely from the construction of this bridge. Large staiths (coal-loading platforms or jetties) were built in the upper reaches on the Gateshead side.

The entrance to the Swing Bridge from the Gateshead side. The bridge dates to 1876. Photo: Tom Yellowley

By 1900, the most numerous vessels passing through the Swing Bridge were the steam colliers bound for or coming from these up-river staiths. By 1924 around 20 ships a day were passing through. The year 1929 witnessed no less than 5,239 vessels steam through, the majority of them colliers. Earlier, in 1924, 6007 ships passed through. They took on their dusty cargo at the large Dunston Staiths and at staiths such as those at Derwenthaugh, West Dunston, Low Elswick, Stella and Lemington.

When a collier approached the bridge she would sound three blasts on her steam whistle. The bridge would answer with three blasts from its own whistle and then, using its hydraulic machinery, would swing open to allow the vessel through.

The Swing Bridge was built on the line of the Roman bridge, Pons Aelius. Two Roman stone altars, to the gods Neptune and Oceanus, were found in the river in the same vicinity. They are believed to have stood on the Roman bridge. The altars are today on display in Newcastle's Great North Museum.

The Swing and High Level Bridges looking up river. Photo: Tom Yellowley

Next in this splendid line-up of crossings comes the famed Tyne Bridge, another masterpiece, completed in 1928 and officially opened by King George V in October of that year. The monarch was accompanied by Queen Mary.

The road deck of this arched steel crossing is suspended 84ft above high tide. At low water, the distance is nearly 100ft. The arch reaches a height of around 193ft (59 metres) above the river. The arch of the bridge spans 531ft from tower to tower.

Both ends of the bridge are adorned with double-towers, faced in Cornish granite. They were designed by distinguished Newcastle architect Robert Burns Dick and display Art Deco and neo-classical styling. These towers were originally planned to be five-storey warehouses, but the floors were never completed and the warehouses idea was dropped. However, two lifts were installed in the Newcastle double-tower to take people and goods to and from the Quayside.

The magnificent lines of the Tyne Bridge create an impressive picture. Opened in 1928, the bridge has come to represent the spirit of Tyneside and the wider North-East. This is from 2003, when the Sage was in the first phases of construction. Photo: Tom Yellowley

The Tyne Bridge was designed by Mott, Hay and Anderson in a joint project with Ralph Freeman, who was the originator of the design. It was built by steel producers Dorman Long of Middlesbrough. Freeman was consulting engineer for Dorman Long.

Dorman Long was also the builder of the giant Sydney Harbour Bridge with Ralph Freeman as its designer. The outline for this was based on the Hell Gate Bridge in New York. The Tyne Bridge was based on the Sydney design and is similar but not identical.

Although work on building the Sydney Harbour crossing began around eight months before work on the Tyne Bridge, the Tyne crossing was completed first. The much larger Sydney bridge took over three years longer to finish and was not opened until 1932.

The Tyne Bridge cost in the region of £1.2 million to build, the cost being met by the Ministry of Transport and Newcastle and Gateshead councils. The Ministry of Transport subsidy was granted to help relieve unemployment on Tyneside. The shipyards of the river had been particularly badly hit by a slump in orders.

The Tyne Bridge dominates the picture in this view of Newcastle's Quayside Sunday market in the late 1950s/early 60s. Photo: Tom Yellowley

A steep increase in road traffic using the High Level and Swing bridges meant that a new crossing was needed to tackle congestion.

One particular problem was the operation of the Swing Bridge, which every time it was opened to let a vessel past interrupted the traffic flow for around 15 minutes. The problem on the High Level was simply traffic congestion. Unsurprisingly, the tolls were not popular. For several weeks after the opening of the Tyne Bridge people flocked to use the new crossing to avoid paying the High Level charges.

The Tyne Bridge has often been described by that over-worked word 'iconic'. However, in the case of this impressive crossing it can be used without exaggeration. It is a worthy representative of the industrial achievements of Tyneside and the wider North-East. In addition, its wonderful outlines can be seen as representing the spirit of Tyneside.

Aerial shot of the Quayside from 2022, featuring the High Level, Swing and Tyne bridges. Photo: Kieran Carter

Using advancing cranes and supported by tension cables which prevented the two sides from collapsing, the steel structure of the arch was built outwards from opposite banks of the river until both sides – hinged at their bases - were closed together at the highest point above the Tyne. Many thousands of rivets were used in the work.

Tragically, a workman died after he fell from near the top of the bridge arch during the later stages of construction. In the 1920s safety measures were almost non-existent. The workers had no safety harnesses, nets or helmets. There seem to have been few guard rails. They simply had to walk along the girders, without protection, often well over 100ft above the waters of the river. They wore only their cloth caps and climbed up the structure using ladders tied together. They were dubbed “monkey men” or “spider men” by onlookers who observed their immense bravery high above the river.

The workman who lost his life as a result of the fall from the arch was scaffolder Nathaniel Collins, aged 33, of South Shields. The bridge was not far from completion when he lost his balance and fell into the water below. He was on the highest section and he had been trying to pick up a plank. "It was reported that his body hit an uncompleted footway area of the bridge before plunging into the river.

A man in a rowing boat had been stationed in the river to rescue anyone who fell. He rowed to where Nathaniel had gone into the water, caught hold of him but was unable to pull him out. The boatman, however, kept hold of him as his craft was swept down river by the strong tide. Then another boatman came alongside to help and the workman was rescued from the river.

Nathaniel, who had suffered a fractured skull, died soon afterwards in the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle. He had a wife and children.

The sturdy arch of the Tyne Bridge. It rises to 193ft above the river.bPhoto: Tom Yellowley

The last bridge down river, around ten miles from the North Sea, is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. It is sometimes referred to as the 'Blinking Eye' because of its ability to open by tilting to let ships and boats pass through. It was the first tilting bridge in the world and around 36,000 people turned out to see it operate for the first time to let a vessel through.

The structure features two steel arches, one carrying a deck for walkers and cyclists. Suspension cables run between the arches. The extraordinary and highly original design was by Gifford & Partners and Wilkinson Eyre Architects.

The Baltic, Gateshead Quays and Millenium Bridge in 2022. Photo: Kieran Carter

The bridge was built by Volker Stevin, based in Holland, originally known as the Harbour and General Works Company.The frame was assembled by Amec at Wallsend and other work was carried out by Watson Steel of Bolton.

The bridge superstructure was lifted into place in late 2000 by one of the largest floating cranes in the world, the Asian Hercules II. When the jib of this crane was fully extended it was twice the height of the Tyne Bridge.

It was reported that the crane operator managed to lower the bridge to within one millimetre of its planned position. This feat was watched by large crowds.

The bridge cost £22m – £9.8m came from the Millennium Commission, £3m from the European Development Fund and other funds came from English Partnerships, Gateshead Regeneration Budget and Gateshead Council.

The Gateshead Millennium Bridge was completed in 2001, the official opening ceremony being performed by the Queen the following year. The structure was first tilted in June, 2001.

A sunset on the Tyne in 2018. Photo: Kieran Carter

This crossing is perhaps at its most impressive when illuminated at night by coloured lighting, adding greatly to the beauty of the Tyne riverscape.

The beautiful cascading light show which features on the Millenium Bridge from 2017. Photo: Kieran Carter


Ken Smith is a retired Newcastle journalist who has written, often with co-authors, a number of books on various aspects of North-East history, including Caring Newcastle, The Great Northern Miners, Echoes of the North-East Miners, Stephenson Power, The Great Walls of Newcastle, Swan Hunter – The Pride and the Tears, Turbinia, Down Elswick Slipways, From Walker to the World, Palmers of Jarrow, Lost Shipyards of the Tyne, Queens of the Tyne – The Rivers Great Liners, Armstrong's River Empire and Emperor of Industry – Lord Armstrong of Cragside. His co-authors have included Dick Keys, Ron French, Tom Yellowley, Ian Rae, Jim Cuthbert and Ken Smith's wife, Jean.


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