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The Tyne Bridges: From the Romans to Modernity

Updated: May 1, 2023

From the Romans to the 21st century, the river crossings of the Tyne have been a staple feature of its success and identity. As a successor to Ken's great first piece on our site documenting the modern history of the Tyne bridges, this piece focuses on the historical bridges on the Tyne, namely the medieval stone bridge, which have mostly since vanished. The sturdy crossings gave license to the environment around them to flourish.

 

The earliest bridge across the Tyne - known as Pons Aelius - was built by the Romans in around 122 AD, although it is not certain how long this crossing survived after the Roman withdrawal from Britain.


The so-called Old Tyne Bridge dated back to medieval times and is believed to have been built around 1250. This stone structure seems to have replaced an earlier medieval bridge destroyed by fire in around 1248. It is speculated that some elements of the Roman crossing may have been retained in this earlier medieval crossing.


The Tyne Bridge of around 1250 - later referred to as the Old Tyne Bridge - featured shops and houses, mainly on the side nearest Gateshead, and a chapel dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr (Thomas Becket) at its Newcastle end.


Illustration of the model of the Tyne Bridge at The Royal Jubilee Exhibition, 1887. It took place at what is now Exhibition Park, Newcastle upon Tyne. Source: Newcastle Libraries

Two gateway towers were built on the bridge, one of these close to the Gateshead end and carrying the arms of the Bishop of Durham. Another tower was positioned between the third and fourth arches from the Newcastle bank. This carried the arms of Newcastle and the royal arms. It was used by the Newcastle authorities as a prison for those accused of lesser offences.


In 1636 a third tower was erected at the Newcastle end of the bridge and was known as the Magazine Tower or Magazine Gate. This was where the town's store of gunpowder was kept. It replaced an earlier defensive structure known as the Bridge End Gate.


The tower carried a stone carving of the royal arms, but during the Cromwellian period of the 17th Century the arms of the Commonwealth were positioned on the gateway. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 these were replaced with the royal arms and a statue of Charles II, accompanied by the motto (in Latin): “The coming of the King is the comfort of the people."


Other features of the bridge included a chapel and hermitage for a priest who was bequeathed six marks a year by Newcastle mayor and wealthy merchant Roger Thornton to say prayers for his soul. He also left 100 marks for repairs to the bridge. Thornton died in 1429. A memorial brass to the mayor and his wife, Agnes, can be found in Newcastle's St Nicholas Cathedral.


Nathaniel Buck’s view of Newcastle in 1745

The bridge originally had 12 arches, but three of these were reclaimed from the river and used as part of storage cellars. One of these old arches still exists – reached through a cellar in the Watergate Buildings at the Newcastle end of the bridge. It is also reported that another arch has survived under Bridge Street, Gateshead.


The so-called Blue Stone was positioned on the bridge to mark the boundary between Newcastle and Gateshead. Newcastle Corporation and the Bishop of Durham shared responsibility for the upkeep of the crossing, each having their own side to maintain. The Blue Stone formed part of the bridge footpath and is today on display in the Castle Keep.


The blue stone, which is now at the Castle Keep. Shared with kind permission from Steve Ellwood (@TyneSnapper)

Perhaps the most impressive scene to be enacted on the Old Tyne Bridge was the entry into Newcastle of Princess Margaret, daughter of Henry VII, in 1503. She was on her way to marry James IV of Scotland. Accompanied by a sumptuously dressed train of nobles, the princess was met on the bridge by the mayor and aldermen on foot.


Prominent among Margaret's retinue was the mounted Earl of Northumberland, who was dressed in gold, crimson and purple. He was followed by footmen in the same colours and riders in gold jackets. The mayor then mounted his horse and led the royal procession into Newcastle.


Children on the gateway tower on the northern side of the bridge sang hymns and played musical instruments to welcome the royal guest. Princess Margaret stayed the night at the house of the Austin Friars at Manors. However, the King of Scotland who became her husband lost his life fighting the English at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.


The Old Tyne Bridge lasted for over 500 years, but in 1339 it was badly damaged by a flood and 120 people drowned. Despite this disaster, it survived and was repaired. Over the centuries a considerable number of other repairs were carried out to the structure.

The end for the bridge came in 1771 when a major flood swept large sections of it away, including most of the shops and houses. Six people were drowned and two were reported to have died afterwards of "fright". The structure was beyond repair.


On the night of November 16th to 17th ,1771, the flood waters rose so high that by midnight the water filled all the bridge arches. The people living in the houses on the bridge were naturally awakened by the noise of the roaring flood.


Nine houses fell into the river and one of them was found floating, more or less intact, eight miles down river at Jarrow Slake. A dog and cat were found still alive on the ruined building.

The Old Tyne Bridge after the flood of 1771 (from Brand's History)

One of the most tragic incidents happened when a husband and wife, their two children and a maidservant, who had all been living in one of the properties on the bridge, fled to safety on the Gateshead bank after hearing one of the arches fall. We are told that the maidservant asked if she could return to recover some of her clothes and other items from the house and the husband reluctantly agreed to accompany her. They never returned. An arch beneath them had collapsed.


The flood reached its greatest height about 7am on the morning of November 17 when it was more than 12 feet above the usual highest level of spring tides.


The remains of what were left of the Old Tyne Bridge were demolished and its replacement, a stone bridge of nine low arches, was opened in 1781. The Blue Stone was rescued and re-positioned on the new bridge. The new crossing was jointly built by Newcastle Corporation and the Bishop of Durham, who were responsible for constructing their respective sections of the bridge.


According to Newcastle historian John Brand, in 1774 a quarry was opened at Elswick to extract the stone needed to build Newcastle's section. Stone was also provided by another quarry, down river at St Anthony's. The Bishop obtained his stone from a quarry at Oakwell Gate, Gateshead. The resulting 18th Century bridge was demolished after nearly 100 years of service and as we have seen replaced by the Swing Bridge in 1876.


It is an intriguing thought to realise that four or five crossings have existed at various periods in history on the line of the Swing Bridge, starting with Pons Aelius, the bridge named in honour of the Emperor Hadrian. As we walk across the Swing Bridge today we are, in a sense, following in the footsteps of the Romans.

 

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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