Chris Lloyd tells the story of how the 100-year-old Transporter Bridge – dubbed a European monument by one expert - came into being.
The Transporter Bridge is “a European monument – in its daring and finesse, it is a thrill to see from anywhere,” according to the famous architecture critic Nikolaus Pevsner.
YET, in the beginning, Middlesbrough couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be thrilled by such a bridge or not.
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Today the town – and even the sub-region – regards the bridge as an icon, but for 35 years after Charles Smith had first aired his new-fangled concept in The Northern Echo, the councillors of Middlesbrough could not be won over.
Shipbuilding was one of the town’s key industries, and it was hard for them to grasp that ships were not the best logistical solution. Boats had been all man needed, right from when there had been only a sparse scattering of farmers and the odd religious person seeking solitude on the windblown salt plains near the broad, boggy mouth of the Tees.
The Industrial Revolution revolutionised the estuary. In 1830, the Pease family created Port Darlington on the south bank to export the coal carried on their Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR).
In 1832, Christopher Tennant created Port Clarence on the north bank to handle the coal carried by his Clarence Railway.
Port Darlington rapidly grew into the metropolis of Middlesbrough and Port Clarence was soon surrounded by ironworks and shipyards that employed thousands of people. Many of them lived in terraces on the south side, so suddenly there was an army of men wanting to cross.
A bridge was first proposed in 1858 by the S&DR. It never came to anything, and so boats continued to be rowed over, charging 2d for passengers and 1d for workmen. In 1859, Middlesbrough Council bought a new cobble for £20 and ordered that in bad weather its crew should be doubled to two oarsmen.
In 1862, the first steamer, The Progress, entered service. Built of wood in Middlesbrough by Frederick Leach, it carried 139 passengers and had a draught of just 14in because the water was so shallow.
As the years went by, bigger and better steamers plied their trade. The Perseverance of 1873 was the first that could carry horses and carts; The Hugh Bell of 1884, built in South Shields, carried 857 passengers; the £5,000 Erimus of 1887 carried 927.
By the start of the 20th Century, there were 2.25 million passengers every year bobbing over the river.
And that was the problem with the ferrysteamers: They “sidled and slipped across the stream”.
They went against the flow of the oceangoing ships, and they couldn’t make it at all in bad weather. Once, in a howling gale, the 15-minute crossing took three hours when the ferry was blown downstream.
There were also docking difficulties.
Butcher P Milburn tumbled off the quayside into the water in his horse and cart and sued the council for damages and compensation for 20 stone of lost beef.
The Tees – broad, shallow and busy – presented no obvious alternatives to boats.
But in Hartlepool in 1873, Charles Smith invented a revolutionary solution to a similar problem. He was manager of the Engine Works and designed “a novel bridge” to replace the “dilatory and dangerous ferry” that carried his men across the harbour.
“It is very much like a travelling crane, with a basket or omnibus suspended, which allows the freest navigation of the channel, combined with safe and rapid transit to passengers and carriages,”
said the Echo, describing for the first time a transporter bridge – or “bridge ferry”, as Mr Smith called it.
He presented it to Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Glasgow councils but all said no, and the poor fellow drowned in Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, aged 38, in 1882, without ever seeing his plan leave the drawing board.
Like so many great British inventions, it was turned into reality by foreigners. In 1887, having studied Smith’s plans, French bridgebuilder Ferdinand Arnodin and Spanish engineer Alberto Palacio patented the “transbordeur”
concept and set to work building the first one near Bilbao, northern Spain.
It opened in 1893 and was such a success that Arnodin began knocking up transbordeurs all over the place: one in Tunisia, five in France, and one, in 1906, in Newport, Wales.
That year, Alderman Joseph McLauchlan brought him to Middlesbrough to meet the council.
Ever since his mayoralty in 1901, Ald McLauchlan had been enthusing about Arnodin’s bridges and was finally winning over the council. But after hearing from the French pioneer, the council called in William Pease, the managing director of Darlington’s Cleveland Bridge, and his chief engineer, Georges Imbault.
Imbault had cut his teeth on Arnodin’s transbordeurs in Tunisia and Rouen, before working with Cleveland Bridge on the famous Victoria Falls Bridge over the River Zambezi in Africa in 1905.
The quality of the presentation by Pease and Imbault impressed the councillors so much that they rejected Arnodin’s expertise and asked Cleveland Bridge to do the design work.
There were still fierce local battles to be won.
Industrialist Sir Samuel Sadler, twice mayor of Middlesbrough, raged: “To build a transporter is simply throwing money away. You are not thinking of the poor, wretched, overburdened rate-payer. Here we are talking about spending sixty, eighty or one hundred thousand pounds on a modern toy.”
A poll of ratepayers was held on January 24, 1907: 2,255 said yes; 1,620 said no.
It was settled.
But rather than award Cleveland Bridge the contract to build Imbault’s plans, the council opted for Sir William Arrol and Company, of Glasgow, who tendered £68,026 6s 8d.
Therefore, even though Middlesbrough is built on steel, the 2,800 tons of steel which spans its “Steel River” was in fact made 150 miles away.
However, Cleveland Bridge was appointed consulting engineer to oversee Arrol’s work.
Sinking the foundations – or caissons – commenced in July 1909. No worker lost his life during the 22 months of construction, despite the vertigo-inducing nature of the project, but several suffered from “caisson disease”.
The caissons were sunk 90ft below water level. To keep the water out, the construction was done under high-pressure with workers entering through a manlock.
This created nitrogen bubbles in their blood which, in turn, caused partial paralysis – “the bends”, or caisson disease.
More happily, the two cantilever arms of the structure successfully came together on April 19, 1911, and on September 19, the bridge was complete. It had cost £87,316 – about £8m today, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator – and the Tees Valley at last had an industrial icon of which it could be proud.