The iconic Transporter Bridge’s opening day – and the crowd was not unanimous in their welcome for the royals and other wealthy VIPs...

On Monday, it is 100 years to the day since the iconic Transporter Bridge was opened. With commemorative events taking place over this weekend, Chris Lloyd looks back to the opening day.

"YESTERDAY," said The Northern Echo on October 18, 1911, “the dreams of the rulers of Middlesbrough were materalised and the north and south banks of the Tees were linked together with a transporter bridge which will long remain a monument to the enterprise and foresight to those who have charge of the destinies of the town.”

Middlesbrough had been squabbling about how to span its wide, shallow but busy river for more than 40 years, but eventually – exactly a century ago – the Transporter Bridge was formally opened and a Tees Valley icon was born.

“For the middle of October, the day was remarkably fine, the autumn sun shining brightly through the haze and smoke so characteristic of Middlesbrough, casting a quiet and subdued light upon the interesting ceremony,” continued the Echo.

“High overhead towered the strange new structure, a weird network of rods and stays.”

It is that weird quality that makes the Transporter Bridge so evocative. All around it lies flat salt plains, yet it rises up like some mythical monster until it is silhouetted against the sky, bravely butting against the winds that drive in from the sea.

Other towns have artistic angels, elegant clocktowers or grand cathedrals as their emblems, but Middlesbrough – the “infant Hercules” of the Industrial Revolution – has an industrial-sized metal meccano set to show to the world that it was founded on industry and built on steel.

But the Transporter Bridge is more than just metal. There is a beauty in its straight lines, its angular arms and its simple functionality.

Some have described it as looking like the skeletons of two prehistoric dinosaurs resting across the river, but the Transporter Bridge is not something of the past – when it opened in 1911, it was the future – and it is not dead.

That it is still running, still carrying people from 7am to 7pm every weekday (9.30am to 3.30pm on a Saturday), shows it is very much alive. It summons up the spirit of Teesside: blasted by the elements, but calmly, stoically, even defiantly, going about its work.

In front of 2,000 smartlydressed dignitaries, and possibly tens of thousands of ordinary people in the streets and on the riverbanks, the bridge was opened by Prince Arthur of Connaught – a 28-year-old grandson of Queen Victoria whose cousin had recently become King George V.

“Pressing the gold electric switch, Prince Arthur set the car in motion,” reported the Echo. “There was at first an untoward jerk, but then the car glided smoothly above the swift-running waters of the Tees amid the cheers of the great crowds assembled on the banks of the river and the strains of the National Anthem from the band.”

DESPITE noting the untoward jerk, the Echo did not report the great drama of the moment.

As Dave Allan in his new book, The Transporter, points out, in hazy, silent newsreel footage of the occasion, a young man can be seen toppling off the gondola into the chilly Tees.

But Prince Arthur safely made it over to the Durham side, and then travelled back again to Yorkshire. He was presented to Crimean and Indian Mutiny veterans – who must have been getting into their 80s – before embarking on a steamer cruise along the Tees to view the new bridge from a variety of angles.

He was followed by a flotilla of steamers crowded with other dignitaries.

“Every here and there along the river lay large vessels decorated lavishly with bunting and at every coign of vantage, but particularly at the dock point, there were crowds of spectators, who cheered and cheered again.”

The Echo’s reporter didn’t miss an opportunity to drop a bit of Bard into the occasion – “coign of vantage” was a phrase Shakespeare seems to have invented in Macbeth – but it looks as if, as well as missing the young man toppling into the water, he missed the undercurrent of the day.

Undoubtedly, there were huge cheering crowds but Dave Allan quotes Ron Shaw of Ormesby, whose father Jack grew up in the shadow of the Transporter. Jack was 12 on opening day.

Ron said: “Dad always told me how the dignitaries walked from Queen’s Square along to the Transporter and that he had never seen people in top hats before. He said the children were all given paper Union flags to wave, but behind them there was real hatred in the faces of many of the men and women.

“I vividly remember that he told me some people were spitting on the floor to show their disgust of the royalty and the rich VIPs. Another story he told me was that a woman threw a brick at Prince Arthur’s motor car before being arrested by the police.

“Many people were living in poverty – numerous children were there in bare feet – so you can understand their feelings.”

Whether they cheered or jeered on opening day, a century later the Transporter still stands proud on the banks of the Tees – and surely the vast majority of Teessiders and wider Tees Valley people are proud of it.

The North-Eastern Daily Gazette, the Middlesbrough paper, said on opening day that it was “the latest and wondrous example of engineering genius… “There is stood, the embodiment of strength – a lasting monument to Middlesbrough’s industry and enterprise.”