FOR four generations, Cleveland Bridge was led by members of the Dixon family: they founded the company, they saved the company, they made it a family firm and a global concern, and one of them owned one of the very first motor cars in Darlington.

Cleveland Bridge is now, sadly, in liquidation, and we told in Thursday’s paper how it had been formed in 1877 by ten employees of the defunct Skerne Ironworks, which had collapsed on Albert Hill in Darlington.

For the full history, click here

They had started their new business on Polam Hall’s strawberry field on Smithfield Road, off Neasham Road, backed with finance from Henry Isaac Dixon, of Stumperlowe Hall, in Sheffield – he was the youngest son of James Dixon & Son, a “Britannia metal” (or pewter) maker which had started in 1802 and had grown into one of the steel city’s leading manufacturers.

The Northern Echo: Echo memories - Charles Dixon, who saved Cleveland Bridge and created the Cleveland Car Company

Charles Dixon, who saved Cleveland Bridge and created the Cleveland Car Company

Within a few years, the new Darlington company was plunged into liquidation. In 1885, Henry's son, Charles, who had been the company secretary for three years, bought the goodwill, tools, stock, land and buildings for £10,500 and set Cleveland Bridge going again.

This time it stood on its own two feet. Within a decade, those strawberry fields had built bridges for North and Central America, Brazil, India and Australia, and in 1905 it threw a wonderful bridge over the Zambesi River at Victoria Falls in Africa.

Charles lived in Raventhorpe, in Darlington's Carmel Road North, a Victorian villa which for 50 years was a preparatory school until it was demolished in 2015 and now retirement apartments stand on its site.

The Northern Echo: Raventhorpe School, Darlington - D&S

Raventhorpe on Carmel Road was Charles Dixon's home

And he owned an early car. From 1898, a corner of the Smithfield Road bridge-building site was used as a mechanics’ workshop for the managing director’s car, but as other wealthy local people began acquiring these newly-fangled motoring devices, he realised there was a commercial opportunity.

In 1904, with fellow motorist Owen Pease, Dixon formally created the Cleveland Car Company (CCC), which soon moved to a wonderful, half-timbered, mock-Tudor building on the corner of Grange Road and West Street. It was the first proper garage in the district and it serviced Dixon’s Rolls Royce Silver Ghost.

The Northern Echo: Cleveland Car Company.

The Cleveland Car Company was where Grange Road met Victoria Road - today, the Sainsbury's roundabout is there

When Charles Dixon died in 1923, his son, JR Dixon, became managing director of Cleveland Bridge.

In the Echo’s archive, there is a remarkable typewritten document put together on January 9, 1959, apparently on JR Dixon’s instructions, outlining the family nature of the bridge-building company.

There’s a list of the 18 employees who are the third generation to have worked for Cleveland Bridge – Mr Dixon tops the list, naturally, but even he is eclipsed by templatemaker E Clark who was a fourth generation employee.

The Northern Echo: Cleveland Bridge was a family affair

The 1959 list of long-serving Cleveland Bridge employees: anyone from your family?

Then there’s a list of the 29 shopfloor workers with more than 40 years service. This list is topped by rivetter Fred Hanson who had 52 years service although the list of long-serving directors is headed by Mr Dixon himself who had 54 years of service under his belt.

Not that the Bridge was entirely male dominated. The last of “staff” contains five unmarried women who each had more than 40 years service: Misses Gibson (44 years), Thomson (42), Blair (41), Holliday (40) and Lax (40).

Finally, there are typewritten pen portraits of Cleveland Bridge’s three oldest employees:

Fred Hanson, 66, who started as a boy labourer in 1907 and was a rivetter. “The only alteration in riveting since 1907 is that hand riveting has been replaced by pneumatic riveting,” says the article. “He is a single man with brothers and seven sisters. His brother, Alfred, is also employed as a rivetter with over 40 years service.”

Arthur Orr, 62, started as a boy labourer in 1910, following his father who worked at the Bridge for 60 years. “Arthur worked on the big press during the 1914-18 war on bending plates for mine sinkers,” says the article. “He has been married 41 years and his four sons, two of whom are boilermakers.”

Thomas Farey, 62, started in 1910 as a rivet catcher boy – what a job title! Thomas had fought during the First World War but returned to the Bridge to work on the Punching Machine for 30 years.

JR Dixon passed Cleveland Bridge onto his son, Donald, who, in 1967, merged it with Cementation Construction. “We had been building in a bigger and bigger way, but our nominal share capital of £½m never increased,” he explained to a meeting of Darlington Rotary Club, “so it needs great courage to undertake a contract worth £5m, even if we could have found someone to borrow from.

“We had to rely on borrowing more and more, and in due course our credit was not good enough for the millions we wanted.”

With Cementation’s help, the Bridge soon won a £7m contract in Quebec, a £9m one in Rio de Janerio, and a large part of a £14m contract to build a bridge over the Bosphorus in Turkey.

In 1970, Cementation was taken over by Trafalgar House which in 1996 sold out to Kvaener which in 2000 became owned largely by the Al Rushaid Investment Group of Saudi Arabia. In 144 years, Cleveland Bridge has come a long way from its family days.