From a distance, Middlesbrough’s most famous bridge looks somehow unfinished. That’s not to say it’s not attractive though; it’s a beautiful-looking thing. Resplendent in blue paintwork, it resembles two enormous cranes meeting across the River Tees, a filigree web of mathematically ordered steel beams. At each end, sets of steel ropes anchor the bridge to the ground. This is some serious engineering, something to marvel at, and then be overawed by, the closer you get and the bigger it looms overhead. However, its unusual design makes it look like it is only the centre section of what might otherwise have been a much longer bridge. It’s as though the ramps connecting a lofty bridge deck to the ground have gone missing, or never been built in the first place.
But its distinctive appearance is in fact the genius of its design; for this is a transporter bridge; the Tees Transporter Bridge, a beautiful beast and a rare one, too.
Transporter bridges were one solution to a very particular problem. How do you bridge a wide river, along which large ships require regular access, if the banks on either side of it are low-lying? If your river is in a steep-sided valley, crossing it is easy (well, comparatively so) – you just build across the top of the valley, leaving plenty of room underneath for the passage of ships. But when the banks of your river are in a low-lying plain, it’s much more difficult to achieve the required head-height to allow ships to pass underneath. You have to start the approach ramps to the main span a long way back so that they can climb – not too steeply – to the main part of the bridge. It’s an expensive and difficult construction job.
The modern QEII Bridge at Dartford is one example of this solution, but imagine trying to do something similar in Victorian/Edwardian times. It would have been a monumental task. Part of the joy of the Tees Transporter Bridge is that you can see the Edwardians doing their working out, in public and in physical form, to this problem of crossing rivers in areas of low-lying land. Other solutions included swing bridges, where the bridge deck rotates out of the way; lifting bridges, where an entire piece of bridge deck is drawn upwards into the air so that ships can pass underneath; and bascule bridges, where the bridge deck lifts around a giant hinge at deck level. You can find examples of all these bridge types in Britain and indeed around the world. The transporter bridge was another solution to the same problem, but it was a quite remarkable one.
I’m not quite sure what was in the head of French engineer Ferdinand Arnodin when he patented the idea for the transporter bridge in 1887, nor in the head of Hartlepool engine works manager Charles Smith, who had the same idea even earlier (in 1873). Smith proposed the transporter bridge for Middlesbrough but was laughed out of Middlesbrough’s council offices, and those of every other council he approached. He drowned in 1882, leaving the way clear for Arnodin (this article suggests that Arnodin simply copied Smith’s plans), and he would never know that by 1911, Middlesbrough would have just the bridge he originally proposed.
It’s possible that both men were fans of Alpine holidays, because a transporter bridge is an unusual amalgam of a bridge, a crane and a cable car. The high-up horizontal section, rather than acting as a bridge deck, is in fact a truss from which a gondola hangs. The gondola travels across the river on wheels attached to the truss, rather like a cable car, carrying passengers or vehicles. It’s of limited capacity compared to the free-flow of a swing/lifting/bascule bridge (except when they’re closed to allow river traffic through) but on the plus side, a transporter bridge gives river traffic priority – ships aren’t required to wait for a mechanical operation to be completed before they can pass through. You just have to make sure the gondola isn’t in the way when a ship goes under the bridge.
If the transporter bridge concept still seems odd, it’s perhaps worth remembering that river ferries were much more common at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries, so trips backwards and forwards across a river on a small vehicle were generally accepted. Unlike ferries, transporter bridges didn’t have to fight against tides, and nor were they ever beached in low tide conditions.
They were never common. Wikipedia has managed to find 26 around the world, and several of those are modern, near-novelty versions of the concept. The fate of the transporter bridge concept was sealed early, as road traffic increased in the 20th Century. The low capacity of such bridges just didn’t work with increasingly busy roads and rising demand for river crossings, and the concept was abandoned.
Three survive in the UK, of which the Tees Transporter Bridge is the best example. Another is in Newport, south Wales, working to this day. It’s a little larger than Middlesbrough’s, but it’s finished in grey and its legs do an unusual tapering-in towards the bottom which always makes me think of the legs of ladies in Beryl Cook paintings. Sorry, people of Newport, they just do. The UK’s other transporter bridge is in Warrington, and is disused, and in any case looks frankly terrifying.
Middlesbrough’s, on the other hand, is simply gorgeous. Perfectly proportioned, looking utterly fabulous in its blue paint, and with many of the original buildings still in place around it, the bridge looks like something you’d find in an industrial museum. But this is no museum piece. It’s been giving sterling service for over a hundred years now, carrying up to 200 people and 9 cars across the Tees in a minute-and-a-half.
It reopened this year after its latest £2.6m refurbishment, which has also included improvements to the visitor centre at the bridge, an upgraded and rather smart-looking gondola, and the construction of a glass lift up one of the bridge’s legs, giving access to the walkway which runs along the main truss; an experience strictly for those with stomachs of iron, I suggest. The central span of the bridge measures 173m and it’s a little under 50m above the river.
It’s one of those pieces of transport infrastructure which have found their way into national culture. It had a starring role in TV drama series Auf Weidersehen, Pet, during which it was dismantled and shipped to the USA. This apparently caused no little consternation amongst many Teesiders who, bless them and their willingness to take life at face value, seemed to think they were watching a documentary. It’s also been awarded that ultimate accolade of appearing on a Royal Mail 1st Class stamp (as part of the March 2015 Bridges set).
The Tees Transporter Bridge has also received more conventional forms of recognition. In December 1993, the bridge received a Heritage Plaque for engineering excellence from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. It has been listed at Grade II* by Historic England, which got so carried away in its enthusiasm for the bridge and its environs that it also separately listed the piers, railings and gates to the bridge at Grade II (though they are very nice railings); the winch house which powers the gondola, as well as the winch house’s railings, also at Grade II; and the bridge-keeper’s house, also at Grade II.
How to find the Tees Transporter Bridge
Bibliography and further reading
A Northern Echo article on the history of the Tees Transporter Bridge, here
The official web presence of the Tees Transporter Bridge on owner Middlesbrough Council’s website, here
…and anything else linked to in the text above.