Completed in 1876, the Swing Bridge gave William Armstrong 'a gateway to the sea' for his shipyard at Elswick.
Bridge still a show-stopper after 134 years
The Swing Bridge across the Tyne was the main attraction during the visit in May 2010 to Newcastle of a group of engineers from Italy. Backed by the British charity Venice in Peril, the Italians plan to restore an Armstrong Mitchell crane in Venice, so they wanted to find out more about Britain's 19th-century industrial heritage and how it is preserved. They were given a demonstration of the workings of the Swing Bridge by its veteran operator, George Fenwick. While the bridge was in operation, road traffic was held up for 10 minutes on both sides of the Tyne.
Built in the 1870s to replace a low-arched stone bridge, the Swing Bridge was designed to revolve on its axis to allow the largest ships of the time to pass through and steam upriver. The foundation work was carried out by the Tyne Commissioners, and the wrought-iron superstructure and hydraulic operating machinery were both supplied by Armstrong's Elswick Works. It gave Armstrong a gateway to the sea – the prelude to opening a shipyard at Elswick.
Occupying virtually the same site as the bridge built in AD120 by the Roman emperor Hadrian, the 560-foot-long Swing Bridge has three piers of solid masonry set into cast-iron cylinders sunk to a depth of 45 feet below low-water mark and filled with concrete. Its two central openings are spanned by the twin parts of the superstructure that swing round the central pier. Each of these openings provides a clear passage of 104 feet. Opened and closed with apparent ease by means of hydraulic power, its movable section is 281 feet long and weighs more than 1,450 tons.
Reflecting a decade later on the marvellous ingenuity of the Swing Bridge, the historian John Collingwood Bruce pointed out that the first ship that passed through the bridge, on 17 July 1876, was the Italian ship Europa, which continued upriver to the Elswick Ordnance Works to take on board a huge gun for the Italian government. ‘In the second century, Rome exhibited on the banks of the Tyne the triumphs of her engineering skill,’ he wrote. ‘In the 19th century the chieftains of Tyneside showed Rome how largely Britain had profited by her instruction.’
Still operational today, though opened only rarely, the Swing Bridge had its busiest ever year in 1924, being opened more than 6,000 times. By the early 21st century the number of openings had exceeded one quarter of a million. The Swing Bridge also proved a fitting companion to Stephenson’s High Level Bridge of 1850, slightly to the west, which was high enough above the waterline to allow large ships to pass underneath it.