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Friday, 26 June 2020

Newcastle's Medieval Bridge


There have always been ferry crossings on the lower reaches of the Tyne, but with their need to move supplies & forces north across the river while integrating with port facilities, the Romans built Pons Aelius (the Aelian bridge).   The site of this bridge has been reused over the millennia, but the one which lasted the longest was the medieval stone bridge completed in 1250.   It wasn't the best built bridge, nor the best maintained, but it carried local trade & international commerce & travel for over 500 years.   Its Georgian successor lasted less than a century.
A sketch showing the size of early medieval Gateshead compared with Newcastle.
(As depicted on a wall frieze in the Side below the Black Gate.)
A photo of a full size model of the medieval Tyne Bridge built for Victoria's
golden jubilee in 1887, here spanning the lake in Exhibition Park.
The medieval bridge was a bottleneck on the river - keels bringing coal from upstream dipped sail to pass under.   The bridge deck was covered with businesses which reduced the roadway to 9' in places.   Nevertheless the 500 year old bridge was considered a notable landmark on the route from London to Edinburgh.
Sea going ships would come upriver on the tide to Newcastle quayside; there were ship building & repair yards on the quayside & Ouseburn.
The bridge was the scene of England - Scotland royal passages and civil war sieges.
Overnight on 16-17 November 1771 the bridge was overtopped & part demolished by floodwater, backed up due to infilling of arches by businesses & silting up of the river downstream by ballast dumped from colliers.   There had been a lack of bridge as well as river maintenance.
(As shown on a wall frieze in the Side below the Black Gate.)
Long established businesses were cast into the floodwaters - buildings, stock & drowning owners.    An entire wooden building complete with a pet cat & dog were washed up in Shields, while goods were salvaged & returned because finders & keepers were treated as thieves.   The weakened bridge suffered further collapses over the following few weeks.
(from Eighteenth-Century Newcastle by FM Horsley, Oriel Press 1970)


The normal daily route over the Tyne, as well as England - Scotland trade tumbled.   There was little money for everyday repairs, and less for rebuilding.   Replacement ferries were helpful, but too slow & cumbersome.   The bridge was 2/3 owned by Newcastle, but 1/3 by the Bishop of Durham.   There were plans for building a higher level bridge, which would improve trade on the river & for Newcastle, but business owners on Gateshead's single main street leading down to the bridge petitioned their Bishop, who insisted that his parishioners' trade must be maintained.   A different route would not be assisted by the church or state & add large & ongoing compensation, so that's why even today we have steep descents to quayside bridges.


A temporary bridge was in place in October 1772.   The replacement wider, plain & functional Georgian bridge on the site of the medieval bridge was opened on 17 April 1781.   It's shown here overshadowed by its high level neighbour of 1850, built on the tide of industry & railways.   The Georgian bridge itself was demolished in 1866 to prepare for .....
..... Armstrong's swing bridge on the same site.
See bridges on the Tyne for more.

1 comment:

Michael Denholm said...

Early days of Tanfield Branch restoration info/pictures are fascinating - as are images of industrial local history. I'd forgotten about the Beamish crane: and think Beamish Museum may have, too!