More than a bridge: on Newcastle and Gateshead’s Tyne Bridge at 90

Tyne Bridge, with other bridges behind it. Image: Getty.

On 10 October 1928, tens of thousands of citizens of Newcastle and Gateshead lined the streets as King George V officially opened the Tyne Bridge. In the 90 years since the royals first crossed it in their horse-drawn carriage, the Tyne Bridge has become an internationally recognised symbol of Newcastle, and the north-east of England. But more than that, the bridge shows how a practical piece of infrastructure can become an integral part of a city’s culture and identity.

Bridges have been central to life on Tyneside since the second century AD, when the Roman settlement of Pons Aelius - literally Aelian Bridge, named after the family of the emperor Hadrian - was established near the current site of Newcastle’s medieval Castle Keep.

The original Tyne Bridge was built by the Romans on the site of the present-day Swing Bridge. Not just a crucial part of the Roman infrastructure, the bridge at Pons Aelius was also a site of religious worship. Two altars, dedicated to the water gods Neptune and Oceanus, were found on the site of the bridge in the late 19th century. Since the beginning, the bridge was entwined with the identity and culture of locals.

Over the centuries, more bridges - including the dramatic High Level rail and road bridge, opened 1849 - were built across the Tyne. By the 1920s, the enormous expansion in road traffic meant that a new crossing was vital. Work began in August 1925, to a design by the engineering firm of Mott, Hay and Anderson - designers of the strikingly similar Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Contrary to Geordie myth, though, it did not inspire the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Although the Australian landmark only opened in 1932, four years after the Tyne Bridge, its design had been approved in 1924 - a year before the Tyne Bridge project was begun. It’s thought though that Mott, Hay and Anderson used the Tyne Bridge as a trial run for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

From prime to decline

The new Tyne Bridge was immediately celebrated as a symbol of Tyneside’s international reputation for industrial excellence – and a source of considerable local pride. The Times reported on January 31, 1928 that “Tynesiders as a whole are proud of this scheme... because of the ingenuity of the idea and of its successful execution”.

For the people of Gateshead, though, the bridge had resulted in the loss of their commercial and industrial centre. Bottle Bank, a steep, busy street that swept down to the Tyne, was largely destroyed to clear the way for construction.

Although the bridge came at a cost to the local community, its was also a beacon of hope during troubled economic times.

The Tyne Bridge project had been proposed in 1924 as a form of unemployment relief for skilled Tyneside workers. Constructing the bridge provided livelihoods for those facing dire employment prospects and an uncertain future. As he opened it, George V expressed his hope that the bridge would “help to bring back to your city the full tide of prosperity”.

In the late 20th century, the landscape of the north-east became closely associated with post industrial decline, as shipyards, engineering firms and coal mines closed. Throughout this period, the Tyne Bridge has stood firm as a symbol of Tyneside resilience and, more recently, of cultural regeneration.


Since the turn of the 21st century, the mills, shipyards and markets that once lined the river banks have been replaced with restaurants, bars and world-renowned cultural centres including the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and the Sage Gateshead.

It is fitting that the cultural rebirth of Tyneside should have taken place against the backdrop of the Tyne Bridge. Regeneration was intended to embody both a physical and symbolic bridging of the gap between Newcastle and Gateshead, encapsulated in the creation of the NewcastleGateshead brand to promote tourism, culture, and business in the region. NewcastleGateshead Quayside is a space that celebrates the industrial past, while creating a place for locals to reimagine collective identities.

In October 2017, the bridge was the setting for Freedom on the Tyne, marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s visit to Newcastle in 1967. This huge performance used the bridge to evoke the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, but also reinforced its connection to cultural identity on Tyneside. For the people of Newcastle and Gateshead, this commemoration of civil rights activism served as a reminder of the region’s long history as a centre of radical politics, and of the global nature of industry and culture on Tyneside, shaped by people from around the world.

#WeAreTheTyne

To pay tribute to the iconic structure, and capture its place in Geordie hearts and minds, we are leading a project called Bridging the Tyne. With #WeAreTheTyne, we are in the process of creating an online archive where members of the public can share stories and images of Newcastle’s bridges.

Bridging the Tyne guided walk. Image: Simon Veit-Wilson Photography/author provided.

And academics from Northumbria University have led members of the public on a guided walk passing under all seven bridges of central Newcastle, giving talks on topics from the geological history of the Tyne Valley, to the experience of Russian revolutionaries in 19th-century Newcastle.

The Tyne Bridge is a beautiful landmark and a practical aid to transport. But more than that, it’s a central part of Newcastle’s cultural landscape and identity, steeped in history, but very much a part of its present and future.

The Conversation

Laura O'Brien, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, Northumbria University, Newcastle and Hannah E. Martin, PhD Candidate in Historical Geography, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.