High and mighty: The Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge turns 100

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It might not be as celebrated as the Forth or the Tyne but it is a triumph of modernity that was inspired by Gustav Eiffel

It's the Cinderella of civil engineering. Compared with those other great British bridges – the Forth, the Tyne, Tower – Middlesbrough's Transporter Bridge is something of a forgotten gem. Perhaps it's because this misunderstood structure is hidden away from view in a forgotten corner of a northern town. Because if more people actually laid eyes on this unique steel monument – which celebrates its centenary this year – perhaps they would fall for its charms too. As it is, Middlesbrough and its historic bridge aren't necessarily the obvious choice for a picnic and a stroll.

It is, for now, set in a post-industrial town fighting to climb out of a decline which has gone on for decades. In the 1990s, the University of Leeds sent students on social sciences courses up to its northern neighbour on days out to study urban deprivation. The contrast between the two places couldn't have been more stark. In 1999, I was one of those students, and the memory that will always stick with me is seeing the Transporter Bridge – Middlesbrough folk simply call it "The Transporter" – straddling the Tees. It initially resembled two proud steelworkers, hands clasped together at the centre of the river in an act of working-class solidarity. Well, I was an unreconstructed socialist back then.

I assumed that the structure was a relic. Perhaps that was naive, but I'd never read about it until I caught sight of it on that summer's day. To find out then that, on the contrary, the Transporter was still ferrying cars (£1.20) and foot passengers (a very reasonable 60p) from Middlesbrough over to Port Clarence on a 120ft-long gondola just made the thing seem even more exciting. Last year, the local council bought a new electric motor for the birthday bridge – a present which should keep it running for at least a few decades more. It even wants to install Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style glass lifts to turn it into a tourist attraction proper. In 1985, it was given a prestigious Grade II* listing by English Heritage, which equals protection from anyone who dares to suggest knocking her down.

So the future of the Transporter is secure, but what of its peculiar life story – how could such an uncommon edifice find itself placed so ostentatiously on to the pancake-flat, windswept estuary of the Tees?

Transporter bridges, which carry a segment of roadway across a river, were judged the only suitable solution to the problem of letting tall-masted ships safely pass upriver to Stockton and the docks. But it would still have taken a leap of imagination and boldness to envisage building such a thing. What's seldom mentioned is the faith in the theories of modernism itself that the commissioners and builders of such structures would have had boiling in their veins.

Look at the list of where other transporter bridges were built: the first near Bilbao, others in Cheshire, one in South Wales, two more on the Elbe and the Kiel Canal in Northern Germany, respectively. All (almost) uncrackable socialist heartlands; all embracing modernity in their chosen architecture. These bridges were suited to wide estuaries, and wide estuaries were also home to heavy industry and ports, and the people who worked in heavy industry and docking tended to be among the most left-leaning of all.

Transporter bridges said: "We are embracing the future." Though the workers themselves may have felt differently – the thriftier Middlesbrough men who commuted across the river to Bell Brothers' steelworks every day chose to climb the steps up to the highwalk 225 feet in the sky, walk across, then descend the steps on the other side to save the halfpenny toll it cost to travel across by gondola. What's even more remarkable is that they did this twice a day, every day, rain or shine – often dragging their push-bikes behind themselves.

It took three years to complete. The first official day of business was 17 October 1911, and thousands turned out to marvel at their new landmark. Archive film and grainy photographs of the ceremony show what looks like the launching of a ship, with women in their Sunday best gathered by the waterside, and flags billowing in the breeze to salute yet another Imperial triumph.

Some 851ft long, and painted in a distinctive royal blue that seemed to make the muddy Tees look even browner, the Transporter was an instant monument. The gondola below was suspended by 30in-thick iron cables from a train whose wheels ran on four tracks, ferrying people and vehicles back and forth every 15 minutes.

The Transporter was the brainchild of Ferdinand Arnodin, whose designs were made reality by the famous Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company, which eventually became a part of rival Dorman Long in 1990. Arnodin built the first transporter bridge, the Puente Colgante, in the Basque Country in 1893 – in co-operation with another engineer, Alberto Palacio. Both Palacio and Arnodin were in thrall to Gustav Eiffel and each saw the new potential of steel to create vast and yet delicate pieces of civic civil engineering.

Teesside became almost immediately synonymous with bridge-building, and throughout the 20th century, the two rival Tees steel companies competed across the world to create the ultimate symbols of humanity joining together. Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company built both the Tamar Bridge and the Auckland Harbour Bridge in 1959, the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul in 1973 and the Humber Bridge in 1981. Meanwhile, Dorman Long took over the Bell Brothers' gigantic works in the shadow of the Transporter and exported Teesside technology, first to Tyneside – building the Tyne Bridge in 1928. Then they knocked up a gigantic copy – the fêted Sydney Harbour Bridge, which was opened in 1932, famously featuring the epigram "Made in Middlesbrough".

In 20th-century Britain, transporter bridges themselves had a more turbulent time. The first had been built in 1905 from Widnes to Runcorn – spanning the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal. But this was demolished and replaced with a more modern road bridge in 1961. Not far away, a transporter was built at Warrington in 1915. It ceased working in 1964 but was also slapped with a Grade II* listing and, standing unused and unloved, is now high on the Buildings at Risk Register. Arnodin also built a transporter straddling the mouth of the river Usk at Newport, South Wales, in 1906. But has the tide perhaps turned for transporters? Because like Middlesbrough's, last year Newport's too was given a multimillion-pound overhaul to prolong its life. Just don't mention to anyone in South Wales that theirs is not half as pretty as Middlesbrough's slim-thighed blue maiden – undeniably the finest-looking transporter bridge ever constructed.

The story of the transporter bridge doesn't end there. One final edifice was built – over the Royal Victoria Dock in east London, in 1998. The plan was to have an enclosed glass capsule ferry punters across the dock. That never happened, which is why you have to climb scores of stairs to get up to the windy platform from where you can traverse the dock.

Middlesbrough's centenarian has seen a few things throughout her eventful life, including a starring role in the television comedy Auf Wiedersehen, Pet – where the storyline called for the Transporter to be sold to a US millionaire, dismantled, and rebuilt over the Grand Canyon. But it's the true stories that make a monument come alive – and there's none funnier than the tale of the late Carry On star Terry Scott. One night in 1974, Scott was on his way from Middlesbrough to do a club turn across the Tees. The comic pulled up to the Transporter, paid his toll – and promptly drove his Jaguar straight off the end of the approach road. It plummeted down towards the icy water but was caught by the safety net – and he escaped, unscathed, to do his gig. The next day, Scott returned to the scene of his mishap and was photographed in the local paper, the Evening Gazette, cringing and holding a hand to his head.

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London