The Swing Bridge was built by the Tyne Improvement Commission, under powers conferred by the Tyne Improvement Act of 1861, as part of their overall plan for improving navigation and expanding trade by opening the upper reaches of the river to larger vessels. The bridge was designed and constructed by Sir W.G. Armstrong and Company Ltd of Elswick, the work being begun in the year 1873. It was first used for road traffic on the 15th June 1876 and opened for river traffic on the 17th July 1876.
The Swing Bridge is the fourth bridge built over the Tyne at Newcastle on the same site. The first, constructed of wood and stone about the year 120 A.D. by the Emperor Hadrian was known as Pons Aelii, Aelius being the patronymic of the Emperor. This bridge stood until 1248 when it was destroyed by a fire, which also destroyed a great part of the town. The second or Mediaeval Bridge was of stone construction and stood from the year 1320 until a section of it was washed away in the great flood of 1771. The remaining portions had to be removed and the third bridge, constructed of stone with nine arches, was completed in 1781. This bridge was removed by the Commission to make way for the construction of the Swing Bridge.
The foundations are concrete filled cast iron cylinders which are set in bed rock. Granite piers rest upon the cylinders at a little above the height of low water. The weight of the swinging portion of the bridge is carried by the centre pier. The bridge is 170.688m long and 14.478m wide and consists of six spans, four of which are over the river and two over land. The two centre spans make up the swinging portion, which is 85.649m long and weighs about 1,300 tons. The land spans are composed of five main iron girders of arched form, the north span being about 11.6m long and the south about 10m. The fixed river spans consist of two iron main girders of box construction with riveted stiffeners, the north span being 32.6m long and the south about 26.8m long.
The swinging portion is a continuous girder over two spans, each of which gives a clear waterway of about 31.4m. It consists of two main iron girders of triangular construction with curved top boom and a straight bottom boom. When turning about 900 tons of the total weight of 1,300 tons of the swinging portion is supported by an hydraulic centre press which reduces the effects of friction and wear and tear on the forty-two 9,144mm diameter rollers which turn on a roller path of about 13.1m diameter. The bridge, when open to road traffic, is supported at the end by cast iron blocks moved and locked into position under the girders by hydraulic rams. The motive power for operating the bridge is supplied by hydraulic engines worked by electrically driven pumps to a pressure of about 49 kg cm2 and all machinery is duplicated as an insurance against breakdowns.
The first ship to pass through the bridge on the 17th July 1876, was the Italian Transport "Europa" on her way to take on board the 100-ton gun built by Sir W.G. Armstrong & Company Limited at Elswick Engine and Ordnance Works for the Government of Italy. Since that occasion the Bridge opened 286,281 times up to the 31st December 1981, allowing 448,090 vessels of over 220 million total net tonnes to pass through and looking to present day the Bridge opens approximately four times per week.
By road: On Bridge Street, off A167
By rail: Short walk from Newcastle Central rail and Metro stations
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