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Celebrating Armstrong’s Legacy with a visit to the Swing Bridge04 Mar 2010

The Swing Bridge has always been one of the most interesting bridges on the Tyne, as until the Gateshead Millennium Bridge came along, it was the only one that moved.
After almost 200 years since the birth of Tyneside industrialist William George Armstrong it seemed appropriate that his direct descendent paid a much overdue visit to the Port of Tyne's Swing Bridge, designed and built by Armstrong.


Francis Armstrong is heir to the Armstrong Estate and lives and works near Bamburgh. Francis says "It has been a pleasure to visit the bridge for the first time and a privilege to look inside the motor room, everything is immaculate. To see it operating so well is not just a testament to its current keepers, George Fenwick and Port of Tyne, but to Lord Armstrong who designed it. The Swing Bridge is also a lasting legacy to his Newcastle workforce who possessed a huge amount of engineering skill and ability. Visiting the Bridge is a great way to celebrate Lord Armstrong's life and achievements".

Since Andrew Moffat became Chief Executive of the Port of Tyne he has been keen to open up the port's heritage sites and not just during the annual Heritage Open Days in September. He says "Whilst the Port of Tyne's archives were donated to Tyne & Wear Museums when the port sold its former headquarters based in Bewick House Newcastle, we remain very proud of our interesting and historical sites, which are open to the public during the Heritage Open weekends every September. The port does a tremendous job in ensuring the Swing Bridge and the North and South Piers are well maintained.

"Our aim is to create a vibrant, sustainable Port of Tyne and while a key value to achieving this is looking to future new opportunities, we see the significant annual investment on these important sites as protecting the region's rich heritage."

Lord Armstrong was born on 26 November 1810 and gave up a promising law career to follow his passion for engineering. In 1847 he set up the firm W G Armstrong & Company along the banks of the Tyne at Elswick.

The company soon began to expand receiving orders for hydraulic cranes from Edinburgh and Northern Railways and from Liverpool Docks, as well as for hydraulic machinery for dock gates in Grimsby. In 1850 over 300 men were employed at the works, but by 1863 this had risen to 3,800. The company soon branched out into bridge building, armaments and supplying guns to naval ships.

The 18th century bridge at Newcastle restricted access by ships to the Elswick works, so in 1865 the Tyne Improvement Commission, the forerunner of the Port of Tyne, decided it was necessary to replace the old bridge. Work started on the new bridge in 1868 with W G Armstrong and Co. of Elswick supplying and installing the ironwork and machinery. Three masonry piers were built to house the moving parts of the bridge revolving through ninety degrees on the centre pier to allow ships to pass on either side. The controls were mounted in the cupola over the roadway and the machinery on the central pier. Power came from two hydraulic engines driven by steam pumps (now electric) and the bridge first swung for shipping on 17 July 1876.

Trade was greatly stimulated after the Swing Bridge opened, various works benefited and coal shipments from northwest Durham became much easier and facilitated the opening of new staiths at Dunston. Armstrong's Elswick yard continued to prosper and specialise in warship production. The first vessels produced were the torpedo cruisers Panther and Leopard for the Austro-Hungarian Navy. The first battleship produced at Elswick was HMS Victoria, launched in 1887 Armstrong drove the first and last rivets. An important customer of the Elswick yard was Japan, it was claimed that every Japanese gun used in the battle was manufactured in Newcastle.

From 1863 onwards, although Armstrong remained the head of his company, he became less involved in its day-to-day running. Spending more time at his home, Jesmond Dene House, in Newcastle, and his country retreat, Cragside in Rothbury, and, later, the restoration of the ancient Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast, this remains in the hands of the Armstrong family.

Armstrong donated Jesmond Dene to the people of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1883, as well as Armstrong Bridge and Armstrong Park nearby. The University of Newcastle was originally founded by Lord Armstrong in 1871 as the College of Physical Science, later Armstrong College in 1904. Armstrong gave £11,500 towards the building of Newcastle's Hancock Natural History Museum, which was completed in 1882. He died on 27 December 1900 but his legacy and generosity extended beyond his death. In 1901 his heir gave £100,000 (£7,783,308 in today's money) for the building of the new Royal Victoria Infirmary.

Francis adds "Lord Armstrong has left us an astonishing legacy which I am very proud of, he was one of the greatest Victorian Industrialists and a true philanthropist".

The Swing Bridge, like many of Armstrong's designs, is testament to his success. The bridge remains in perfect working order, although since the closure of Dunston Staithes in 1980, the Swing Bridge openings became infrequent, swings have increased in recent years as pleasure boats pass through. In 2009 there were 13 Swings compared to 6,000 in the peak year of 1924 and 900 annually in the 1970s. The Swing Bridge still provides a vital road crossing and is permanently manned and maintained by the Port of Tyne. Refurbishment work is currently being carried out on the Swing Bridge. 


Operational Note to Editors:

The Port of Tyne is an important Northern Gateway and key player in the Tyne & Wear region; a dynamic trading hub with five business areas: conventional and bulk cargoes; logistics; car terminals; cruise and ferries; and estates.

The Port of Tyne is responsible for the smooth mechanical operation of the Swing Bridge and the infrastructure below the road and works in partnership with Newcastle City Council, who is responsible for the repairs and painting of the structure above the road deck. The port also works with North Tyneside and South Tyneside Councils who provide some financial support for the South Shields and Tynemouth Piers.


For further information please contact:

Lisa Donohoe, Port of Tyne Assistant Marketing & Communications Manager
Tel: 07912 390 777 Email:

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