The 10th of October 2018 marks the 90th anniversary of the official opening of the Tyne Bridge, one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century. But how, and why, did these seven tonnes of green steel, bridging the banks of Newcastle and Gateshead, come to be such an international icon and an integral part of the physical and emotional fabric of Tyneside and the Geordie identity?
Bridges have been central to life on Tyneside since the second century AD and have become so much more than simply structures used to aid the crossing of the Tyne. Bridges are cultural markers, identity shapers and have a significant influence on social mobility and the economy. The Tyne Bridge, opened by King George V in 1928, has become an iconic symbol, imprinted into the local and global memory, of both the industrial past and the post-industrial present of Newcastle Upon Tyne.
Throughout the years of its construction, the Tyne Bridge provided employment for hundreds of local skilled labours, from shipbuilders to steel workers, in the recession that faced local industry in the interwar period. This led to the Tyne Bridge being perceived locally as a symbol of great economic significance, in essence it was the Bridge that was there to provide a livelihood for many whom were facing dire employment opportunities and unstable futures. While from a global viewpoint, it was seen to be a structure demonstrating cutting edge technology and the prowess of industrial capabilities.
The iconic parabolic arch structure has now been forever memorialised in numerous images, works of art, local song and in television and film. Ships from all over the world have sailed under its green arch, celebrated aircraft, such as the Red Arrows, have flown over it and millions have made the journey across the Tyne Bridge by all means of transport. Even a colony of 700 pairs of endangered Kittiwakes have made their home under this icon of the North.
If you were to look at images of the Newcastle Tyne Bridge and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in parallel, it is evident that they were both products of the same firm, Mott, Hay and Anderson. Yet, contrary to Geordie myth, the Tyne Bridge did not inspire the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is three times as long, three times as wide and over twice as high as the Tyne Bridge. Although the Tyne Bridge was regarded as a trial for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it is fair to say that there are not many other bridges in the world that have become as deeply ingrained into local life and regional culture as that of the Tyne Bridge. Though only opened in 1928, it immediately acquired a dominant place in the hearts and minds of the local people. An icon that symbolises and bonds together both the industrial past of Tyneside and its post-industrial cultural regeneration.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century the landscape of the North-East was one associated with post-industrial decline. Defined just as much for what it had once been, as what it had now become. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the economically entwined industries of Tyneside – coal mining, engineering, shipbuilding and metal making – made an international contribution to modernisation and industrialisation.
The banks of the Tyne in central Newcastle were proliferated with thriving industrial businesses that provided work for those living across the area. This rapid industrialisation of the economy in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, encouraged mass migration from those living across Britain, Europe and Scandinavia. This presence of a diverse working class population contributed the creation and maintenance of the iconic Geordie identity. Northern identity is about honesty, pride, hard work and trustworthiness and even in declining economic circumstances, this has always remained a constant.
The river banks that are located below the iconic Tyne Bridge are full of spaces which commemorate the industrial past of the city while providing the means to commercially reconnect with the Quayside in the present. Where there used to be flourmills, ship yards, docks and fish markets, there are now restaurants, bars, world-renowned art galleries and music venues.
Throughout a childhood set in the North-East, a strong association with place based culture is apparent in the way families negotiate the spaces of central Newcastle. Going for family walks along the Quayside to experience the market on the weekend, and visiting the local museums and galleries with grandparents, which display the industrial heritage of the region, suggests that you learn to be ‘Geordie’ by the culture you experience in your formative years. Those living across Newcastle and Gateshead actively construct their own understandings of the spaces that are part of their everyday lives. These spaces, places, buildings and structures become part of their ‘home’ identity.
Therefore, what on the surface may appear to simply be a bridge, a beautiful landmark, can, under the conditions of post-industrial regeneration and wider historical and socioeconomic contexts, become the keystone in an iconic cultural landscape and identity, steeped in past representations but very much situated in the present. Arriving into Newcastle after a long train journey, and seeing the green arch of the Tyne Bridge, evokes a comforting sense of home and familiarity that all Geordie’s have experienced over the last ninety years.
To celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Tyne Bridge, academics from Northumbria University took part in a guided walk event with the public on Saturday 6th October. We walked from the Redheugh Bridge to the Millennium Bridge and heard talks ranging from the geological formation of the Tyne Valley to the experiences of Russian Revolutionary activists on Tyneside.
This project also seeks to create a social media archive using the #WeAreTheTyne. With the increased use of social media and the digitisation of our everyday lives there is a heightened risk of losing the chance to record our daily experiences and exchanges. This project aims to use hashtags on social media to collate an online, interactive and participatory archive of the way in which we interact with our surroundings, in this case the bridges of the Tyne.