Local History Month


In 1933 steel erectors were working on the construction of the Newport Bridge, Bill Canwell from North Ormesby, became the first person to cross the new Tees Bridge when he walked along a 9-inch-wide (23cm) girder ….180 feet (55 metres) above the River Tees as if he was walking calmly along Linthorpe Road.

“Heavens above, what nerve! But what on earth is he doing that for?” exclaimed a spectator, craning his neck at the human fly high up above the murky river.

Make no mistake this was an amazing feat as he walked along the narrow girder between the tops of the towers! It must have been very scary for him as he walked along that narrow girder with the wind buffeted by the strong wind and the River Tees far below! But Bill showed no nerves as he made his crossing. A workmate joked that he had gone to borrow a light for his cigarette from a fellow worker on the Durham side on the north bank! 

The gathering crowd soon nicknamed Bill the ‘Teesside Blondin’ after Charles Blondin the world-famous 19th century French tightrope walker and acrobat, best known for crossing the 1,100 ft Niagara Gorge on a tightrope.

Why was Bill up there?

Work had begun on building the new bridge at Newport back in 1931. Good progress was made so by early 1933 the two lifting towers on either side of the river were ready to be joined.

In order to take the strain from the two towers during the construction of the main span in position, two false spans had to be flung across the river joining the tops of the towers.

The first was put into position on 25 January 1933 – it was a lattice girder span weighing about 30 tons (27 tonnes) and measuring 250 feet (76m) in length. Good weather helped as not a breath of wind ruffled the water enabling the lift to be carried out without any complications of a span blown out of position.

Floated on a barge, the span was towed to a position directly under the bridge and river traffic at the bridge was suspended for six hours to enable the work to be carried out. the lifting gear was already in position and when the huge steel girder work was manoeuvred into place and attached to the lifting cables the actual hoist did not take very long.

There was apparently a slight hesitation at the beginning, when it was noticed that a plank gangway on the span was incorrectly balanced, making the lift hang unevenly. However, this was quickly rectified and slowly and carefully the sun began to ascend watched anxiously by engineers from Dorman Long & Co., who were the contractors for the bridge, and also engineers on the job, from Mott, Hay & Anderson.

Many cameramen clicked their shutters recording the various stages of the lift and cinema newsreel photographers rushed around to get unusual views of what was a unique bridge. They got a ‘human touch’ when Bill Canwell did his tight-rope act. As the metal girder approached its position at the top of the 180 feet high towers, erecters swarmed like ants over the girder work to secure the span. Someone dropped a wrench which felt with a splash into the River Tees far below bringing the comment from one spectator ‘That’s christened the bridge!’

The second false spun was erected in a similar fashion one week later and Bill made his walk again!

Paul Menzies

May 2021

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