The Ha’Penny Bridge
Photograph taken from East Cleveland Image Archive, the date of the photo is unknown.
The Life and Death of a Bridge
The story of Saltburn Bridge or the “Ha’penny Bridge”, as it was fondly known by local residents and visitors alike, is one of grand Victorian vision, overreaching that ending in eventual disappointment for its developer, followed by a 100 years of loyal, unbending service that was repaid by the local authority with decades of neglect and finally demolition in the dark days of industrial decline in the 1970s.
Building the Ha’penny Bridge
Why was it built?
In the early years after Saltburn was founded it grew rapidly, under the guiding hand of Henry Pease at the head of the Saltburn Improvement Company the town seemed destined to be as great a success as he had fortold.
Saltburn was a town of new men, men of Industry. The old landed aristocracy of the North Riding such as Lord Zetland preferred to sell the Saltburn Improvement Company land rather than sully their hands with the commerce of speculative development.
Mr John Thomas Wharton of Skelton Castle was an exception to this rule; perhaps because he was raised the son of a clergyman and had not originally been raised to inherit his estates he shared some of characteristics of these new men.
In 1868 he set about what would be his greatest investment in the borough, the construction of a new footbridge that would span Skelton Beck and connect the land he owned on banktop with the new town of Saltburn.
Though he was to charge half a penny for foot-traffic across the bridge, his principle hope was to encourage the sale of leasehold land he owned at banktop for development and profit from the prosperity of Saltburn.
On 4th September 1868 the great work of building the bridge began. The Middlesbrough News and Cleveland Advertiser reported:
“On Monday the foundation stone of the bridge, which is being built across the glen by Mr J T Wharton esq. of Skelton Castle, was laid by Mr Wilman, the engineer in charge. The spot selected for the site is a little south of Balmoral Terrace, close beside the entrance to the path leading down to the wood. The bridge will be a handsome structure, mainly of iron, and is being erected by Messers Hopkins, Gilkes and Company Limited. The cost will be £7,500 and it is expected that the bridge will be ready for traffic next year. It is understood that Mr Wharton’s object in the construction of the bridge is the bringing into use a large tract of building land on the east side of the glen; and, therefore, a considerable increase in the rising little town may soon be looked for.”
You can view a picture of the bridge being built by clicking here.
Initially the building went smoothly and to plan: the survey was successful, land was leased for the Saltburn entrance to the bridge and construction began immediately. By January of the following year Mr Wilman, the project engineer, was so happy with the progress that he predicted that work would be complete by the end of that April, but his confidence and prediction was to prove fateful:
Frightful Accident.-Three Men Killed
The Leeds Mercury reports that yesterday afternoon a shocking accident happened at Saltburn-by-the-Sea, causing the death of three workmen, through the falling of a bridge… The work has been in hand some time and the whole of the piers, eight in number, which consist of cast-iron columns, were finished sometime ago, and four of the girders, which are about 85 feet in length, are fixed and the flooring complete. Yesterday a strong force of workmen were employed fixing a pair of girders upon two of the piers, which are eight tiers in height, reaching about 130 feet from the ground. Everything appeared to be progressing favourably, when suddenly one of the girders, from some as yet unexplained cause, slipped from its holding upon the pier, swung to and fro, and then struck against the other pier, smashing the two girders and one of piers absolutely into scrap iron. Upon the pier which was broken there were three workmen employed. One of them seeing the impending danger whilst the girder was swinging in mid air, jumped to the ground, a distance of some 130 feet, but was overtaken by the falling girders and killed upon the spot. The other two men remained at their dangerous posts, and one of them was killed instantaneously. The other was fearfully injured, in fact he literally had to be “jacked” out from underneath the débris. The bodies were a sad mangled sight, one man having his head literally smashed to atoms. The man who breathed a few minutes had both his legs broken. The names of the deceased are George Simpson, James Denny (foreman) and James Miles.
Pall Mall Gazette, April 1869
The loss of the construction foreman and the damage to the bridge caused by this accident pushed back its completion to sometime around of August of that year.
For details on the structural design of the Bridge see the Structural Images of the North East Website.
n.b. There is no plaque to commemorate the loss of these three lives in the construction of the bridge.
Completion: The Saltburn Bridge opens to the paying Public
It seems that the bridge opened without any fanfare or evidence of an opening ceremony of any kind, perhaps due to the tragedy that had befallen it during its construction.
We can assume from the records of the Saltburn Improvement Company that the bridge opened sometime of around the 9th August 1869 when the toll bridge prices were set at:
1/2 d. – for every person not in charge of a horse or vehicle
1 d. – for every Saddle, led Horse or Mule or Donkey
2 d. – for every Carriage drawn by one Horse
3 d. – for every Carriage drawn by two Horses
4 d. – for every Carriage drawn by four Horses
2 d. – for every Cart or Waggon drawn by one Horse
2 d. – for every Cart or Waggon drawn by two Horses
2 d. – for every Cart or Waggon drawn by four Horses
n.b. All of the tolls were one way only.
The Toll Boards stood in place until the closing of the bridge in 1974.
A picture of them in-situ can be seen here.
Messers Hopkins, Gilkes and Company Limited
The company responsible for constructing the bridge, would survive little over a decade after it’s completion. It’s owners made the ill-fated decision to take over the work of De Burgh & Company in the provision of iron for the first Tay Rail Bridge, leaving them financially overstretched; they collapsed in 1879. The Tay Bridge they had helped construct, the longest in the world at the time, would only outlast them by 6 months collapsing in the infamous Tay Bridge Disaster on the night of 28 December 1879. Fortunately their bridge at Saltburn would stand for over a century before it’s demolition.
A 105 years of unbending service
A failure of purpose
Despite Mr Wharton’s substantial investment, estimated to have been £7,000 (approx. £319,900), admittedly £500 less than had been originally projected, his hoped for outcome of the spread of prosperity and development from Saltburn to his leasehold land across the glen never materialised.
Perhaps it was in someways due to the large amount of land that was still available in Saltburn for freehold development in contrast to the land Mr Wharton was offering on banktop for leasehold development, which was obviously less favourable to Victorian entrepreneurs.
Whatever the reason the bridge became a convenient means to cut across the glen to the parish of Skelton rather than go down to the seafront and up the steep bank at the otherside of the glen and quickly found an enduring place in the heart of locals.
Other Vehicles: Bicycles, Perambulators and Cars
As bicycles grew in popularity in the years following the opening of the bridge they were granted passage at the price of 1 d, equivalent to that of a man on horseback.
For a brief period cars were also allowed to cross the bridge, but after an incident where a car frightened a mounted horse, which nearly threw its rider, the Wharton family barred their crossing.
A Grissly Joke
Internet chatter enabled the serendipidous discovery of a grissly joke involving the ha’penny bridge some time in the 1960s, reported briefly in the Evening Gazette.
A practical joker made their way onto the bridge in the dead of night and hung, by rope, a life like effigy from the bridge, where it was discovered in the morning swinging some 20 foot below the bridge.
Mrs Amy Jackson, 56, wife of the then toll-collector told the Gazette:
“I got a nasty shock. From my window it looked very real, I was sure someone had hanged himself. Whoever the culprit was he might have used his energy to better purpose than to frighten people in this way.”
You can read more about this chilling event by clicking here.
In December 1971 the Evening Gazette interviewed the last toll-keeper, Bill Hyde, then 69, who told them that a total of 79 people had paid the one way fair and jumped to their deaths during the operation of the bridge. He stated that they had all jumped from the rails facing the sea.
Including the three men killed during the construction of the bridge this brings the death toll to 82 during its operational life time, which is less than one per year and almost certainly less than the number who have jumped to their death from Huntcliffe in the same period.
An ignominious end for a beloved friend
© Copyright attributed to Issue 30 of THE KEY magazine (2001), the date of the photo is unknown.
Little remains of the bridge itself today – a small portion of railing makes up the bridge that now crosses the Skelton Beck at ground level – a substantial fall from the grace of a footbridge that once soared approximately 150 foot above the beck.
At 09:30 on a cold Tuesday morning, 17 December 1974, in a series of three seconds rippling explosions the Saltburn bridge poised in the air for one final time and then plunged seaward into the Glen, its once elegant piers now a heap of twisted metal. And with it a 105 years of Saltburn history came to an end.
Photograph taken from Now and Then Magazine, it appeared in the May 1998 issue.
Though it has been reported that no footage survives of the demolition that morning, there are rumours that footage that the Northern Region Film & TV Archive at Teesside University has footage shot by the BBC that day. (We will do our best to get hold of that footage for our visitors)
The Bridge Footings, Saltburn
The original footings at the Saltburn side of the glen are railed with original railings salvaged from the lost bridge. The toll-booth has unfortunately been lost and the site is now home to a new band-stand.
The Toll-Keepers House, Banktop
Unlike the toll-booth on the Saltburn side of the bridge the more substantial toll-keepers cottages on the banktop side of the bridge remains today and has been converted to a private home. It is still possible to stand on the footings of the bridge and look across at the Saltburn footings to the bridge and imagine what it must have been like to cross across.
The Skelton Beck Bridge
Sections of the railings were rescued from the wreckage of the bridge and were used to construct a new bridge across the Skelton beck. It is the principle means of crossing the beck in the sea-side end of the Valley Gardens.
The Halfpenny Bridge, saltburnbysea.com
History of Skelton, 1868-1870 by Bill Danby
Saltburn Bridge, Structural Images of the North East (SINE), Northumbria University
Saltburn’s Halfpenny Bridge, Remember When by Paul Delplanque of the Evening Gazette