When Sunderland’s ‘Tower Bridge’ was the only aluminium bridge in the world
An incredible bridge, the only one of its type on the planet, which spanned Sunderland’s docks was nothing less than an engineering marvel.
It was in use until relatively recently. But only a dwindling number of people can remember it and many Wearsiders don’t realise that it was ever even there.
It was unique because it was made of aluminium, which might sound very peculiar to the layman. It was also a double leaf bascule bridge.
“Ooh” we hear you exclaim. “A double leaf bascule bridge.”
We could provide you with a technical explanation of what constitutes a double leaf bascule bridge, but it’s much easier just to say that it went up and down to let ships through – like Tower Bridge. This is the story of the Hendon Dock Junction Bridge, Sunderland’s own Tower Bridge.
Beginnings and the aluminium revolution
After World War Two the shipping entrance to Sunderland’s docks, more specifically the shipping junction between Hendon Docks and Hudson Docks, needed to be expanded.
A bang average but functional, 60-feet iron road and rail bridge stood there. This was important for freight trains, especially those carrying coal. However, it would have to be dismantled and its replacement needed to be 30 feet longer.
The dock would also have to be deepened to accommodate larger vessels, while the bascule design (which you are now all familiar with) would allow the passage of ships of any height.
The new bridge would have been made of steel, but there was a shortage of the alloy and it was being strictly rationed. Aluminium on the other hand was plentiful.
It seems incredible to us – used to seeing fizzy drinks around the world being casually slurped from cans – that aluminium had previously been regarded as a precious metal. It is the third most common element in the Earth’s crust. But in the 19th century it was worth more than gold.
Then technology made production easier. There was also an aluminium surplus after the war as it was no longer required to build planes, or for any other part of the war effort. By 1946 it was easier for the average Brit to get hold of aluminium than sausages or eggs.
As the metal was so light, as well as plentiful, it would also mean less power was needed to open and close the new bridge.
Construction and (aluminium) ribbon cutting
The Stockton firm Head Wrightson were given the contract to build the bridge and the engineer for the River Wear Commissioners was Mr WHS Tripp, Esq., MC, MICE, MI Mech E. He was usually just referred to as Mr Tripp, to save time and ink.
Late in 1947 the dismantling the old bridge began. Work seems to have progressed remarkably quickly, because the Hendon Dock Junction Bridge was officially opened at noon on Friday, November 26, 1948.
Each “leaf” was 50 feet long and both could be raised in a little over a minute by the bridge’s four 25 bhp electric motors. Tests were successfully carried out with loaded lorries and trains weighing up to 75 tons. Therefore despite itself being very light, it could bear virtually unlimited weight. Genius.
Ribbon cutting duties were performed by Alfred Barnes MP, Minister of Transport, with the ribbon symbolically made from aluminium. It may have been used later to wrap sandwiches; very little went to waste in 1948.
The first vessel recorded as sailing beneath the bridge with its leafs raised was a steam tug called Vedra belonging to the River Wear Commissioners.
The bridge was immortalised in a watercolour by the artist Leslie Carr (1891-1961), who specialised in works with a transport theme. The painting was donated to Sunderland Museum in 2015.
The bridge also held the more unusual distinction of being the subject in 1951 of a feature in the Eagle comic. So even Dan Dare was a fan.
Decline and dismantling
However, it seems that the novelty soon wore off for the average Wearsider – despite its immense usefulness to Sunderland’s industry – and the bridge became taken for granted, or ignored, despite its renown in the engineering world.
Alas the bridge wasn’t perfect either. The bolts used to lock the leafs together were made of steel. The aluminium eventually reacted to this and it began to rot away in a process known as galvanic corrosion.
This magnificent, at the time unique construction, was dismantled in 1977. By then it had been closed to locomotives and road traffic; and was only used by pedestrians. Coal was in decline and so was its transportation.
Amid little fuss, the bridge was scrapped. This was an ignominious end for what had been a special feat of engineering and science.
The Hendon Dock Junction Bridge is not as well, nor as fondly remembered as, for example, the town hall which was also removed in the 1970s.
This is perhaps because it stood in a hidden industrial corner of Sunderland and its beauty was very much in the eye of the beholder. But what a bridge.
There is a legacy. In 1950 the 150 metre Arvida Bridge opened in Quebec and is still in use today. Aluminium bridges are still constructed, although not on the scale or in the style of Hendon Dock. An aluminium footbridge over the Lancaster Canal in Carnforth was opened in 2020.
And so it goes on and Sunderland paved the way. The aluminium bridge revolution started with the Wear’s “Tower Bridge”.
It’s just that hardly anyone seems to know about it.