These pictures taken during a visit to the Billingham Branch bridge by the Newcomen Society, comprising people dedicated to the history of engineering, show that the track bed of the link from the Swainby Road area round to Port Clarence and the south part of ICI Billingham had long been removed. Charles Morris, from Eston, who had been active in getting the bridge preserved, is seen describing the bridge to the group. He was a senior figure in the Institute of Civil Engineers and also chairs the local Cleveland Industrial History Group.
A clearer picture shows Charles along with Dr Jonathan Aylen, of Manchester University, on the left and myself, Dr Fred Starr, the two people who had organised the Newcomen visit to Teesside. Coming from Portrack, I used to wander along this track on many occasions, without understanding the historic importance of the bridge.
Photographs and details courtesy of Fred Starr.
I found out about the Newcomen Society when I was aged 9, around 1950, as my Gran used to buy second hand books for me off the Market. In one of them there was a reprint of an article from the Transactions of the Newcomen Society about George Stephenson and the Rocket. However, I only joined in 1994, even though where I worked in London was only a couple of underground stops from where the Society met in the Science Museum.
If the Society had been better at publicising itself. making it clear that absolutely anyone can be a member, I would have joined in 1967. Without doubt I would have organised a visit to Teesside in the seventies, when much of Teesside’s industrial history was still preserved. A high point would have been the North Shore Line and the Malleable Works. Now obliterated.
Furthermore, Teesside was at the height of its industrial expansion, with a massive steel industry and fully functioning ICI. We had oil rig and nuclear power plant construction and dolomite mines near Hartlepool. Last year’s visit although a great success, the initiative coming from what gets onto Picture Stockton, and greatly helped by Stockton Council and many local firms, is a shadow of what it would have been forty years back.
Thomas Newcomen most Engineers think he was the starter for the modern industrial revolution as the builder of a steam engine. The Society motto is “Go Forward whilst Looking Back” something we all need to do as we never seem to learn from the mistakes of the past.
Engineering is a continuous look back at what went before and the mistakes made, every bridge builder in the world knows about the Tacoma Bridge disaster and mainly learn from it although we still get some disasters usually down to bad or faulty design.
People often say History is bunkum so why do they then tell me they are researching the family tree, it is history after all and they quickly delete old uncle Charles who went to Australia on a prison ship, history is a warts and all lesson.
All modern technology is invented from old technology that served its purpose at the time, engineers look at the old say we can do better, then do, hence the flock of people walking into lamp posts looking at the hand held slim phones. I remember the brick it all came from with a signal that covered around three streets. I now contact relatives around the world at the touch of a button, a far cry from the Big Red Box next to the pond on Norton Green with two pence in hand. All the work of inventive engineers like Thomas Newcomen.
What does the future hold I wonder.
Your post must be the best justification for being an engineer that I have ever seen. Engineering is a neglected and under-rated profession in the UK and in many other (but not all) countries. ‘Modern’ technology is often maligned, which is most unfair as it is not the technology which is at fault but the uses/misuses/over-uses it is put to. Engineers invent and design items and processes that can be useful to the rest of society, how society uses them is not the fault of the engineers. Even Leonardo da Vinci had to design war machines in order to get the funding to work on his other inventions.
I watched Dan Snow on television this morning promoting the study of history and advocating that it should be a compulsory subject in school so, as you also say, we do not keep repeating the mistakes of the past. Sadly it is one of the subjects that is considered to be ‘too hard’ ‘boring’ for a lot of students, like science and mathematics, and is probably the root cause of the fall in productivity in the UK. Perhaps schools and colleges have to spend too much time and resources teaching things that should be learnt elsewhere, such as at home.
Hello David, you are correct Education is the key, people today appear to rely only on the Schools when you should be getting grounding in the home. Everything in this life depends on Mathematics from a knitting pattern to piping up a chemical factory. Dad was a good mechanic you had to be to keep your own trucks running I learned from him. Mother a Dressmaker making her own patterns and all had to be measured correctly to save material during the war, I learned from watching her.
We had Mechano and other mechanical toys at home where as now it is plastic click together things that need not too much thought.
Most Town High Schools in my time were Academic it was only when the Engineering Factories around Stockton said “whoa up” this will be a long war and we want engineers not Latin and Greek Scholars. I was in on the start of that and Maths of all descriptions crammed into us, every piece of metal reshaped, turned, riveted together has to be measured correctly, lose the Maths you lose the Engineer.
Every move forward was by engineers working out better ways to do things. They built the machines that fired up the Industrial revolution, they improved transport from Pack Horses to what we have now and sent men to the moon.
Luckily we still have good people coming through my Granddaughter took engineering and is now a Plant Manager in Canada.
In my time we have gone from Twin Winged single engine Aeroplanes to none stop jets to Australia. I have not lost hope.
The biggest problem I had with Maths at school was that they never gave a practical reason for needing to know any of it, other than to pass an exam. I remember doing algebra, differentiation & Pythagoras etc, and thinking ok I can do this… but why? So immediately after the exam I consigned it all directly to my brain’s recycle bin. Bit of a shock during my design office days, when I then found I needed to use it nearly every day ! ) If they’d only told me it could be useful, I might have paid more attention and remembered it the first time!
Very few people who I speak to, realise the importance, engineering wise of this bridge. I don’t know if there is a preservation order or not on the bridge, or even if Stockton Borough Council are aware of the significance of this welded construction. I remember my father, who saw the branch line being built about 1921, telling me about it, when I was young in the 1950’s. Before the present A19 was built, the approach road to the Newport bridge was very busy, with traffic crossing the Billingham branch bridge, most unaware of the bridge. It was wide enough to accommodate a number of lines, but the expected expansion of industry around the North shore of the Tees estuary, which the branch had been mainly built for, did not materialise, and traffic remained relatively light. Now most travellers cross without even knowing it’s a bridge.
Douglas, thank you for your kind comment on the Newcomen Society. We had a remarkable tour of the Teesside area last July, ranging from Hartlepool Museum (check out the Heugh light, a remarkable survivor) to Redcar, from the Head of Steam to the A1 Trust and Skerne Bridge in Darlington, a walk across the Transporter Bridge and Whorlton suspension bridge (a hidden gem), Skinningrove rolling mill and the Wilton site, three different foundries and Tees Cottage Pumping Station, not to mention Stockton’s own barrage and the Newport Bridge lit up against the night sky and a thunderstorm. I am amazed that Teesside is not over-run with tourists with so many crucial sites and sights of engineering interest to see. Time for some marketing by the local authorities? Jonathan Aylen, President, Newcomen Society