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The aerial bridge over the river Usk linked the steelworks to the docks when down-to-earth solutions simply did not work. Helen Morgan from Abergavenny Local History Society reports

Thousands of pounds are periodically being raised for charity as sponsored abseilers give a new purpose to Newport’s iconic Transporter Bridge. The aerial ferry — the largest in the world — was finished in 1906. It has featured in numerous television programmes and films, notably the 1959 film Tiger Bay which gave Hayley Mills her screen début. But it has had a chequered history, closing for a £3 million refurbishment in 1985, reopening in 1995, closing again in 2007 and reopening once more in 2010.

Throughout the 19th century, there had been numerous proposals for bridges and tunnels at the eastern end of Newport but all had been thwarted by high costs and technical difficulties. The river banks are very low and it would have taken long steep approach ramps to build a bridge with sufficient height to allow shipping to pass below. A tunnel would have been prohibitively expensive, and a conventional ferry was out of the question as it would have been unable to dock at low water.

It was the plans in 1896 for steelworks across the river that forced the council’s hand. Borough engineer RH Hayes had heard of transporter bridges in Marseilles and Rouen built by Ferdinand Arnodin. Hayes went to see for himself and returned convinced. By 1900 Parliamentary approval had been granted.

Work began. The transporter bridge was to have twin iron lattice towers on either side of the river, nearly 250ft tall, while the horizontal beam from which the transporter platform or gondola was to hang was some 70ft lower. This gondola would travel 600ft above the water with the ferryman sitting in his cabin looking down the world. The transporter bridge cost £98,124 to construct and, when fully operational, can carry six light vehicles and 120 passengers. As Viscount Tredegar officially opened it on September 12, 1906, the new bridge was described as: “A giant with the grace of Apollo and the strength of Hercules.”

It remains an important reminder of Newport’s thriving industrial past, but does it have a viable future? “We certainly hope so,” says Anne Gatehouse. “Hopefully it will be granted World Heritage Status which will guarantee its future.”

Anne Gatehouse’s talk on the Newport Transporter Bridge: past, present and future, in the Borough Theatre on November 29, starts at 7.30pm. Non-members are welcome to join on the night

Article by Helen Morgan

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