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Whitby has many tourist attractions and one of them is really a practical item and that is its swing bridge which takes you from the west to the east side of the town.
On August 8th 2009 Whitby celebrated its bridge centenary, with a fine turnout of people and the Lord Mayors of Whitby and Scarborough attending.
If you look at some of the old original pictures of the opening ceremony of the bridge 100 years earlier, it looked very similar with the crowds of people all attending, except their clothes looked different. There were two special centenary plaques placed at either end of the bridge, featuring three paintings by John Freeman, Whitby’s local artist. The actual birthday of the bridge was 23 August but it would have clashed with Folk week and the regatta celebrations.
In the very distant past it was probably stepping stones, or just people wading across the River Esk, but obviously as the town grew it became more important to have a more reliable and practical way of crossing.
Almost certainly there has been a bridge of some kind in the same location for centuries, with the early designs being very basic affairs made of wood, there is evidence of a bridge being mentioned in a will in 1327.
If you move ahead in time to 1813 there was the very first plan for a replacement of the then decrypted drawbridge, drawn up by a gentleman called James Peacock.
But it was not until 1832 that the county council in Northallerton produced an order for a new bridge to be built, with work on the bridge started the following year with initially the demolition of the old drawbridge.
In June 1834 the foundations of a new bridge started by a company commissioned to do the work from Keighley called Hirman Craven and Sons, on a design by Francis Pickernell, who resided in Whitby and was an engineer who had worked on many projects in the town involving the harbour. It is thought that the cost of building the bridge was somewhere in the region of £10,000 bracket, with the grand opening of being on 27 March 1835.
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The new bridge looked very pretty and was very much liked by artists and latter-day photographers, although it didn't go down well with the shipbuilding companies on the upper side of the Esk who were building larger fishing boats which meant it became very difficult for them to leave through its tight opening beneath The narrow opening created many problems and later this once elegant looking bridge had now been covered with timber around its piers, to protect it from damaging the ships.
There were numerous requests to remove parts of the bridge to make the entrance wider and Whitby magistrates passed an order that this could be done if it didn't impair the bridge's strength. But in 1894 a survey said that the bridge was inadequate and it should be closed for repairs.
The swing bridge that is there today was built in 1909 and there are not many bridges with a similar design where both sides can turn 90° allowing the boats to pass through easily. It was built by Heenan and Frouude in Manchester and Worcester, this engineering company also made the Blackpool Tower in 1894.There doesn't seem to be much documentation regarding the building of the bridge, which was no doubt quite a big event in the town of Whitby and it is thought that the steelwork probably got there from Worcester by railway.
Inside the bridge structure there are two electric motors and it is documented that these were tested by Mr Moncrieff and it was found that the motors could open the bridge in five minutes four seconds, but it was also possible to open the bridge using four men each turning handles, but this took 11 minutes 20 seconds.
The bridge was opened in July 1909 and the ceremony was held by Mrs W Garvase Beckett and the bridge has been performing its function very well for over a century now, which can only mean that the bridge builders did a fine job.
Over recent years the bridge has broken down a few times and in 2010 it was out of commission for a few days waiting for parts. It is still a very important functional part of the town as well as part of its history and a tourist attraction.
There is a very fine book on the subject of the bridge written by John Freeman, who is one of the towns resident artists and it is available in the town’s bookshop on Church Street.