Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, explains why she called a Westminster debate on the iconic bridge in the North East.
It is one of the greatest bridges of the world, an icon of the North East, our pride, our people, and our culture.
Just as the bridge has come to symbolise Tyneside’s impressive reputation for innovation, those who helped to build it have also inspired a generation of engineers from our region. The Tyne Bridge is an icon of the North East and deserves to be treated as such. Which is why I called a Westminster debate, because if the Tyne Bridge is to be fit for its 100th birthday party in 2028, we need to start planning now!
It is particularly fitting that the debate was held on International Women in Engineering Day (INWED). The Dorman Long & Co team, who designed the Tyne Bridge, included the first woman to gain entry to the Institution of Civil Engineers, Dorothy Buchanan.
As a chartered engineer myself—though an electrical engineer, not a civil engineer — I wanted to pay particular tribute to her in my speech.
Today is International Women in Engineering day, so during, my debate on the #TyneBridge I paid particular tribute to Dorothy Buchanan, the first woman to gain entry to the @ICE_engineers (in 1927!) and who worked on the design team for the #TyneBridge #INWED21 pic.twitter.com/QYwDHTq06K— Chi Onwurah 💙 (@ChiOnwurah) June 23, 2021
Growing up in the North East, I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an engineer, but I suffered from what I now call Marie Curie Syndrome – the inability to name more than one female scientist or engineer. I certainly wasn’t aware of the women from our region who came before me. What, then, I would have given to be able to name inspiring women like Dorothy.
Dorothy Buchanan, an inspiration
After graduating from University of Edinburgh in 1923, her work spanned the entire globe, including projects such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, River Nile, and various bridges across the UK.
When she became the first qualified civil engineer in 1927, she was one woman among 9,978 men, accounting for 0.01% of members. In April 2018, there were 12,764 women and 82,164 men, meaning women now hold 13.4% of memberships.
This is a step in the right direction, but it must go further.
As Dorothy herself said: "I felt that I represented all the women in the world. It was my hope that I would be followed by many others."
In 2018, more than 90 female engineers gathered at the iconic monument to honour Dorothy Buchanan for the bridge’s 90th birthday. I am hoping Dorothy can inspire even more women and girls for the bridge's 100th birthday.
An important part of the north-east transport infrastructure
Today, the Tyne Bridge is an important part of our north-east transport infrastructure, connecting our region from north to south. It was designed to be high enough for ships to pass underneath, while also being suitable for the new age of the motorised-vehicle and increasing volume of traffic across the Tyne. Thanks to the impressive minds of those who designed it, the bridge continues to serve our busy region almost a century later.
Although there is limited and grainy footage available of construction, the talent and knowledge required to build a bridge of such stature is clear. Having used shipbuilding techniques and materials, such as the welding of rivets and panels together, the bridge pays homage to the vast history of shipbuilding in our region.
While it had the same design team as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the differences are really quite striking. The Tyne Bridge is thinner at its earth-bound sides than at the height of the arch, which gives the impression that it's bounding up, soaring away, almost as if it were trying to shake itself free of its earthly constraints.
Since its opening in 1928 by King George V, it has been the backdrop for the Great North Run, the 2012 Olympic Rings and the fantastic closing ceremony of Freedom City 2017.
Levelling-up refurbishment work is overdue
But now, I'm regularly contacted by constituents and visitors to our city, upset at the state into which the bridge has been allowed to fall.
A bridge of this importance requires regular safety checks, repairs, preservation, and upkeep. The Tyne Bridge was last fully painted in 2000, and the paint system is designed to last approximately 18-20 years – a new paint job is overdue, as well as repairs needed for the road deck, the towers, the stonework, and the steelwork. The original work of Dorman Long & Co deserves to be maintained so that future generations can feel the same pride in it as I do.
I have raised with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for International Trade that they could use more icons from the North East to promote the United Kingdom abroad. Why not the Tyne bridge and the Angel of the North? Global Britain must include the North East.
I called a special debate on centenary celebrations for the #TyneBridge, & spoke about the need for investment in the iconic, steel & granite symbol of the #NorthEast The govt talks about ‘levelling up’ but will they refurbish the Bridge which represents our region to the world? pic.twitter.com/IVyokHggAP— Chi Onwurah 💙 (@ChiOnwurah) June 23, 2021
The Tyne Bridge is a bridge for all communities across the North East. The government needs to ensure that it is in its best state so that great engineering stories like that of Dorman Long and Dorothy Buchanan can inspire the next generation of engineers.