The Tranny Lad’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Tranny Lad’s Tale

(or More Tales from the River Bank)

by John Ivison

‘The Dragonfly’, as many people know, is the nickname of Teesside’s world famous Transporter Bridge. This year is the Dragonfly is 100 years old; not bad for one of nature’s most delicate creatures. I’ve worked on the Dragonfly for 16 years and I reckon it’s a brilliant job. Officially, I’m called a ‘Bridge Operator’ but I’m usually known as a ‘Tranny Lad’ and over the last 16 years I’ve collected a mass of stories. We get asked all sorts of questions, especially from inquisitive schoolchildren, but there are some that come up time and again. Here is a few of the most popular.

The Transporter Bridge
The Transporter Bridge

‘Is it safe?’ some ask. Well, yes and no. It’s fine if you are being taken across the river in the gondola and you obey all the rules and stay still. But if you are a ship coming up the river, you might be in for a shock; in the 1920s there was a lot more shipping on the River Tees and in 1923 the gondola actually hit a coal-carrying ship and it sank. Fortunately, the crew all jumped to safety – on to the gondola!

Then in 1973 the comedian Terry Scott approached the bridge in his Jaguar car but didn’t look where he was going and drove straight over the edge of the quayside. Fortunately, there was a safety net that caught him.

‘Why is the bridge built so high?’ is an obvious question and we have to explain that 100 years ago there were ships with masts so tall that they would have run the risk of hitting the bridge if it had been built any lower. In fact this did happen once in 1932 when a ship being pulled by a tug at high tide actually collided with the bridge.

‘Why build a bridge in the first place?’ some will ask. We explain that before the bridge was constructed, the only way to get across the river to work was by ferry and because the ferry could only take about 100 men at a time, fights broke out as men struggled to get a place. If you were late going to work you would lose pay and if you were late leaving work your wife would be asking questions. So the Council was persuaded to build a bridge and for ideas they went to look at the Transporter Bridge at Bilbao in Spain, the oldest transporter bridge in the world and, ironically, built on the ideas of an engineer from Hartlepool.

‘What happens if the cables snap?’ is a frequent worry, ‘No probs,’ we confidently reassure them. ‘A giant air-bag is immediately deployed and we will float gently down the river like they did in “Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang”‘.

Then there are those youngsters who ask: ‘Why was the bridge painted blue?’ That’s easy to answer: ‘It’s because,’ we tell them, ‘B&Q had a special offer on Nanking Blue paint that sparkles luminous in the dark and so we bought a job lot dead cheap. If you go to B&Q and give my name, you should be able to get some yourselves – if they have any left.’

John Ivison
John Ivison

Some really observant children notice the tall brick clock tower a little way downstream on the south bank of the river and ask why there is no clock face visible. The answer is straightforward. When the tower was originally built, it had four clocks, one on each side. However, workers at the Anderson’s Iron Foundry on the other side of the river used to spend so much time clock-watching and waiting for the end of their day’s shift that production at the iron works was seriously reduced. So the management persuaded the clock owners to brick up the clock face.

One final Tale from the River Bank is the story about the farmer who had his farm on the north side of the Tees but had to transport his pigs across the river to the slaughterhouse on the south side. At the time, animals transported on the bridge were charged ‘by the hoof’. So the farmer took his pigs across in a wheelbarrow. I can’t vouch for this story – the farm’s disappeared, the farmer’s dead and the pigs are all slaughtered. But if you go to any nearby pub at 10.00 pm on a Saturday night, I guarantee you’ll get a score of witnesses who swear that the story’s true… if you promise them all a last pint.

Editor: The Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge is the longest in the world. There have been some 20 transporter bridges, all constructed between 1893 and 1916, built around the world but only 11 are still in existence. The only other two in Britain are at Newport (Gwent) and Warrington.