From the Darlington & Stockton Times of April 23, 1871

“FOR reasons stated elsewhere,” said the D&S Times 150 years ago, “an imposing ceremonial for opening the new bridge at Barnard Castle on Thursday was altogether foregone.”

Frustratingly, the D&S does not explain what the reasons were for the opening ceremony of the Thorngate footbridge over the Tees to have been abandoned at the last moment.

Yet it was a popular bridge, because the villagers of Startforth, on the Yorkshire side, had long been campaigning to be joined directly with the large textile mills on the Durham bank in Barney. They either had to walk round to the County Bridge, or cross the ford and stepping stones on the curve of the river into Thorngate. These were very dangerous when the river was on the rise.

Two local wealthy men, Messrs Holroyd and Fieldhouse, had each donated £100 towards the £400 cost of the bridge and there had been an energetic campaign to collect the rest.

The metalwork had been fabricated at the Skerne Ironworks on Darlington’s Albert Hill and there was to be a grand procession, plenty of speeches and ceremonial opening "to crown the local fete with an air of triumph".

But The Northern Echo – which is now the D&S Times’ sister paper, although at the time they were sworn rivals – said: "Yet all of this did not come off, the inhabitants of Barnard Castle being informed by their town crier in the morning that the event would not be accompanied with all the paraphernalia which had been so carefully and studiously announced in public placards.

"The excuse made for this sudden fiasco was the weather; but the floating rumours abroad whispered of more cogent reasons than such watery ones as this."

The Skerne Ironworks drawing of the first Thorngate footbridge in Barnard Castle which was opened 100 years ago this week

The Skerne Ironworks drawing of the first Thorngate footbridge in Barnard Castle which was "opened" 100 years ago this week

It did not explain “the floating rumours”, although it did note that there had been a dinner on the evening in the King’s Head for subscribers. "The usual toasts were honoured with all cordiality, and the only regret expressed was that a petty jealousy had somewhat marred a really excellent movement," finished the Echo.

The Teesdale Mercury, even though it published a full list of subscribers to the project, seems not to have even mentioned the sudden cancellation.

But it appears that the town was awash with a “floating rumour” that the legs of the footbridge had simply been rested on the riverbed and they would surely be washed away in the next big flood.

This was not true, as Edward Hutchinson, the managing director of the Skerne Ironworks, explained in a book about his bridge-building techniques which he published in 1879. The Thorngate bridge, he said, had been his first use of a new technology in which a white hot metal wedge was inserted into holes drilled in the riverbed.

“The whole operation lasted only a few minutes,” he said, boastfully. "Nothing more was necessary than to drive in a few small wedges in order to steady and adjust the pier. The work was all done under water."

He concluded: "This is an example of very cheap construction."

Perhaps the rumourmongers had got wind of all this, and so their petty jealousy prevented the grand ceremonial opening which had been planned for this week 150 years ago.

And there may well have been a kernel of truth to the rumours because on March 8, 1881 – a couple of months short of the tenth anniversary of the non-opening – a once-in-a-hundred years storm hit Teesdale, and it was quickly clear that the Thorngate footbridge was in trouble. The huge crowds which hadn’t gathered for the opening rapidly arrived to watch its demise.

"About ten minutes to 12 o'clock, a loud crack was heard and all eyes were immediately turned with breathless anxiety to the bridge which was now observed to be fairly in motion, " said the D&S. The frail structure snapped in the centre and in the space of a moment, the entire bridge rolled over and was swept away in halves.

"The destruction was momentary and complete."

As were the deaths of two foolhardy men who, to get the best view of the bridge’s collapse, had been standing on the bridge itself when it collapsed. They – William Thwaites, 40, a watchmaker from Barney, and Richard Gargett, 50, a gamewatcher from Bowes – were swept instantly away.

Perhaps surprisingly, the people of Barnard Castle went back to the same foundry in Darlington to order a replacement. The Skerne Ironworks had gone bust and been replaced by Wilson Bros, who whistled up a new iron deck which was stretched across the Tees in September 1882, when the D&S said simply: "The new Thorngate footbridge is now opened and is a very neat structure."

So second time around, there was also no opening ceremony – but at least this footbridge has stood the test of time. So far.