A set of steps links the pavement on the north-eastern side of Skeldergate Bridge with the New Walk (which passes beneath the bridge) and Tower Gardens. A diagonal path across the latter leads to a pedestrian crossing on Tower Street and this provides a safe and pleasant walking route between the bridge and Clifford's Tower.
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York's Skeldergate Bridge has decorative ironwork. The decommissioned lifting section allowed tall ships to access the wharves and warehouses further upriver.
The bridge (see Images A1 to A4) was built between 1878 and 1880 to replace a ferry that had carried people and small cargoes across the River Ouse near Skeldergate Postern since at least 1541.
Set into the parapet wall at either end of the southwest pier are two cast metal commemorative plaques (see Image B1). These inform us that
The Foundation Stone of this Bridge was laid 12th June 1878
This bridge was first used by foot passengers on the 1st January 1881 and was formally opened for general traffic on the 10th March 1881.
The bridge's dimensions, cost and other key statistics were recorded in the March 11th 1881 edition of "The Engineer":
The bridge consists of five arches, three of which cross the river, two being land arches for the waterside traffic. The centre arch has a span of 90ft.; the two side arches have spans of 30ft. each; and the two land arches have spans of 24ft. each. . . . The gradient of roadway of the river arches is 1 in 108. The centre arch is composed of seven main ribs of wrought iron, springing from cast iron skewbacks. The 24ft. land arches are of cast iron.
and in a follow-up article published in the July 28th, 1882 edition:
The total length of the bridge, including the abutments of the land arches, is 308ft. 8in., and the total length from the end of one retaining wall to another is 861ft. 8in. The outlay on the bridge, approaches, lodge, river wall, deep water channel, land, &c., has amounted to £56,000.
The bridge was constructed with a 'state-of-the-art' movable section beside the northeast bank of the river (see Images A3 and B2). This allowed masted boats and other tall vessels to gain access to the quays and riverside buildings between Skeldergate Bridge and Ouse Bridge (e.g. the Bonding Warehouse, King's Staith and Queen's Staith). From 1881 until 1975, two pairs of decorative spandrels swung outwards, while a 30ft. long bascule supporting the road-deck and parapet lifted upwards. The chain and pulley mechanism that operated the spandrels is still visible today (see Image B3).
The architect George Gordon Page was rightly proud of both the technical and aesthetic aspects of his design for the bridge. In an article published in "The Engineer" on July 28th, 1882, he writes:
The Skeldergate bascule bridge is the largest of its kind in the world. The area of the whole surface of the bridge in front of the axis is 1484.3 square feet; the area of the Copenhagen Bridge, the next largest, being 1155 square feet, or 329.3ft. super less than the Skeldergate bascule flap. There is one great point in this bascule bridge which is an innovation in advance of nearly all opening and movable bridges. This is that it has been so designed and arranged that the whole character of the design is not marred by unsightly girders, &c., as is usually the case with opening bridges.
It is worth noting that Skeldergate Bridge was officially opened five years before construction work began on London's world-famous double-bascule version (i.e. Tower Bridge).
The turreted building near the northeast end of the bridge (see Images B2 and B4) originally provided accommodation for the toll-keeper / bridge operator. The upper storeys also served as the toll house and control room for the lifting equipment. Additional information relating to the original layout is provided in the aforementioned article from "The Engineer":
The tollhouse has a ground floor . . . which comprises kitchen, scullery, larder, bedroom, large cellar, coal collar, &c., and a passage leading to the hydraulic machinery cellar. On the first floor is the tollhouse proper, bedroom, &c., also steps to the open look-out tower or lantern, the floor of which has a lead flat, and the roof of which is surmounted by a lead flat, flagpole, and chimney.
The machinery that operated the movable section was housed in a 'motor room' within the abutment below the road deck. The motor room could be accessed via the passageway from the accommodation area, or from a separate doorway on the downstream (southeast) side of the abutment (see Image C1). The internal floors of both the 'lodge' (i.e. the accommodation area, accessed from the northwest side) and the motor room were designed and constructed to be "about one foot above the flood level" (see Image C1). However, despite these precautions, the water level in the River Ouse does now occasionally rise high enough to inundate both of these areas.
The bridge's ornate lamp standards reward close inspection (see Images C2 and C3):
- The posts are decorated with intricate mouldings.
- The cast iron brackets incorporate a quatrefoil containing the coat of arms of the City of York (a white shield overlain with the red cross of St George, the latter being embossed with the five gold passant guardant lions of England).
- The lanterns have six glass segments surmounted by two crowns and topped with a spiralling 'pennon' or pennant (i.e. a long, thin, tapering, swallow-tail shaped flag attached to the tip of a lance). The crowns and pennons are picked-out in gold leaf. These lanterns were originally lit by gas and they are identical in design to those on Lendal Bridge.
A commemorative plaque (see Image C4) located beside the old toll house at road deck level states that
This bridge was formally declared free from tolls on April 1st 1914.
The bridge was reconstructed and strengthened in 1938-9.
The bascule section was decommissioned in 1975 and it has since been made immovable.
The entire structure is now Grade II listed.
For detailed contemporary accounts relating to the design, construction and operation of Skeldergate Bridge (plus a wide range of additional facts and figures), please refer to the accompanying background article entitled "The design and construction of Skeldergate Bridge, York".
The ornate ironwork and decommissioned lifting section justify a 2-star rating for this fascinating example of Victorian engineering. However, as with Lendal Bridge, Skeldergate Bridge earns its third star because it provides an excellent viewpoint for the river Ouse.