Heroes who conquered the Forth

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HE looks like he was a tough kid from the curious, slightly hostile glare he's throwing at the camera. Perhaps it was because he'd never seen a camera before, perhaps because the photographer was interrupting his work – and no work meant no pay.

Or perhaps, as one of the army of boy riveters working on the construction of the Forth Bridge as the 19th century drew to a close, he'd just seen too much of adult life and death to manage a cheeky grin.

Sadly, his name isn't recorded, just his job – as a rivet catcher his tasks would have included grabbing red-hot metal pins heated on portable stoves below as they were hurled up to the various sections of the bridge to be hammered into the bridge's supports.

Perhaps he is even Thomas Shannon, one rivet catcher whose name is recorded – because he was just 13 when he lost his balance at the peak of the Inchgarvie cantilever and landed with a fatal thud 140ft below on December 9, 1888.

The boy riveters had often been recruited as part of a family team and young Thomas was no exception – it was at the feet of his father, Patrick, a girder worker, that he landed.

Thomas is thought to be the youngest of more than 70 who died while working on the construction of the Forth Bridge. His story is told for the first time in a new book researched by a group of historians based in South Queensferry, living under the iconic structure which was completed two years after Thomas' death.

The Briggers , released this week, tells the tales of boys and men who built the bridge and the dangers they faced.

Some lost their lives in falls or fires, or were crushed or struck by falling equipment, but there were many more left disabled, with missing limbs, fingers and toes or whose health was broken by long periods spent in underwater caissons. One man suffering from "the bends", was too embarrassed to join the official bridge opening because of his bone deformities.

Others would be haunted by the images seen as they worked to build what became, and remains, one of the world's finest engineering feats.

"Nothing about these men has ever been told before," explains historian Elspeth Wills, the book's author. "Simply because it takes such a vast amount of time, patience and research to extract the human stories from the bridge's history.

"After writing this book, I for one, will never be able to cross the Forth Bridge again without thinking about these men."

Thomas's story wasn't the only tragic episode the team of four researchers uncovered.

Equally haunting was the dramatic death of three bridge workers who perished in a fire in their living quarters on 8 October 1888, including navvy Terence Martin, an Irishman who is thought to have had links with Leith.

It was around 2:30am when 106 men, crammed into a 80sq ft hut in Little Couston, near Aberdour, began to panic when a fire broke out in the building. Their doors had been locked to ensure non-paying navvies could not sneak in for the night, and had remained so because of the unruly behaviour of a few of the men.

Crowds of naked navvies, mainly Irish, began escaping through skylights, or battering the hut walls with benches in a bid to break them and escape.

Others ran from the building as officials woke and frantically began unlocking doors. Within ten minutes the hut was a complete inferno.

"They all got out, except for three men," says Jim Walker, one of the researchers. "Those men who escaped then had to watch the hut burn, before discovering the three who had died, left as skeletons with bones bleached white from the heat. No-one ever came to collect their bodies."

Terence Martin was discovered on the hut floor, along with James McLachlan, but John Ward, the third victim, was found still in his bed, having never managed to push any further through the crammed group of frantic workers as they fought for their lives.

"The other navvies made coffins for the men, and they were eventually buried in Aberdour," explains Mr Walker. "As for those who had escaped, most of them were completely naked and all their clothes had burned in the fire. So, there was a collection for them, with a lot of donations made by people from the large houses nearby. Many of the men ended up wearing fantastic Harris Tweed clothing as a result. I can only imagine though, after witnessing the fire, it must have been very hard to go back to their jobs."

For the briggers, working on the construction of the Forth Bridge was an exciting prospect, with many travelling across the world to be part of the gigantic challenge.

The result was a collection of workers from across Scotland, England and Ireland and as far afield as Belgium and Italy.

"There are even suggestions that some American Indians worked on the bridge," says Jenni Meldrum, another of the book's researchers. "They are known for working on large skyscrapers, but unfortunately there is no actual evidence for it here.

"There is always a chance though. It may be they were never picked up in the records, simply because they didn't die."

One name which was picked up by the records, though, is 43-year-old Italian brigger Egatz Arcangelo Di Bortolo. The caisson worker with no English died alone in the Capital's infirmary five years before the bridge was finished, possibly of typhoid.

"This man died a very lonely death and so very little is known about him. It was a hospital porter who ended up registering his death," she explains.

"His story shows the international flavour of the bridge and there is every chance this man left a family in Italy to come to Scotland for the chance to work.

"My dreams for this book are for relatives to make contact and learn more about what their ancestors did for the bridge."

&#149 The Briggers: The story of the Men who built the Forth Bridge is published by Birlinn, priced 16.99

TRAGIC COST OF 'EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD'

THE Forth Bridge was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1890 after seven years of construction involving thousands of men from across the world.

Measuring 2,529 meters, the "Eighth Wonder of the World" was constructed from 55,885 tones of steel and 107,038 cubic metres of masonry, at a jaw-dropping 19th century cost of 3.2 million.

The Forth Bridge opened up a wealth of opportunities for workers, from the actual briggers themselves, to ambulance drivers, bricklayers, cooks, and quarriers.

For years the death toll was believed to stand at 57, but research shows at least 73 men died while working on the bridge. They include 38 who fell from the structure; nine who were crushed; nine who drowned; eight struck by a falling object; three burned; one from the bends; and five from unknown causes.