Bridge builders remembered for bravery that cost their lives
FOR seven years, more than 5,000 workers risked their lives day and night for the paltry wage of between five pence-ha’penny and eight pence an hour.
The result, in 1890, was the completion of the one of the world’s greatest engineering achievements: the Forth Bridge.
Now, more than a century on, the 57 men who lost their lives during the construction of the famous rail crossing are to be permanently commemorated.
Community leaders and heritage groups have come together to support a proposal to remember the poorly paid labourers whose deaths - despite safety netting and rescue boats - became a regular part of the bridge’s early history.
One such incident is described in an archived edition of The Scotsman from 30 September, 1891, when adjustments were still being made after the official inauguration of the bridge.
Two riveters, James Jack, 28, from Inverkeithing and Robert Hughes, 28, from Queensferry, were killed along with James Smith, a rigger in his fifties, when part of a scaffolding frame collapsed.
The report said Jack and Smith were "instantly thrown to the ground, a distance of about 120ft, their skulls being fractured and other fearful injuries bring sustained". Hughes "managed to grasp a rope in falling and clung to it desperately for some minutes, shrieking for help... his body, however, gradually loosened and before horrified spectators... he fell and struck the grassy slope at the foot of the pier with a sickening thud."
The accident, typical of its kind, left three widows and ten orphans.
The memorial is proposed by Hamish Gilchrist, a welder and sculptor based in South Queensferry, the Edinburgh suburb overlooked by the bridge. The Hawes Inn, a pub that also acted as a temporary hospital for the 166 men injured during the construction, is among the suggested locations for the memorial.
Mr Gilchrist, 56, a retired metalwork teacher who has a sculpture gallery in South Queensferry, said: "The idea came about because a colleague’s son was researching the Forth Bridge for a school project. It seemed incredible that all those men died on such a major engineering scheme and yet there was no formal plaque or memorial.
"I approached a couple of other people about it and it seems there is plenty of interest and I am hopeful we can get something in place."
He added: "I have already made a copper sculpture representing part of the bridge which could be used but the memorial would need a plinth or something suitable. The other problem is whether to collect the names of all those who died. The figure is generally put at 57 but some say there were more than that. It would be a huge challenge to collect and verify all those names."
The local councillor, George Grubb, said: "We are in the process of forming a trust to look at the possibilities. It is at a very early stage but there has been an encouraging response.
"It is vitally important that such an important icon of Scotland has a proper memorial to those who lost their lives during its construction. I’ve always thought the bridges were as spectacular and symbolic as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. In fact I think both the Forth bridges are better."
The Hawes Inn is a 17th-century pub whose garden was home to a field hospital for injured construction workers.
The pub has already agreed to an initial donation to kick-start the project. Its manager, David McGregor, said: "We would be happy to accommodate a memorial since it is such an important part of the history of the area. A lot of visitors come here to find out more about the bridge.
"The problem will be finding the 57 names. A lot of the men were apparently taken to hospital in Edinburgh so there is no easy way of tracing those who died."
Members of the Edinburgh heritage watchdog, the Cockburn Association, have been in touch with Mr Gilchrist to express interest in the project.
David McDonald, the director of the organisation, said: "The Cockburn Association would be tremendously supportive of commemorating the workers who died in the construction of the bridge. I am surprised they haven’t been commemorated already.
"The bridge is an icon for Scottish innovation and engineering and it is only right that the individuals who lost their lives be celebrated."
A spokeswoman for Network Rail, which owns the bridge, said: "We have received Mr Gilchrist’s letter regarding his desire for a memorial. Network Rail is interested in Mr Gilchrist’s suggestion and is currently in the early stages of exploring the possibilities of a memorial."
Despite the loss of life, the rail bridge lost proportionately fewer workers through accidents than the adjacent 1950s road bridge project, on which seven of its 360 employees died.
When it was completed in 1890, the rail bridge was the largest in the world, built from 54,000 tonnes of steel and containing 6.5 million rivets. The whole project cost 3.2 million. And although most admired it, the artist and designer William Morris called it "the supremest specimen of all ugliness".
Its spectacularly robust design - it remains one of the strongest rail bridges in the world - was borne out of public fears following the horrific Tay Bridge disaster in which 75 were killed.
In 1865, a parliament resolution authorised the North British Railway and its engineer, Sir Thomas Bouch, to construct a bridge over the Forth. Bouch proposed a suspended bridge with twin aprons of 1,600ft each - similar to his Tay Bridge design.
On the night of 28 December, 1879, Bouch received a telegram at his Edinburgh home. It read: "Terrible accident on the bridge; one or more girders have collapsed; do not know the situation concerning the last train from Edinburgh; will let you know when other information will be available."
The Tay Bridge had collapsed during a hurricane, taking with it a train from Edinburgh. Bouch was indirectly blamed at the subsequent public inquiry and his involvement in the embryonic Forth Bridge project was over. He died a year later, said to be a broken man.
Another design was presented and accepted by engineer Benjamin Baker in 1882. He presented a cantilever bridge structure, a bridge type most popular worldwide.
The bridge spans one and one-fifth of a mile, its cantilevered spans allowing the enormous structure to be self-supporting under construction - carrying not only the cranes, which hoisted steel plates from barges in the river below, but also riveting machines.
The rivets had to be super-heated before being passed by apprentices - often in their teens - to riveters who pushed them in place with hammers. A hard-working boy could deliver 800 rivets in the course of a long, hard and often cold day and was paid three shillings - 15p - for his efforts.
The giant stone pillars supporting the steelwork - in effect, the feet of the bridge - consumed three quarters of a million tonnes of the hardest Aberdeen granite and 21,000 tonnes of Portland cement. Half the construction time was spent on these pillars.
The whole project was overseen by Sir William Arrol, the son of a cotton spinner who became an acclaimed engineer and later also the Liberal MP for South Ayrshire from 1892 to 1906. The bridge was opened in March 1890 by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who drove home the last rivet.
Although the bridge today carries much more traffic than it did a century ago, the stresses on its structure are fewer because modern trains are lighter and more efficient than heavy steam locomotives. In 1907, 29,675 passenger trains crossed the bridge with a gross weight of 14.6 million tonnes. During 2000, the bridge carried 54,080 passenger and 6,240 freight trains with a gross weight of 10.5 million tonnes.
Even before the bridge was built, the Hawes Inn was famous for its mention in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Rooms at the inn are named after figures from Stevenson’s works. Stevenson is also believed to have sat in the Hawes Inn while writing passages for Treasure Island. Sir Walter Scott also made reference to the Hawes Inn in The Antiquary.
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