Metal marvel or memorial to lost lives?
IT WAS a drizzly windy day in March 1890 when the Royal train trundled along the track of the newly constructed Forth Bridge. It came to a halt as the saloon car was exactly opposite the last unfinished piece of that Victorian marvel of engineering. Out stepped the Prince of Wales, and, with a silver key, he made a couple of turns to secure the final rivet.
There was a sharp click as cheers rang out from the elite party accompanying the future Edward VII. The Royal party promptly stepped straight back on to the train, which immediately set off for a banquet back in South Queensferry.
This was the official dedication of the Forth Bridge. But one man, who over the years had fixed his fair share of rivets, was too sick, both physically and emotionally, to celebrate. George Fowler, described on his death certificate as a railway lorryman, had nonetheless spent around seven years of his life as a bridge-builder, or brigger, on the crossing over the Forth.
The only known picture of him shows a moustached man, in what appears to be a bowler hat, almost jauntily holding a hydraulic drill.
It was taken when he was working on the caissons, the 400-ton wrought iron cylinders upon which the steel bridge’s cantilevers rest.
Frank Hay, of the Queensferry History Group, explains: "The foundations were under water, so in order to construct them, they built huge shell-like containers and floated them out to position. They were sunk and filled with compressed air to prevent the water getting in.
"This created some very strange conditions for the men to work in."
Workmen descended through a series of air locks to work away at the seabed and secure the foundations.
"The deepest caisson was 90 feet deep, although they varied in depth depending on the contours of the seabed," says Jim Walker, another member of the history group.
"The deeper they got the less time they were allowed to work."
The shortest shift was just two hours - digging through boulder clay in a chamber just seven feet high. It was impossible to whistle in the dense atmosphere and it quickly became hot and humid. The only bonus was the chance of unearthing an amethyst or a pearl from the seabed.
Even Wilhelm Westhofen, a German engineer in charge of the middle cantilever of the bridge, admitted in a book he later wrote that some men working in the caissons developed "agonising pains in the joints, the elbows, shoulders and knee-caps".
In fact, what the men were experiencing was decompression sickness - or the bends. "It later became known as caissons’ disease," says Frank. The disease led to blood vessels in the bones and joints collapsing - what is known as bone death.
Official records show that just two men died while working on the caissons - both of consumption or TB.
But the history group’s chairman Len Saunders says it is "very very likely" Fowler died because of his work on the bridge - and he is unlikely to have been the only one. In fact, the official figure was of 57 deaths during the whole seven-year period of the bridge’s construction, but members of the Queensferry History Group now believe at least 21 more men were killed.
That’s backed up by an entry by one of George Fowler’s descendants on an American website. James Magnuson wrote: "My great grandfather, George Fowler, died in 1892 from caissons’ disease. During his first two years’ work on the Forth Bridge, he worked under compressed air down in the caissons.
"My grandfather said George worked ‘until the last rivet was driven’ but that when the bridge was dedicated his father was in such [bad] physical shape, he never wanted to see the bridge again. In our family, we call the bridge, The George Fowler Memorial Bridge."
When George Fowler died in Dunfermline two years after the opening of the bridge, the cause of death was recorded as "supposed heart disease".
THE Queensferry History Group is campaigning for a memorial to the workers. When they started, they had no idea the official figure, put forward by Westhofen, was not correct.
Most of the recorded deaths - and some of the unrecorded tragedies - happened during the construction of the mighty cantilevers which rose and expanded sideways from the Forth.
The men working on riveting the sections of the bridge together were mainly British; English, Irish and Scottish, often veterans of the Clyde shipyards and Leith docks. They were a pretty hardy breed and would have probably scorned safety harnesses.
But many were used to working on the ground, rather than on the moveable wooden scaffolding that enveloped the partially-built bridge.
The scaffolding was often moved with the men still on it, with clothing, tools and sometimes men hurtling down below.
"The youngest death was a 13-year-old. He fell 300 feet off a cantilever and landed at his father’s feet, who was working at the stage below. You don’t get any more tragic than that," says Jim.
Two ships used by the company saved eight lives of men who fell off - and recovered 8000 dropped caps - but many died instantly from the fall. Two even fell down the huge upright tubes.
Not all the workers - who numbered nearly 5000 at their peak - were the traditional riveters and welders, which is perhaps why their deaths weren’t officially recorded.
In the Evening News of July 1888 - the year deaths at the bridge reached their height - an article headed "Supposed boating accident at Queensferry" reports that two night watchmen, William Fairley and Thomas Roberts, both of Queensferry, drowned while putting navigation lamps on the bridge. Both, as the paper reports, were employed at the Forth Bridge. "Their death certificate says they were fishermen," says Frank.
Many of the deaths were blamed by the company on the men’s own drunkenness and carelessness - and there was no doubt many of these men were hard drinkers. On pay day, the nearby Hawes Inn lined up 200 pints at a time, as the men drank in shifts.
But could there have been a deliberate attempt at a cover-up?
The Dunfermline Journal at the time was running a campaign against what it described as the "slaughter" on the bridge and letters to the Evening News and its sister publication The Scotsman called for harnesses and safety wires to be used.
In a letter in The Scotsman from September 1887 the bridge builders, Tancred, Arrol and Co accuses the press of "gross exaggeration" in reporting the number of deaths, and goes on to say that an Edward Davies, a joiner, was reported as being killed by a falling metal bolt. "The fact is the case was one of a scalp wound, but not serious." Two days later Davies was dead, of a compound fracture. Until now, he wasn’t included in the list of official bridge dead.
"Was there a cover-up?" ponders Jim. "I don’t know. But it is suspicious - you would imagine it would be quite simple to keep a record of each death."
The history group is appealing for more information on those who died - or those not yet listed. Contact www.forthbridgememorial.org
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