'Hidden' death toll of Forth Bridge revealed

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AT LEAST 21 more men died building the Forth Bridge than has previously been thought, historians revealed today.

And the real death toll was kept hidden by project chiefs in an attempt to "cover up" the true human cost of the structure - the biggest engineering accomplishment of its era - bridge experts have claimed.

A working group set up last year to look at erecting a memorial in South Queensferry believed it would be honouring 57 men who lost their lives building the bridge.

But astonished experts say they have uncovered a further 21 names of men who died, taking the new death toll to 78.

And historians hope that the families of the deceased will come forward so that they can verify the circumstances of their deaths.

Wilhelm Westhofen, a German engineer in charge of the middle cantilever of the bridge, first quoted the 57 figure in a book he later wrote about the project. The numbers have been taken as fact ever since.

Edinburgh West MP John Barrett, who is chairman of the Forth Bridge Memorial Committee, which is driving the plans forward, said they wanted to make sure that every man lost during the bridge construction was identified before the list of dead was carved into the memorial.

Although the deaths were virtually ignored when the bridge was opened in 1890, local historians have gone into overdrive since the memorial project was launched and are confident the forgotten victims will be given their rightful place in its history.

Len Saunders, chairman of the Queensferry History Group, said the breakthrough had left them stunned. He said: "We are very confident of 51 names, identified through strict and cautious criteria set out by genealogists, but over and above that we have found another 27 names, so we could be looking at 78 in total.

"That has come as astonishing news to us, the fact that so many more names are involved and we do have a huge amount of information on these people. We think there has been a cover-up because, even in those days, there were fatal accident inquiries by the procurator fiscal and some accidents we know were never reported as being killed on the bridge, but were instead described as boating accidents in an attempt to play down the numbers."

The Forth Bridge was one of the major engineering achievements of the Victorian age and was the largest of its kind in the world.

Designed by Sir John Fowler and Benjamin Baker, the bridge was based on the cantilever principle, with three diamond shaped steel towers 104 metres high carrying a double railway line 46 metres above the River Forth.

The bridge took seven years to build, and contractors used 55,000 tons of steel, 194,000 tons of stone and concrete, and 7.5 million rivets to complete what is one of Scotland’s most impressive landmarks.

As well as the large number of deaths, eight more men were saved by boats positioned in the river under the working areas.

Hundreds more were left crippled by serious accidents and one log book of accidents and sickness had 26,000 entries.

But despite the apparent indifference to the spiralling number of tragedies at the time, one Dunfermline newspaper launched a campaign against what it described as "slaughter" on the bridge.

Mr Barrett said: "There has always been the figure of 57, but we never really knew the exact numbers and the more the team found out about it the more complicated it seemed to get.

"When the complete list is put out into the public domain, it will give people the chance to add information they might have.

"We are still in the relatively early stages of the project, but a memorial is most likely to be on the ground in South Queensferry and I would say after everything is considered, that will be between 18 months and two years away."

Others who paid the price

THE following are those thought to have died while building the bridge, without their names being officially recorded. The list will be updated periodically and amended on the Forth Railway Bridge Memorial website, www.forthbridgememorial.org If you think you may be related to any of the above, or have a name to add, contact the committee.

1883

Thomas Joseph Harris

1884

Alexander Smart

Alexander McDougall

1885

David Scott

Daniel Keenan

Patrick Campbell

Alexander Ogilvie

John Robinson

Robert Anderson

1886

Colin McArthur

Angus Patterson

1887

Hugh Foley

Edward Davies

Patrick McGinty

John Conway

John Anderson

1888

Robert Thomas

Thomas Quinn

Robert Thomson

Thomas Roberts

William Fairley

John Clarke

1891

James Jack

Robert Hughes

James Smith

John Wigham

Richard Harvey