Death on the Bridge

IN JULY 1890, some four months after the Prince of Wales stepped from the royal train to ceremonially tighten the last of those legendary six and a half million rivets, two brass plaques were unveiled on either side of the Forth Bridge.

One of them bore the start and completion dates of the mammoth construction task, the other the names of the great and good – the railway company directors, engineers and contractors involved.

There was no such memorial, however, for 13-year-old David Clark, a rivet catcher, who ended his short life by plummeting 150ft from the emerging superstructure, possibly the youngest fatality incurred during the construction of this triumph of Victorian engineering prowess, or for labourer Peter McLucas, who also died in a fall and was, at 61 the oldest, or the 71 other "briggers", the unsung bridge-builders now known to have perished in the construction of one of the world's iconic structures.

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For many years the "official" figure of deaths during the bridge's construction was 57 nameless casualties. In recent years, however, research has suggested a considerably greater figure, and now a book published this month sets the roll of those who died as direct result of working on the bridge as 73 confirmed so far – with more than 30 other deaths also related to the project. And more than listing anonymous statistics, The Briggers, written by Elspeth Wills with a team of South Queensferry-based researchers, names them, while a wealth of photographs puts faces on the long-forgotten navvies, engineers, divers and others who pulled off one of the greatest engineering feats in history.

"We discovered that although there was this oft-quoted official statistic of 57 deaths, nobody had ever traced the names," says Wills, a historian and author who became involved with the Queensferry History Group. Four of the group's researchers – Frank Hay, Jenni Meldrum, Len Saunders and James Walker – had been gathering information about the bridge casualties, their task given increased momentum by calls for a memorial to the dead bridge-builders.

In response to suggestions that the death toll may have been much higher, Wills reckons there could well be 70-plus, although not necessarily as many as 100. "Over a hundred is often bandied about, but the researchers were rigorous in rejecting, for example, press reports for which the death certificates couldn't be traced, or reports that didn't name anyone, particularly towards the end of the project, by which time it had ceased to be news."

Whatever the true figure, as the book's appendices suggest, death on the bridge could come suddenly and violently: crushing by machinery, slipping and plunging into the Forth – despite the presence of safety boats – falling tools, metal plates and machinery, wind-blown planks … Rivet teams could include more than one generation of the same family, and it is impossible to contemplate the feelings of Patrick Shannon as he watched his son, Thomas, aged between 13 and 15, plunge to his death, landing virtually at his father's feet.

Then there were the often specialised workers from Europe who laboured in the pneumatic caissons, the 70ft diameter wrought iron cylinders used to create foundations for some of the bridge piers and towers. Their double walls were filled with concrete to sink them, and during installation they acted like diving bells, pumps maintaining air pressure to stop water entering while the men laboured in them.

Decompression issues weren't fully understood and men suffered from "caisson disease", now known as the bends, with at least one dying from it. Two others drowned when a caisson ruptured. (Men suffering from caisson disease knew enough, however, to re-enter the caissons at the weekend to ease their pain, an early example of what we now call hyperbaric medicine.)

There were horrific accidents, too, away from the bridge, such as the fire near Aberdour in October 1888 that consumed a contractor's dormitory hut housing navvies working on the northern rail approaches. Three men died. No-one ever claimed their charred remains.

The researchers combed through the archives of three newspapers published during the construction period – The Scotsman, the Dunfermline Journal and the short-lived Queensferry Observer. "We had seven years of newspapers to go through, one of them a daily, so it was a huge task," explains Frank Hay, who runs a website business from South Queensferry.

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"We only had 11 names after a month's work. Then I spoke to my sister-in-law, Sheila Hay, who was working at that time at Register House with another genealogist, and they got really involved and tore through all the death records for Inverkeithing, Queensferry and Edinburgh, and started to give us names and dates.

"We could then look more specifically in the papers, though sometimes the names were wrong, or ages different, and we would have to check them."

The archive work also revealed press awareness of the rising death toll – and also the contractors' anxiety to play down the casualty rate."They got upset about the newspaper reports, especially the Dunfermline Journal headline 'When will this slaughter stop?'"

From 1886 onwards, as the bridge cantilevers reared further above the Forth, the death rate rose until, says Hay, it reached an average of a death every six weeks or so.

There were calls in the newspaper letters pages for harnesses to be used and in response a representative of the joint contractors, Tancred, Arrol & Co, wrote to this newspaper, accusing the press of "gross exaggeration", claiming that half the deaths were the kind of accident that could occur in any workshop or yard.

"They gave the example of one chap," says Hay, "who had been reported in the press as seriously ill or dead. From their point of view, he'd simply been hit on the head by falling metal and had been sent home on the train.

"But we tracked him down, and he was actually admitted to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where he died six days later of a fractured skull.

"I think there must have been very few briggers who worked on the Forth Bridge who didn't bear some sort of physical scar from the job," muses Wills. "I certainly can't cross the Forth Bridge now feeling quite the same way about it."

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It wasn't only tragedies that they unearthed, however. The influx of thousands of workers to the two Queensferries – 4,500 at the peak of the contract in 1887-88 – had an inevitable impact on these communities, and by 1878, the book states, "the immediate (South Queensferry] locality boasted six hotels and inns, eight public houses and 14 licensed grocers". The famous Hawes Inn was known to set up 200 pints at a time on its bar on pay day.

The researchers also found reports of a dance held on a platform perched on the bridge during construction, with the participants, in all their Victorian finery, being hoisted up in a lift cage.

One visiting railway manager remarked that he wouldn't work "up there" if he was paid 1,000 a minute, while, during a celebrated visit to the bridge in July 1889, the Shah of Persia, watching a cage-load of men rising up the Inchgarvie cantilever, suddenly asked his host, Sir John Fowler, co-designer of the bridge, "How many men have been killed falling down there?" We're told that Fowler's terse reply suggested relatively few.

Many of the book's high-resolution images, from the National Archives of Scotland, were taken by Evelyn Carey, who as an engineer was the only photographer allowed on the structure during construction process.

The campaign to list the names of the dead on memorials at either end of the bridge continues, although Wills describes it as "a long haul". However, two years ago sculptor-welder, Hamish Gilchrist created on his own initiative a memorial beside the bridge piers at South Queensferry.

It was unveiled by First Minister Alex Salmond, who said that it "recognises the sacrifice and honours the memory of those who made that sacrifice, but also recognises the strength and lasting endurance of this blood-red wonder of a golden age".

Strictly speaking, the name for the structure's paint shade is "Forth Bridge red", but Alex Salmond's term seems apt enough, given the human cost of creating it.

• The Briggers is published by Birlinn, priced 16.99

Engineering marvel

THE bridge was designed by Sir John Fowler and Benjamin Baker (an earlier design by Thomas Bouch, on which preliminary work had started, was scrapped after the disastrous collapse of Bouch's Tay Bridge in December 1879). The main contractor was Tancred, Arrol & Co, a joint venture formed by Sir William Arrol, the eminent iron and steel fabricator and the consulting engineer Sir Thomas Tancred.

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The overall length of the bridge, including viaducts, is 8,298ft, the length of the cantilevers is 680ft and the two mains spans each 1,710ft. The maximum height of the towers above water level is 361ft. Work started early in 1883 and the bridge was formally opened by the Prince of Wales on 4 March, 1890, opening for some passenger services the following day, although it was June until the main north rail route was linked in.

It's an iconic structure today, but at the time not everyone thought so. William Morris called it "the supremest specimen of all ugliness", while the New York Tribune demanded that "the contractor, designer, engineer of the Forth Bridge ought, each and all, to be hanged from the topmost angle of its cantilevers. This is the only thing that would improve the appearance of this hideous structure, except dynamite".

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