How the Forth Bridge contract was first awarded to the Tay Bridge tragedy engineer


You could argue for Edinburgh Castle, the Scott Monument or Skara Brae being Scotland’s most iconic building or structure.

But, for many people, nothing comes close to imitating the Forth Bridge, the great Victorian work that has featured on banknotes and coins, has appeared in classic films such as The 39 Steps of Alfred Hitchcock, has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been made public. recognition as the country’s greatest man-made wonder.

He even entered the dictionary: the expression “it’s like painting the Forth Bridge” becomes synonymous with endless work.

And despite the construction of two other majestic structures across the Forth, the original remains the most popular.

Yet when the idea of ​​connecting the Lothians and the Fife was first raised in the early 1870s, and it was agreed that a new crossing was essential to reduce travel times, authorities decided entrusted the responsibility of the project to Sir Thomas Bouch, who was already in the process of creating another bridge for the North British Railway – across the Firth of Tay.

And, if it had been left in his hands, we would never have witnessed the creation of the famous cantilever edifice which is considered an engineering miracle.

The Flying Scotsman crosses the Forth Bridge between Edinburgh and Inverness in 2019.

Christopher Valkoinen works in the National Railway Museum’s Library and Search Engine Archives in York, where he manages the digitization of a myriad of technical drawings and other documents, some dating back centuries.

He is also a skilled steam locomotive firefighter who is clearly in love with trains and machinery and the thoroughness of how Britain’s vast transport network was established.

As the author of Railways: A History in Drawings, he methodically emphasized the care and precision that underpinned the efforts of different companies to carry out groundbreaking work across the UK as the demand for services increased.

But he did not gloss over instances where things did not go as planned – and nowhere has it been more evident than in north-east Scotland.

A map of Inverkeithing published in 1927. The Ferry Barns area is visible in the upper left of the image and the Forth Bridge in the lower right.
A map of Inverkeithing published in 1927. The Ferry Barns area is visible in the upper left of the image and the Forth Bridge in the lower right.

As he put it: “From the late 1840s the railways reached north from Edinburgh to Perth, Dundee and Aberdeen, but all of these routes involved either crossing the river (Forth) into using a rail ferry, a roundabout route via Stirling that was over 30 miles longer.

“A bridge was sorely lacking and the task was given to Sir Thomas Bouch. For the Forth, he designed a suspension bridge with a central jetty on Inchgarvie Island.

“However, work had only just started when, in December 1879, the Tay Bridge collapsed as a train was crossing in a storm, killing more than 60 people.

“The disaster report strongly blamed Bouch, who was later dishonored as an engineer and work on his version of the Forth Bridge was canceled (while he never recovered from the disaster and is died the following year).

“It was replaced by two engineers, John Fowler and Benjamin Baker, who came up with a cantilever design, using two large spans, each 1,700 feet.

“These were the longest cantilever spans of any bridge in the world at the time and only the Quebec Bridge in Canada (built in 1919) has ever passed them.

The Forth Bridge was officially opened in March 1890.
The Forth Bridge was officially opened in March 1890.

“In response to the Tay Bridge disaster, where flaws in the iron used had contributed to the collapse, Fowler and Baker chose to build the new bridge entirely of steel – it was the first time that a structure in Grande -Brittany was built exclusively from this material.

“At 360 feet above high water, it was also the tallest building in Britain, with the exception of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral and the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral (in London). ”

This was a large and dangerous undertaking, often carried out in stormy or freezing conditions, long before the advent of health and safety regulations.

At the peak of construction, around 4,600 men were employed in construction and it has been estimated that up to 73 of them died while involved in the business.

There is a famous image of a riveter walking on one of the cantilever spans, eating a sandwich, cigarette in hand, and he looks like he is enjoying a Sunday stroll in the park. , rather than standing without a harness miles above the water.

The famous overhangs of the Forth Bridge were not created without significant loss of life.
The famous overhangs of the Forth Bridge were not created without significant loss of life.

The Sick and Accident Club was founded in 1883 and membership was compulsory for all employees of contractors.

She provides medical care for men and sometimes their families, and pays them if they are unable to work.

The organization also paid for funerals within limits, and offered grants to widows of killed men or wives of permanently disabled people.

Eight men were saved from drowning by boats positioned in the river under the work areas.

But despite the problems caused by the time and the challenge of completing the project, Fowler and Baker were painstaking in their execution.

Mr Valkoinen added: “Construction began with the foundation of the three main pillars, as well as the approaches on either side of the Forth.

“The main structure was then built from the piers, gradually extending towards each other.

“Every new addition was mirrored on both sides of the pier to make sure the extra weight was offset.

The first plans of the Forth Bridge have been published in a new book.
The first plans of the Forth Bridge have been published in a new book.

“The drawing reproduced here (above) tells the fascinating story of the construction of the bridge.

“As each section was completed it was tinted red on the drawing (the pencil marks erased next to the date show this was done multiple times) with the last of the red tints added in March 1888 .

“The areas tinted in blue show how the structure has progressed over the next six months through September.

“And the bridge was opened on March 4, 1890 by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) after taking eight years to complete.”

Before the Forth Bridge opened, the train ride from London to Aberdeen had been around 13 hours, departing from Euston and using the London and North Western Railway and Caledonian Railway on a west coast route.

However, once the new structure was in place, competition intensified along the East Coast route from the Great Northern, North Eastern and North British Railways and from King’s Cross, with races not official between the two consortia, which have significantly reduced the journey time to around 8 ½ hours on night runs.

It culminated in 1895 with sensational “Race to the North” news articles about trains running at breakneck speeds day and night.

Fortunately, the new bridge proved to be up to the challenge.

A striking image of the Forth Bridge bathed in a golden hue.
A striking image of the Forth Bridge bathed in a golden hue.

The new book – Railways: A History in Drawings, published today by Thames Hudson – includes a wealth of images, drawings, maps and photographs evocative of some of the most famous names in railway history British.

And there is a romantic mystique in an art deco poster for the Flying Scotsman, the famous passenger train that ran regularly between Edinburgh and London via the East Coast Main Line.

The service began as early as 1862 and although the distinctive name was not officially adopted until 1924, it is now part of the transport tradition and still attracts an audience of young people, ages seven to 70, whenever ‘he sets out on his travels.

An iconic art deco poster for the Flying Scotsman steam train.
An iconic art deco poster for the Flying Scotsman steam train.

One of the photographs captures the Flying Scotsman traveling from Edinburgh to Inverness and where else would it be pictured other than on the Forth Bridge?

There may be three towering structures across the river, but while the Forth Road Bridge had an elegance all its own when it was unveiled in 1964, increased traffic and corrosion of cables steel suspension system forced the Scottish government to create the replacement Queensferry Crossing, which opened in 2017.

People go to see the three passages of Forth.

At various stages, the oldest of the structures was covered with the construction equivalent of an adhesive plaster. But it has prevailed over the decades.

As Mr Valkoinen puts it: “In contrast, the 130-year-old First Forth Bridge is estimated to have another century of life, provided it is properly maintained.

New plans and images of Forth Bridge promenade and visitor center unveiled

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