The Forth Bridge, 1881
On a cloudy, cool morning in late April, a small group of us assemble under the arching red curves of the Forth Bridge in North Queensferry. Nobody else is about. Every few minutes a train passes overhead, then all is still again. We are already keenly, and somewhat nervously, anticipating being taken – allowed – onto the vast structure above us, but the town doesn’t seem to be paying it, let alone us, much attention. Maybe after 127 years you get used to having a giant in your midst, but I doubt it.
We are waiting for Craig Bowman, senior communications manager for Network Rail, who is to be our expedition guide. That’s what it feels like, an expedition. We have been advised to wear an extra layer of clothing, and walking or climbing boots. To walk on the Forth Bridge is not a privilege afforded to many, and we know it.
I remember the author Iain Banks telling me that he lived in North Queensferry until the age of nine and every morning when he looked out of his bedroom window there it was, the rail bridge, looming in front of him, and further west the road bridge in the process of being built. His father’s job took the family to Inverclyde but a daily, formative experience like that doesn’t easily leave you. It would inspire Iain’s third novel The Bridge, published in 1986, a nightmarish fiction which is partly set on an inhabited, city-sized version of the rail bridge. This complex society turns out to exist in the mind of Alex, a civil engineer, who is lying in a coma after crashing his car on the Forth Road Bridge. Just before the accident, Alex looks admiringly over at the Forth Bridge:
What a gorgeous great device you are. So delicate from this distance, so massive and strong close-up. Elegance and grace; perfect form. A quality bridge; granite piers, the best ship-plate steel, and a never-ending paint job…
So much did Iain admire the Forth Bridge that he returned to live in North Queensferry in the early 1990s, and made his home there until his death in 2013. When the bridge opened in 1890, though, not everybody was so pleased with it.
The London correspondent of the New York Tribune, for one, did not mince his words: ‘The contractor, designer, engineer of the Forth Bridge ought, each and all, to be hanged from the topmost angle of its cantilevers. That is the only thing that would improve the appearance of this hideous structure, except dynamite. It totally ruins some of the most beautiful scenery in Scotland or the world.’ He went on to describe the bridge as ‘monstrous, horrible, huge, shapeless and ugly beyond the ugliest dreams of Dante…a nightmare in granite and iron.’
Hardly less violent in their antipathy were William Morris, designer, poet and doyen of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the art critic John Ruskin. Morris declared that ‘there never will be an architecture of iron, every improvement in machinery being uglier and uglier until they reach the supremest specimen of all ugliness – the Forth Bridge.’ For Ruskin, the bridge was the ultimate proof of his belief that ‘industry without art is brutality’: it made him wish he had been ‘born a blind fish in a Kentucky cave’.
Even Wilhelm Westhofen, the German-born engineer who oversaw construction of the central cantilever, admitted that ‘this bridge or any other bridge must be a discordant feature in a pastoral landscape.’ But, given the massive and permanent intrusion into its surroundings that the new edifice was, negative reactions to it were surprisingly few. Overwhelmingly, people were enthusiastic in their approval. The bridge filled them with awe. In Scotland, there was huge national pride and satisfaction at what had been achieved.
Almost immediately, and far beyond the shores of the British Isles, the Forth Bridge acquired iconic status, to the extent of being called the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. Gustave Eiffel, whose wrought-iron tower had been erected for the World’s Fair in Paris the previous year, couched his praise in similar terms, generously declaring the bridge to be ‘the greatest wonder of the century’. For some decades it was arguably the most famous manmade structure on the planet, and certainly its most celebrated bridge.
In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock used it as a location in his version of The 39 Steps, manufacturing a breathless scene (entirely absent from John Buchan’s original novel) in which Richard Hannay escapes arrest by slipping off a train halfway across the bridge. The latticework of girders might have come straight from the kind of German Expressionist film set that had influenced Hitchcock in the 1920s. ‘Here, here, what for did ye pull the communication cord?’ the guard demands of the police, as Hannay hides behind one of the bridge’s tubes. ‘It’s against all the regulations to stop the train on the bridge!’ Even after the train has moved off, the camera lingers for fully thirty seconds on a shot of the bridge in profile against a lowering sky. It is as if the director cannot bear to move on to the next, inevitably less dramatic location.
In 2015, the bridge was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The UNESCO report praised the bridge’s ‘distinctive industrial aesthetic…the result of a forthright and unadorned display of its structural components.’ It was ‘innovative in style, materials and scale’, and marked a ‘milestone in bridge design and construction during the period when railways came to dominate long-distance land travel.’ The award put the bridge into an elite group alongside the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China and – in Scotland – New Lanark, the St Kilda archipelago, Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, Neolithic Orkney and the Roman Antonine Wall. It is almost impossible, now, to imagine the Firth of Forth without that trio of great red spiders’ webs straddling it. Alfred Hitchcock and Iain Banks celebrated the bridge in their art; its image has appeared on posters, postcards, bank notes, tea towels and every conceivable kind of souvenir, and has been exploited by Scottish manufacturers of oatcakes, soft drinks, hosiery, whisky and any other product that can be said to combine strength, taste and style. It is, and has been for its entire existence, instantly recognisable.
I first saw the bridge from the family car at the age of six, early in 1965, as we drove across its neighbour the Forth Road Bridge, which had opened just a few months earlier. We had moved home from Kent to Stirlingshire between Christmas and New Year and everything was new and interesting. My father explained how a suspension bridge worked and extolled the Road Bridge’s clean, modern lines and lack of fussiness. I suspect, though I cannot now remember, that the Rail Bridge received less praise, perhaps because, in the age of the car, it represented the past. Throughout my childhood, whenever we travelled to Edinburgh we went either by car or by train from Stirling, a route which did not involve crossing the Forth Bridge. It was not until I was in my twenties that I had that experience. Yet long before then it had entered my consciousness as something both miraculous and solidly rational; both historic and modern; both thoroughly Scottish and of the wider world; and – despite what Ruskin thought – both a triumph of engineering and a thing of remarkable beauty.
With the newly finished Queensferry Crossing, there are now three bridges over the Firth of Forth, and they are all examples of fine design and top-class engineering. But whatever the qualities of the two road bridges, they are trumped by the qualities of the rail bridge. It is their venerable great-uncle, tough, unyielding and upright. People respect it. The older it gets, the deeper grows the respect, not just for the bridge itself but for the men who built it.
The Victorians were proud of their ability, through strength and forethought and ingenuity, to overcome natural obstacles. It had long been held that the Forth estuary was simply too wide, and the geology of its bed too unstable, for it to be spanned. There had been ferries sailing between Fife and Lothian for centuries, but from the early nineteenth century various plans for tunnels and bridges were proposed – and subsequently discarded on grounds of impracticality or cost, or both. What concentrated minds on finding a way to create a fixed, permanent crossing was the coming of the railways, and the intensity of competition among rival companies from the 1840s onward.
To circumvent the firths of Forth and Tay, trains travelling north from Edinburgh had to go via Stirling and Perth, and this led to a constant battle over routes and capacity between the North British Railway Company, which by the 1860s controlled most of the lines on the eastern side of the country, and the Caledonian Railway Company, which owned the western routes. One way of avoiding the long detour via Stirling for trains going between Edinburgh and Fife had already been established in 1850. From that date a paddlewheel-driven ferry, with rails on its deck, operated between Granton on the south shore of the Forth, and Burntisland in Fife. Railway goods wagons were loaded on and off at each end by an engine which pulled them up a ramp, the level of which was adjustable to cope with the rise and fall of the tide. Passengers, however, had to walk on and off the ferry and endure whatever weather was flung at them during the half-hour crossing. Despite this discomfort, the ferry was enough of a success for another to be commissioned on the Tay between North Fife and Dundee. The journey time between Edinburgh and Dundee was thus shortened and routes owned by rival operators avoided. Nevertheless, the stop-start nature of the journey was frustrating, and furthermore the ferries could be delayed or halted altogether by poor weather or sea conditions. The North British Railway Company’s directors remained keen to find a more permanent solution: if only the firths could be bridged, then the company would have unrestricted control of east-coast routes south from Edinburgh and north through Fife to Dundee, Aberdeen and beyond. While increasing passenger numbers was part of their ambition, the greater opportunity for profit lay in the transportation of coal, timber, livestock and other freight throughout the entire island of Great Britain.
The train ferries were the brainchild of an engineer called Thomas Bouch. Bouch was convinced that both Tay and Forth could be spanned. In 1869 he got his first and, as it turned out, only chance to prove it when his design for a bridge over the Tay was approved and its brick-pier and iron-girder construction jointly funded by the North British Railway Company and the city of Dundee. This – the longest rail crossing in the world at the time – was completed in March 1878 to great acclaim. Even before it was finished, however, Bouch was putting forward plans for a chain suspension bridge across the Forth, centred on two 600-foot steel towers on the rocky island of Inchgarvie in the middle of the firth. The four railway companies with a direct interest in the east-coast route between London and the north backed the creation of the Forth Bridge Railway Company, and the foundation stone for one of the piers was laid on Inchgarvie by Mrs Bouch in September 1876. Nothing, it seemed, stood in Bouch’s way to further triumph, and early in 1879 he travelled to Windsor to be knighted by the Queen.
Then, on the night of 28 December 1879, during a severe gale, the central section of Bouch’s Tay Bridge collapsed, taking with it a train with seventy-five passengers on board. Nobody survived. An inquiry into the disaster concluded that the bridge was badly designed, badly constructed and badly maintained and that its downfall was due to inherent defects in the structure which must sooner or later have brought it down. For these defects both in design, construction and maintenance Sir Thomas Bouch is in our opinion mainly to blame.
Understandably, Bouch was shattered by these events. His hair turned white during the four months of the inquiry and, less than a year after the disaster, he died of ‘acute melancholia’.
Work on the bridge across the Forth halted as soon as the accident occurred, and Bouch’s design was abandoned. Any replacement would have to be built to the highest specification and under the most rigorous scrutiny in order to allay the fears of both investors and the travelling public. The design put forward by civil engineers John Fowler and Benjamin Baker, who had worked together on the first of the London Underground lines, was subject to a Parliamentary Act which required inspection at every stage of construction and the use of the best possible materials so that the installation should ‘enjoy a reputation of being not only the biggest and strongest, but also the stiffest bridge in the world’. It had to be able to withstand, simultaneously, the worst possible wind conditions and the stress of an abnormally heavy rolling load. The Forth Bridge was consequently made to be far more robust than it needed to be. The construction contract was won by a joint bid from Falkiner & Tancred of London and Arrol of Glasgow. The overall supervision of the project was undertaken by Arrol’s founder and owner William Arrol, who in due course would be knighted for his achievement.
The statistics are biblical in a Victorian kind of way. The bridge took seven years to build at a cost of over three million pounds. It is more than 8,000 feet in length. The three towers which support its cantilevers are 360 feet high. The railway track is 158 feet above the water. The structure is composed of 55,000 tons of steel, 140,000 cubic yards of masonry, and – at a conservative estimate – 6.5 million rivets. During the recent ten-year refurbishment of the bridge – including a new three-coat painting regime which should mean that the top coat lasts a minimum of twenty years –every one of those rivets had to be painted by hand to ensure the correct level of thickness was applied around their edges.
And then come the human statistics. ‘It is impossible,’ Benjamin Baker wrote, ‘to carry out a gigantic work without paying for it, not merely in money but in men’s lives.’ In the peak years of construction, some 4,600 workers – or briggers, as they became known – were employed. Wilhelm Westhofen recorded in 1890 that fifty-seven lives were lost, but recent research suggests that the figure was seventy-three and possibly higher. Of these, thirty-eight men fell to their deaths, nine were drowned, nine were crushed by machinery or masonry, eight were killed by a falling object, three died in a fire in a bothy, and one man died of caisson disease or ‘the bends’. Five men died of causes unknown. As the work progressed and the structure grew higher, so injuries and deaths rose in number. From 1886 onward, on average one man was killed every six weeks.
‘Health and safety’ was not a term in everyday use in Victorian times, but the clearly dangerous nature of the Forth Bridge construction meant that considerable attention was paid to minimising the risk of accidents. Secure staging, gangways, hand-rails and wire netting were installed where possible, and lifeboats, on constant patrol in the waters below, managed to rescue at least eight men who fell and would otherwise have drowned. Nevertheless, injuries or deaths caused by falling or from being struck by falling objects were not rare occurrences, especially as it was common practice, though forbidden, for workmen to throw tools or bits of timber to one another. The scaffolding stages were cluttered with hammers, nuts, bolts and riveting equipment, all of which were potentially lethal if they fell onto men working hundreds of feet below. There were some lucky escapes: Benjamin Baker reported that one spanner which fell 300 feet passed through a four-inch-thick piece of timber; he also witnessed a dropped spanner enter a brigger’s pocket and exit at his trouser leg, causing no injury but ripping the man’s clothes from him. Inevitably, some of the briggers grew careless over time. ‘It needed the sight of a wounded and mangled fellow creature, or his bloody corpse,’ Wilhelm Westhofen wrote, ‘to bring home to them the seriousness of the situation.’
Following a six-month period in 1887 during which seventeen deaths occurred, the Dunfermline Journal ran a story headlined ‘When will this slaughter stop?’ Baker responded that the accident rate was tiny compared with what went on in the coal industry, and that the number of fatalities was proportionately much lower than that of guards and brakesmen on the railways. If that now seems callous or defensive, it is also an indication of how far we have come and how little we expect, in modern Scotland at least, that even dangerous work should result in the kind of personal and family disasters that were commonplace only a couple of generations ago. In proportion to the total number of men working, the death rate for the rail bridge was no worse than that for the road bridge constructed seventy years later.
William Arrol was responsible for building not only the Forth Bridge but also the replacement Tay Bridge, a project which lasted from 1882 to 1887. A man in his mid-forties, he had an astonishing capacity for hard graft and long hours. His day started at six o’clock at his engineering works at Dalmarnock, Glasgow, where he would review the previous day’s progress on both bridges and brief his senior staff on what needed to be done next. After breakfast he went by train to Edinburgh and then to the Forth Bridge site, where he was engaged until late afternoon. At 6pm he took a train to Dundee to scrutinise work on the Tay Bridge. Late in the evening he took a train home to Glasgow and would be back at the Dalmarnock works for six the next morning. On Fridays he went to the Tay first, then to the Forth, before catching a sleeper to London for meetings there, returning to Glasgow on Saturday nights. Such a regime would have exhausted many a younger man, but Arrol claimed to thrive on it: the more work he did, he said, the better he felt. Undoubtedly he placed great demands on his key staff and had high expectations of all whom he employed. But his own humble origins – he was the son of a Renfrewshire spinner and had started work in a cotton mill at the age of nine – also instilled in him a strong sense of duty of care. He described his own character, when receiving the freedom of the town of Ayr a few days before the official opening of the Forth Bridge by the Prince of Wales, as ‘representative of the working classes of Scotland, as one of those who had been able to raise themselves by their own energy and industry.’
His fellow-contractors came from more privileged backgrounds but shared Arrol’s sense of fairness. ‘We never ask a workman to do a thing which we are not prepared to do ourselves,’ Benjamin Baker said. Temporary housing was provided in nearby communities for many of the men, a reading room and dining room were built for them, and from the outset of the contract Arrol established a Sick and Accident Club, membership of which was compulsory for any man working on the bridge. Every man contributed one hour’s pay per week to the Club’s funds. Arrol’s firm contributed £200 per annum, and paid for free medical care for workers and their immediate families. A man unable to work because of sickness or injury was paid a weekly allowance by the Club, and lump-sum payments were made to the families of men killed or permanently disabled while at work. Funeral costs of those killed were also covered. By the standards of the day these were good terms and conditions of work, which took into account the dangerous nature of the job. Over the seven years of construction, there were very few delays or disruptions caused by strikes or demands for increased pay.
Who were the briggers, the men who created this astonishing working monument to their own physical efforts? The bulk of them were Scots and Englishmen. Experienced steelworkers and riveting squads came from the shipyards of the Clyde, and others with particular skills arrived from all over central Scotland and northern England, attracted by above-average wages since much of the labour was piece-work. Great numbers of Irish labourers, mainly unskilled, were also hired. There were also workers from other countries, of whom the most recognisable today is probably Kaichi Watanabe, a Japanese postgraduate of Glasgow University who would go on to have a highly successful career in his own country’s shipbuilding and railway industries. In 1887 he was photographed as part of a human cantilever which the contractors had devised as a means of explaining to the public the physical principles upon which the bridge was being built. Kaichi, sitting on a plank, represents the central girder of the bridge, and is supported by two men on chairs who represent its towers, their outstretched arms holding broomsticks which together represent the cantilevers, the whole edifice being anchored at either end by piles of bricks. It is an image which perfectly achieves its aim, in part because the three men are so obviously demonstrating, not posing.
According to Wilhelm Westhofen, some of the briggers were:
‘…mere birds of passage, who arrived on the tramp, worked for a week or two, and passed on again to other parts, bringing a pair of hands with them and taking them away again, and having in the meantime made extremely little use of them except for the purpose of lifting the Saturday pay packet and wiping their mouths at the pot-house… But apart from these, it is no exaggeration to say that no one need desire to have to do with a more civil lot of men. Always ready to oblige, always ready to go where they were told to go, cheerfully obeying orders…and above all things, ready to help others in misfortune, not with advice but with hands and purses.’
Drunkenness, William Arrol said repeatedly, was a great problem throughout the project. He blamed many of the on-site accidents on alcohol, although theoretically anybody found under the influence was stopped at the gates and barred from working until they had sobered up. Arrol was of the view that ‘the further a public house was from a public works, the better’. There is no question that many of the men, when lowsed, retired immediately to one of the nearby taverns, of which there were plenty on both sides of the firth – and some were probably not at their most alert when they started back at work. The Hawes Inn in South Queensferry would line up 200 pints at a time when a shift was ending on pay day. But when or where in the world of hard physical labour involving large squads of well-paid men has this kind of thing not been the case? And Westhofen’s praise of the regular workforce is striking: these were men doing difficult work in challenging conditions and forming – again, as is usually the case – strong bonds of camaraderie and support with their fellows.
The caisson workers were a special contingent, who worked quite separately from most of the other briggers. They were an international, itinerant team – mostly Italians, Austrians, Germans, Belgians and Frenchmen– under the direction of a Monsieur Coiseau. They came to Queensferry from such huge undertakings as the construction of Antwerp’s docks and the Suez Canal, and moved on when their part in the Forth Bridge project was over. The concrete legs of the bridge’s towers had to be fixed to the seabed, and this required caissons – enormous cylinders not unlike gasometers – to be made, towed out and sunk on the precise spots where the legs were to stand. The caissons were the moulds into which concrete would be poured below the surface. Each caisson was designed with a cutting edge shaped to the contours of the seabed, so that when it settled a seven-foot high chamber was created between the seabed and the bottom of the caisson. The water was pumped out of this space and compressed air pumped into it, enabling men to enter, excavate the rock and build up the piers which would eventually support the weight of the bridge. It was difficult and dangerous work, in conditions which caused serious damage to the health of those who did it. Caisson disease was not then widely understood. The pressurised conditions in the chambers created gas bubbles which then dispersed into the arterial system and tissue, resulting in agonising attacks of cramp, temporary paralysis, earache, dizziness and other symptoms. Some of the caisson workers would spend parts of their days off in the excavation chambers because their pain reduced under pressure, but of course this did not improve their longer-term health. William Arrol himself suffered from permanent partial deafness after spending too many hours in the caissons.
Craig Bowman arrives, greets us warmly, checks our footwear, and kits us out with high-viz jackets and hard hats. A few rules are gone over about obeying instructions, not leaning or stretching out over spaces, and holding on to our hats if it gets gusty, and then we are off. The whole visit, which lasts about an hour, is conducted with scrupulous attention to safety, and despite our earlier anxieties there is no real sense of risk. Not so long ago a tour of the bridge would have involved scaling ladders and negotiating exposed walkways, but no longer. A caged hoist controlled by Greig Newbigging, site operator for contractors Balfour Beatty, takes us up the outside of one of the huge tubes of the northernmost tower, and we step out onto a wide and firm viewing platform. And there we are – on top of the Forth Bridge.
There is no way, really, of describing what this feels like. The bridge is so familiar in profile, or from the window of a train passing through its red Meccano canyon, that nothing quite prepares you for this new perspective. The most startling thing, perhaps, is to see how slender and straight the bridge is. Like an enormous rollercoaster, it sweeps down and up in breathtaking dives so perfectly aligned that you cannot see the third, southernmost tower beyond the central one. What seems so sturdy and muscular from the road bridge or from either shore has an almost delicate grace viewed from above. And yet its strength is also highly visible: the frame, balanced and braced at every point, the taut limbs of the girders, the countless rows and columns of rivets – not even the fiercest gale, you feel, could make such a mighty gymnast tremble. So, if the Forth Bridge was built to be rigid, why do the long arms of the cantilever stretching down to the middle part of the bridge seem to ripple and bend? I ask Craig if this is an optical illusion, and he reminds me that steel expands and contracts, albeit only slightly, as the temperature rises and falls. So, yes, over its lifetime the bridge has, as it were, constantly flexed and relaxed its muscles. I look again. Far from the distortions in the metal looking like faults, they make the whole edifice appear even stronger.
We take the cage back down and get out at a level directly under the tracks. Again, this is an entirely new perspective, an intricate weave of red steel stretching one and a half miles across the water. There are a couple of bothies, erected in the 1930s, into which workers can retreat in poor weather or when the wind picks up: if the wind speed gets above 40mph then it is deemed too unsafe to be out on the bridge. Trains rumble above us, causing only slight vibrations. I imagine a 40mph wind would make me feel distinctly uneasy.
We go back up again, to track level, and here the whole purpose of the structure is revealed: all this to hold up two sets of rails and the trains that run on them. We are encouraged – no, instructed – to acknowledge with a wave the engine drivers as they go by, and all but one of them gives us a cheery wave back and usually an accompanying blast on the horn. These three – or four-carriage passenger trains seem like toys against the scale of the bridge, but the traffic does cause wear and tear over time. Less so, however, than in days gone by: back in the 1920s the beds on which the tracks sit had to be replaced because they had buckled so much under the weight of frequent and much heavier freight trains.
Iain Banks was revisiting long-established mythology when he wrote of a ‘never-ending paint job’. What the bridge needs – and this is why there will always be gangs of workers on it – is a continuous care and maintenance programme. When a weakness is spotted, it is strengthened. If a part has corroded beyond saving it is replaced. And, of course, painted. The underwater structure also has to be regularly checked, and any serious repair issues down there would pose major challenges. But neither Craig nor Greig has any doubt about the long-term viability of the bridge. It was built to such a high specification using such quality materials that, with good management, it should outlast them and us and serve many future generations.
There is something honest and assured in their assessment. Like others who have worked on the bridge, they have a genuine fondness for it and a strong sense that they are curating a very special work of both art and science. You can tell that they feel privileged to have that responsibility, and that there is a genuine, profound respect for the bridge’s human story too. It is an almost entirely male story – our guides can think of only one woman currently working on the bridge, a member of the abseil team which fixes the safety nets – but it shows men in a far better light than a great deal of other history. The men who built the Forth Bridge, I suspect, were themselves built much as these men who now look after it.
Extracted from Who Built Scotland: A History of the Nation in Twenty-Five Buildings, by (HES, 9781849172240, £20)