A Tale of Two Bridges

Uncover the story of how one Victorian engineering disaster lead to the development of an iconic Scottish UNESCO World Heritage site

The Tay Bridge Disaster: 'Steam Launches and Divers' Barge Employed in Search' (1880-01) by The Illustrated London NewsNational Library of Scotland

Disaster and debris

On 1st June 1878 the Tay Bridge was officially opened, providing trains with direct passage between the Scottish regions of Dundee and Fife. Not even two years later, however, tragedy struck.

Fallen girders, Tay Bridge (1879/1880) by Board of TradeNational Library of Scotland

On Wednesday 28th December 1879, a fierce winter storm battered the bridge as a passenger train carrying 75 people crossed the river.

Unable to withstand the raging winds, the Tay Bridge collapsed - killing everyone on board.

Ship salvaging the wreckage of the Tay Bridge (1879/1880) by Board of TradeNational Library of Scotland

Metal from the ruined piers and twisted girders had to be salvaged from the water by boats and trains which pulled the debris ashore

Pier no. 11: Looking West (1879/1880) by Board of TradeNational Library of Scotland

As the bridge had barely been open for eighteen months, The Board of Trade launched an enquiry into how and why it had failed so tragically.

These photographs made up a large part of the investigation. Not only did they provide vital evidence for the enquiry, but they allow us today to witness the sheer scale of the destruction.

Fallen girders, Tay Bridge (1879/1880) by Board of TradeNational Library of Scotland

The findings of the enquiry were that the Tay Bridge was ‘badly designed, badly constructed, and badly maintained’. The blame was largely laid upon its chief engineer, Thomas Bouch, and his reputation was soon ruined.

Pier no. 2: Looking North (1879/1880) by Board of TradeNational Library of Scotland

Bouch had been in line to lead the construction of the new proposed railway bridge over the Firth of Forth.

However, with public confidence in him having plummeted, he was removed from the project and all work on the Forth Bridge was immediately halted.

General view from back of Newhalls Inn, South Queensferry (1886/1887) by Phillips, PhilipNational Library of Scotland

A new way forward

Bouch’s dismissal left an opening for a new vision for the Forth Bridge. Consulting engineers on the project were invited to submit their proposals for a more innovative, safer design.

Forth Bridge Designs, Fig. 4 (1890) by Wilhelm Westhofen (1842–1925)National Library of Scotland

Engineers Benjamin Baker and Sir John Fowler proposed a cantilever system for the Forth Bridge’s structure.

Their bid was successful, with the final design (bottom) approved for construction on 19th May 1882 after an 8 day inquiry.

Living Model Illustrating Principle of the Forth Bridge (circa 1887) by unknown photographer, likely commissioned by Benjamin Baker (d. 1907)/Sir John Fowler (d. 1898)Original Source: Heriot-Watt Postcard Collection (n.b. link provided navigates to Wikimedia Commons as original Heriot-Watt link is defunct)

In order to demonstrate the principles of the design, Fowler staged this now-famous photograph

Kaichi Watanbe, a Japanese engineer who had come to the UK to study the different engineering techniques, provides the ‘load’ placed on the central girder...

... while the other men's arms act as the cantilevers. When Watanbe sits in central position, the men’s arms and the ropes tied to the bricks become tense...

… while, from the shoulders down, their bodies and the sticks they are holding onto become 'compressed' i.e. put under pressure.

This pressure, or compression, is balanced by the tension in their arms and the rope.

The overall effect is an incredibly strong, cleverly designed structure capable of withstanding high winds and immense weight

LIFE Photo Collection

Going Forth

In April 1883, the tiny island of Inchgarvie saw a flurry of activity as a construction site was set up and assembly of the Forth Bridge could begin

Superstructure, Fife (1886/1887) by Phillips, PhilipNational Library of Scotland

Once started, the bridge would take 8 years to construct. Its progress has been well-documented by many photographers, including this selection from a series by Philip Philips.

Philips’ father, Joseph, was one of the metalworkers contracted to work on the Forth Bridge, and Philips visited at fortnightly intervals to capture the massive undertaking of such a project.

Part of Inchgarvie and Queensferry works, showing the span to be bridged (1886/1887) by Philip PhillipsNational Library of Scotland

Years later, Philips' photos allow us a privileged look into the construction of the Forth Bridge as it slowly became the superstructure we see today.

He would go on to publish them as silver gelatin prints in an album, The Forth Bridge illustrations, 1886-1887, accompanied by detailed captions highlighting the engineering principles that the original photograph had captured.

General view from North Queensferry hills depicting the three cantilevers at very nearly their full height (1886/1887) by Phillips, PhilipNational Library of Scotland

This image shows the bridge before the construction of the cantilevers, with the nearly-completed towers staggered across the estuary.

When it was completed, the Forth Bridge would span 2,529 metres and be the world's longest cantilever bridge. It would hold this honour for 27 years -- until 1917, when the Pont de Québec was opened in Canada.

Bearing in mind the memory of the Tay's collapse in the wind, the construction of the Forth Bridge involved many 'x'-shaped strengthening girders.

These lattice-type structures would help further brace the whole bridge against harsh weather conditions.

'Detail of top member joint' (1886/1887) by Phillips, PhilipNational Library of Scotland

The result of all this complex engineering and reinforcement was that the Forth Bridge became a 'superstructure' in every sense of the word.

It was the first major steel structure to be built in the UK and, upon completion, the bridge comprised of 53,000 tonnes of steel and 6.5 million rivets.

Queensferry cantilever at full height from north end of approach viaduct (1886/1887) by Phillips, PhilipNational Library of Scotland

Philips’ photographs gradually reveal the pace and practicalities of the Forth Bridge’s construction, as well as the neat beauty of its engineering details.

However, they also demonstrate the truth of the dangerous circumstances in which its contractors worked.

Here we see a figure working at height in the superstructure.

As a safety precaution, boats were stationed to rescue falling workers but these did not always prevent fatalities. While the official number of lives lost stands at 57, recent research suggests that this number could be higher.

Contractors worked in treacherous conditions, sometimes up to 91 metres above the water and directly exposed to the most brutal of Scotland’s wind and rain.

Plate XXXI. Cantilevers Complete. 9th July, 1889. (about 1890) by John Fergus and Photophane Co.The J. Paul Getty Museum

Up to 4,600 men worked on the project during the busiest periods of its construction. The risks of the conditions were compensated by higher-than-average wages for the construction industry at that time.

Here we see the cantilevers finished, with just the central girders missing to complete the structure of the bridge.

Rai Euro Bri Bridge ForthLIFE Photo Collection

A national icon

The Forth Bridge was completed in December 1889, ten years after the disaster of the Tay. Extensive load testing on the bridge was carried out the next month to ensure that it would be able to withstand heavy train traffic and adverse weather.

Rai Euro Bri Bridge ForthLIFE Photo Collection

On Tuesday 4th March 1890, the Forth Bridge was officially opened

The event was commemorated with the Prince of Wales hammering in the final, golden rivet of the bridge. According to 8th March edition of The Illustrated London News, the wind was blowing too strong for a speech to be made — a quintessentially Scottish problem.

Luncheon Menu illustrating both the Forth Bridge and the replacement Tay Bridge (1890) by Forth Bridge Railway CompanyNational Library of Scotland

However, speeches would be made at the post-ceremony luncheon, including an announcement that the engineers behind the project were to receive knighthoods.

This illustration appeared on the back cover of the luncheon menu, featuring two important landmarks:

... the completed Forth Bridge...

... and the newly refurbished Tay Bridge. On the opening of the Forth Bridge, this was a fitting tribute to the tragedy of its predecessor: serving as a reminder that the disaster of the Tay had paved the way for the Forth's triumphant design.

The Forth Bridge, as it stands today, remains a symbol of Scotland and engineering excellence - even appearing on the second edition of the Clydesdale Bank’s polymer £5 note.

In 2015, it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is crossed by 3 million rail passengers every year.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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