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The Building of the Forth Rail Bridge by Frank Hay and Len Saunders - Scottish Region meeting in Glasgow on 21 October 2008.

The Forth Bridge is a national icon that plays a continuing key role in Scotland's transport network. With the refurbishment work by Network Rail coming to an end, it is appropriate to recall how this magnificent feat of engineering was built. The fate of the workers was in contrast to that of the triumvirate who led its design and delivery. During it's construction 57 men are known to have died and there is no memorial to them. This is where the Forth Bridge Memorial Arts Trust come in and is promoting memorials to those who died in the bridge's construction.

The first problem is identifying those who died and this has resulted in much painstaking research into the building of the Forth Rail Bridge and both Frank Hay and Len Saunders have become experts on the construction of the bridge. Between them, they gave a fascinating insight into the seven years it took to build the bridge and the challenges faced by the engineers.

The research carried out had been to identify those killed during the construction of the bridge with the aim of providing a memorial to them. Records were checked and 7 years worth of newspapers covering the period of the bridge's construction scrutinised. Records of the local GP's were also consulted and by the end of the work 102 names had been identified, although not all were killed as a direct consequence of working on the bridge.

There had been a number of proposals to bridge the Forth estuary during the early 1800's but it was not until 1873 that the Forth Bridge Company was formed and contracts placed for the building of a bridge. The bridge that was to be built was designed by Thomas Bouch, the engineer responsible for the Tay Bridge, and although work had commenced, it was stopped immediately after the Tay Rail Bridge disaster. The railway companies involved in the scheme commissioned a new design and that of John Fowler and Benjamin Baker was accepted subject to a number of strict requirements relating to it's construction. The new bridge had to be high enough not to obstruct shipping and capable of supporting two 900 ton trains at any point.

The new design called for a cantilever bridge constructed out of steel and able to withstand hurricane force winds. Building the bridge would be a mammoth undertaking and a large workforce would be required, with over 4,500 men employed at the peak times. The company provided cottages for the workers locally, but as more workers were needed, special trains were laid on to bring them from Edinburgh, Inverkeithing, Dunfermline and later, Leith.

The first task was to construct the north and south masonry piers that would support the approach viaducts to the bridge. An innovation was that the works were illuminated by electric light. Large stores of materials were established and yards to pre-fabricate large parts were set up. For example, the main columns were assembled in the "drill yards", then dismantled and taken out to the bridge for final assembly.

The foundations for the bridge posed a number of challenges and the cantilever towers rest on platforms that rest on underwater foundations. These foundations were constructed by using caissons that were prefabricated and assembled on site, before being towed to their final location. Once in position, concrete was poured in until they sank. Work then commenced to excavate the bedrock and boulder clay. To prevent water ingress, compressed air was used and workers entered the working chamber though an airlock. There are a number of documented instances where workers suffered from what is today known as "the bends", but not a single worker died during this part of the work.

Once the caissons were at the required depth, they were filled with concrete and the masonry platforms built on top. The bridge's main columns would then be secured to these platforms. As work progressed the workforce grew and as the bridge superstructure was completed, the number of accidents increased. Fatalities also occurred as workmen fell off the ridge or were hit by objects that fell from height. By this time some 4,000 men were working on the bridge round the clock.

The bridge was complete by the end of 1889 and stringent tests were carried out before the bridge officially opened in March 1890. By then 57 men had died building the bridge, the majority of them, 26, falling from the bridge. Other causes of death were being crushed by machinery (14), drowning (9), being struck by falling objects (6), burnt (3), caissons disease (1). the cause of a further two fatalities are not known. There is a discrepancy between the official figure of 57 deaths and the total number of deaths related to the bridge. This is explained by the fact that the 57 men known to have died building the bridge were killed whilst working on the bridge itself. The other fatalities were not directly attributable to working on the bridge, despite being connected with it. As further information comes to light, these figures may be revised.

After their presentation, Frank Hay and Len Sunders each answered many questions on the Forth Rail bridge and the meeting concluded with the presentation of a Scottish Region souvenir quaich to each speaker by the Chairman.

Report by John Fender.

 

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