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Issue 97 - Scotland’s Man of Steel

Scotland Magazine Issue 97
February 2018


Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Scotland’s Man of Steel

John Hannavy goes in search of one of the world’s great bridge builders

Standing on the banks of the Thames, in front of London’s City Hall, on a beautifully warm early September evening and watching one of Britain’s most iconic vessels pass beneath one of Britain’s most iconic bridges must count as one of any photographer’s never-to-be forgotten experiences. The Clyde-built PS Waverley and Sir William Arrol’s Tower Bridge are both powerful evidence of the quality and enduring status of Scotland’s engineering prowess. The clear blue sky and warm evening sunlight just made the whole thing perfect.

My work takes me all over the country and, as I travel around, the number of examples of Scottish engineering achievements that I come across never fails to amaze me. A fair number bear the hallmark of Sir William Arrol, the spinner’s son born in the small village of Houston in Renfrewshire. He rose to be one of the greatest engineers of Victorian and Edwardian times, and his company built some of the country’s most impressive and immediately recognizable structures.

Interestingly, Tower Bridge is one Arrol structure where very little of the company’s input is actually evident from the outside. However, take the tour inside the towers and behind the beautiful stone cladding one finds a complex steel structure that is more than able to withstand the stresses the bridge has endured in its 125 years spanning the Thames.

Four hundred miles north, by the banks of the Clyde, stands another iconic Arrol structure - the giant cantilevered crane which is all that remains of the world-famous John Brown shipyard. Here some of the world’s most famous ships were built including the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth and the beautiful QEII, to name but three.

William Arrol was born in February 1839, two years after Queen Victoria came to the throne and, from leaving school at the age of nine, he worked in the same cotton mill as his father before being apprenticed to a blacksmith in Paisley. He then took on a number of posts in engineering workshops in the area and by 1863 he had joined the Glasgow engineers and bridge builders R Laidlaw & Son (who advertised themselves as ‘Engineer & Contractors, Iron & Brass Founders’) at their Barrowfield Ironworks in Lambhill. Laidlaws were, at the time, described as ‘one of the largest establishments of the kind in Glasgow’ and already had a heritage stretching back nearly 80 years. So it was a good place for the aspiring young engineer to learn his trade.

Five years later, in 1868, Arrol set up on his own as a boilermaker in Bridgeton (using his entire savings of £85 to fund the new venture) before founding William Arrol & Co, with their Dalmarnock Iron Works at Dunn Street in Dalmarnock, Glasgow, in 1871 at the age of 32. The new company’s first major projects included the construction of the bridge across the Clyde at Bothwell for the Caledonian Railway Company and, for the same company, another railway bridge across the river at the Broomielaw in Glasgow, which was completed in 1878. That latter bridge was dismantled in the 1960s. The construction of a second bridge alongside it, built between 1899-1905 was also contracted to Arrol’s. To have been entrusted with such important projects so early in the company’s life suggests William Arrol had very quickly built up a reputation.

Within just a couple of years of setting up, the company had been appointed as the main engineering contractor for the proposed fourtower suspension bridge (there were to be two towers on Inchagarvie) that Thomas Bouch had designed to carry railway lines across the Firth of Forth. Bouch’s design shared a lot of its ideas with James Anderson’s 1818 proposal for a road bridge across the river, in which he had suggested two designs: one a suspension bridge, the other a cable-stayed bridge not unlike the new Queensferry Crossing that opened just last year.

Design work on Bouch’s bridge had started by the end of 1874 and by the time the Tay bridge collapse in 1879, which effectively brought Bouch’s career to an end, the base of one pier had been constructed just upstream from Inchgarvie. Today that pier still stands, carrying a small warning beacon.

Bouch’s contract was quickly cancelled.

In its place, a new and much stronger cantilevered design by Benjamin Baker and John Fowler was developed. While Bouch’s reputation had been ruined by the Tay Bridge collapse, his Forth Bridge design would almost certainly have fared better, for it was to be built of steel rather than the cast iron and wrought iron which had been the case with the failed Tay Bridge. Arrol, already one of the leading proponents of steel construction, had been Bouch’s first choice as engineer for the Forth crossing and he was also Baker and Fowler’s first choice.

By the time work began on the Forth Bridge, Arrol was also heavily involved in the building of the replacement Tay Bridge, which had been designed by early steel pioneer William Henry Barlow. That would prove to be much stronger than the original and was double (rather than single) track. It still carries the main East Coast railway line today, 130 years after it was opened to traffic. Contrary to what many people think, not all the ironwork of the original bridge was of poor quality and much of it was actually incorporated into the new bridge. The new bridge was opened in 1887, just three years before completion of the Forth Bridge.

During the years when construction of the two bridges overlapped, Arrol’s workload was phenomenal. He would rise at 5am, arriving at Dalmarnock by 6am. He would then take a couple of hours to check progress and quality before taking the train to Edinburgh and spending Monday and Tuesday on site supervising work on the Forth Bridge. On Tuesday evenings he would take another train and a ferry to Dundee. Wednesday was spent in the Tay Bridge site office overseeing construction there, before a late return to Glasgow. He then spent the rest of the week at Dalmarnock overseeing construction of the prefabricated sections of steelwork for both bridges.

Arrol was an innovator and had a reputation for being able, very quickly, to design a piece of equipment specifically to resolve any problems found during the Forth Bridge’s construction. The pneumatic shovels used to speed up the process of digging compacted mud and other materials out of the caissons, which were used to construct the bases for the bridge’s piers, is a case in point. If a problem needed solving, Arrol could usually solve it.

One of his most innovative designs was for a portable hydraulic riveter that greatly speeded up the repetitive task of fixing the rivets (an estimated total of more than seven million) that hold the structure together.

After the Tay Bridge debacle, safety concerns were paramount in the design and construction of the Forth Bridge. As a result it was heavily over-engineered, but has stood the test of time as a structure well worthy of its World Heritage Site status. After the safety inspections had been carried out prior to the bridge’s opening, the Board of Trade report noted that, ‘This great undertaking, every part of which we have seen at different stages of its construction, is a wonderful example of thoroughly good workmanship with excellent materials, and both in its conception and execution is a credit to all who have been connected with it.’ In truth, those words could have been said about every Arrol project.

Within just seven years, Arrol had seen the completion of three massive bridges: the replacement Tay Bridge opening in 1887, the Forth Bridge in 1890, and Tower Bridge in 1894. Now that’s what I call leaving a mark! If that had been all the great man achieved, he would have more than earned his reputation, but there was so much more.

At some point in the company’s early years, Arrol acquired the Parkhead Crane Works in Rigby Street and there they would develop some of the biggest shipyard and dockside cranes the world had ever seen. In Glasgow, two of their giant cantilevered cranes survive and the largest is now open to the public.

On the day scheduled for our visit to the huge 150-foot high Arrol ‘Titan’ crane on the site of the former John Brown’s shipyard, which had been completed in 1907, the back-up generator for the lift had failed - just our luck! There was no alternative but to climb the 242-step spiral staircase up to the jib, but it was well worth it as the crane itself is a monumental piece of industrial architecture and the view from the top is spectacular. A century ago, when there were working shipyards as far as the eye could see, it must have been awe inspiring.

The crane's profile may have been compromised by the addition of the lift shaft, but up top all the machinery is still there to be seen. This was engineering on a massive scale: the crane was originally built to lift 150 tons, but it was modified in 1938 to carry up to 200 tons.

There was more. After years of debate, Middlesbrough Council in the northeast of England gave William Arrol & Co the contract to build their massive cantilevered transporter bridge over the River Tees, linking Middlesbrough with Port Charlotte. Like so many other Arrol structures, today it is still doing the job it was designed for more than a century ago. A stone plaque at the Middlesbrough end of the bridge records the work of Sir William Arrol & Company - Arrol had been knighted by Queen Victoria in 1890 for his services to engineering.

By 1896, the forward-thinking Sir William had joined forces with George Johnston to establish the Arrol-Johnston car company in Paisley and effectively started Scotland’s motor industry. The company would later move to Dumfries and continued to produce cars into the early 1930s.

Perhaps Arrol’s greatest ‘lost’ achievement was the huge ‘Arrol Gantry’ that the company built at the Belfast shipyard of Harland & Wolff. This structure was so large that the great White Star liners Titanic and Olympic were constructed almost completely within it. Built from 6,000 tonnes of steel, it was 256 metres long and 82 metres wide. Standing nearly 70 metres high, it was 10 metres taller than Edinburgh’s Scott Monument. The gantry was completed in 1908 and work started on the great liners the following year.

Another transporter bridge, across the Mersey at Warrington, was completed in 1916, but by that time the great man had passed away three years earlier. That bridge still stands but, despite being a scheduled historic monument, it is slowly deteriorating.

The Sir William Arrol & Company continued long after its founder’s death, and was a member of the consortium that built the Forth Road Bridge in the 1960s. Today, his engineering legacy can be seen all over the world.