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Forth Bridge Accidents Book, 1883-1886

Forth Bridge Accidents Book, 1883-1886
Forth Bridge Accidents Book, 1883-1886
In 2018, Museums & Galleries Edinburgh acquired a unique book. As far as we know, this is the only surviving working document from the earliest stages of construction of the iconic Forth Bridge. It lists all recorded accidents, how, when and where they took place, any complications or subsequent outcome, such as a compensation being paid to the injured worker.

Its plain cover bearing just the word “Accidents” belies the detail of its contents; a catalogue of injuries ranging from a bashed head to some of the most gruesome and painful accidents imaginable. It is a unique insight into the construction of the bridge, the conditions of those working on it, and a snapshot of health and safety in the workplace before this was even a phrase! Consider for instance Matthew Snowden (listed as accident 61), who was lucky enough to get away with just hurting his right hand after falling off a jetty. He was seen by the doctor and soon returned to work. Or poor William Hawkins, (page 60), a foreman painter who was crushed by a barge, the Tamar while coming ashore. His left leg was completely smashed above ankle and had to be amputated at the knee. He was “removed to Infirmary Edinr. by Ambulance”. Hawkins survived, and was paid until he was able to come back to work. He was “presented with an artificial leg & also a gratuity of £10 on leaving Infirmary, conditionally on his raising no action against” Tancred Arrol & Company, the main Forth Bridge construction contractor.

Alongside the details of accidents, the book also gives information on sick leave, compensation and any resulting sick pay. It lists the various doctors who attended the injured; among them a certain Dr. Hunter who was one of the Forth Bridge doctors and also the South Queensferry GP.

Many of the injuries listed in this early stage of construction were sustained during the complex operation to build, move and sink the massive caissons in place. These were wrought iron cases lowered into the Forth to give workers access to the seabed to lay the foundations. The caissons were assembled on land and towed by boat to their final positions in the Forth. 2024 is the 140th anniversary of when the 6 enormous caissons were first launched.

Collections staff at the City of Edinburgh Museums & Galleries approached a group of Queensferry local historians about the book. Since 2005 The Briggers (taking their name from the nickname of construction workers), have been collecting and researching the history of the Rail Bridge. In 2009 they compiled a list of all known deaths which took place during the bridge’s construction, so it seemed fitting to let them know about the Accidents book. The Briggers continue to analyse the book and compare it with other existing records. Already, they are aware of one death previously unrecorded and are starting to put together enough information for an emerging picture of how accidents were treated. Many thanks from the City of Edinburgh Council Museums & Galleries to The Briggers for their tireless work to have the contents of this unique and moving book made public for the first time.

Transcriptions are verbatim, complete with abbreviations and errors. Where explanations are needed, these are given in square brackets [...].