BEHIND THE HEADLINES
1890: Forth Bridge opened
The final triumphant stage of the ‘race to the north’ by railway companies was the bridge over the Firth of Forth. It was ‘a long stride over space’ according to the Illustrated London News, a majestic testament to the industrial age.
The problem it solved was that the East Coast Line went from Dover through London via York and Newcastle to Edinburgh but then stopped, it could not pass the Forth Estuary further into Scotland. With the bridge, Perth and the northern cities of Scotland became easily accessible, as did the great hunting estates of the Highlands.
Just 11 years previously the Tay Bridge, over a similar distance, had collapsed while a packed train was crossing, in one of the major disasters of the century. The fallen structure was a suspension bridge and work had already commenced on a similar bridge over the Forth but it was now discontinued.
The contractor the railway companies turned to for a new bridge was William Arrol, one of the great self-made engineers of the Victorian era. Arrol was born in Renfrewshire, Scotland, in 1839. He was the son of a cotton spinner and at the age of nine was himself sent to work in a cotton mill; at 14 he was apprenticed to a blacksmith. He worked in engineering firms then set up his own
business in Glasgow in 1868. From small beginnings he expanded into public works and began to attract attention for the novelty and innovation he brought to bridge building projects, including inventing a hydraulic riveting system. In 1882, he was awarded the project for building both a replacement for the Tay Bridge, and the new Forth Bridge.
The Forth Bridge, the biggest engineering project in the world, needed an original design and this was supplied by consulting engineers John Fowler and Benjamin Baker. They proposed a cantilever system: there would be three towers with a bridge cantilevered out on either side and each would join with the next section of bridge.
At a cost of £2million, it was the first large structure to be made of steel, not cast iron. Columns, rods and girders rose 360 feet above high water, with foundations going 90 feet below. Its 1.5-mile length showed how steel could be both strong and elegant. To allay any public fears, this bridge was tested to a far higher degree than the old Tay Bridge had been, with trains of 47 wagons each loaded with pig iron to gauge stress levels.
It was constructed over eight years by 5,000 workmen earning good rates of pay, one man boasted he received £15 one week as a riveter on piece work, though £3 was more common. They earned their money; a commemorative booklet for the event said: “the credit of the great work is as much due to the humble artisan... to those men who have clung to the frozen plates during the course of the winter and persevered, numbed and half-frozen, in their dangerous and arduous task – men who have literally taken their life in their hands, and who have hung in mid-air, sometimes with scarcely enough room to place their feet securely, and even suspended by means of ropes.”
There had been 57 fatal accidents. “It is impossible to carry out a gigantic work without paying for it, not merely in money, but in men’s lives,” said Benjamin Baker.
The height of the structure was exceeded only by the Great Pyramid, Cologne Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower. Comparisons with the Eiffel Tower were inevitable as the tower was completed just a year previously. The Parisian construction was described by Baker as “a foolish piece of work, ugly, ill proportioned and of no real use to anyone,” which was hardly diplomatic as Gustave Eiffel was one of the guests among the foreign dignitaries who came to the opening.
The Forth Bridge was officially opened on 4 March 1890 by the Prince of Wales ceremonially fixing the last rivet, a gilded silver one, in weather that was described as ‘boisterous.’ In the ceremony, among other honours, he announced a knighthood for William Arrol.
The skills for building the bridge had all been near at hand. For a decade shipbuilding had been the dominant industry in Glasgow with whole new areas growing up around the city to house shipyard workers, and a complete new town called Clydebank. Ships were made for customers all over the world and one yard, the Sentinel Works, produced hundreds of vessels which they constructed then dismantled to be sent out in kit form for reassembly in foreign parts. ‘Clyde-built’ was a hallmark of quality, and not only of ships; three of the four largest locomotive building companies in Britain were in Glasgow, too.
Cornering the tea market
Thomas Lipton, a self-made Glasgow grocer, this year entered the tea business to assure supplies for his grocery shops at a time when demand for tea was increasing. Lipton travelled to Ceylon where he met another Scotsman, James Taylor, who hailed from Kincardineshire. Taylor had introduced tea plantation into Ceylon and sent the product to the London Tea Auction.
Lipton took the example from Taylor and bought his own estates so that tea was grown, harvested, shipped, packaged and sold under Lipton’s control. His rivals could not compete with his low prices and Lipton quickly dominated the market. Tea was sold by the pound, half and quarter pound with the name Lipton Yellow Label in a yellow packet with a red shield and the slogan: ‘Direct from the tea gardens to the teapot.’
This was good business, but it was also attractive to a lifetime teetotaller like Lipton to provide a non-alcoholic drink for the working class which was cheap and plentiful.
Boom times for the Press
Newspapers were another boom industry, providing a now almost fully literate public with information and entertainment. The Daily Graphic, the first illustrated newspaper, was launched this year; firstly with wood engravings but was soon making
“THE FORTH BRIDGE WAS THE BIGGEST ENGINEERING PROJECT IN THE WORLD”
use of modern technology with photographic half-tones.
The Daily Graphic aimed at a new readership of women with Mary Frances Billington joining the paper as a special correspondent on women’s issues. Women’s sections on newspapers were clearly a concession to the growing buying power of working women, who were also a target market for the newspaper’s advertisers. Some questioned the ‘women’s correspondent’ position, however, as previously female journalistic pioneers had been writing general news stories equally with men, now they were expected to stick to ‘women’s interests.’ The youth market was supplied by Comic
Cuts this year, the first comical newspaper. It was launched as an alternative to the ‘penny dreadfuls’ – with their themes of criminality – which were thought to be a bad influence on working class boys. Comic Cuts offered ‘One Hundred Laughs for one Halfpenny!’ in comic strips and amusing snippets of text. The first two issues sold out completely; within two years its circulation was 430,000.
Conan Doyle and Wilde
Literary legends were born when John Marshall Stoddart, managing editor of the Philadelphia-based Lippincott’s Monthly
Magazine, had dinner with two rising stars of the literary world, Scottish doctor Arthur Conan Doyle and Irish journalist Oscar Wilde. Both had gone to London to seek their fortune and the dinner with Stoddart led to commissions to write for him.
This year the public could read the fruits of that meeting in Lippincott’s. Conan Doyle’s
The Sign of the Four portrayed the brilliant but languid ‘consulting detective’ Sherlock Holmes who works at complex problems to stay off the boredom of life. The first line establishes him as a recreational user of the then legal drug cocaine: “Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle…”
Later in 1890, the magazine published Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The short novel tells the story of attractive aristocrat Dorian’s descent into criminal excesses which distort the portrait that has been painted of him, but leave his beautiful body unmarked. The intimate connection between life and art was a hallmark of the English decadent movement with its slogan of art for art’s sake (and not, therefore, with any moral purpose).
The guardians of Victorian public taste suspected the moral decay of this work, and the notoriously puritanical bookshop WH Smiths simply refused to stock the July edition of the magazine in which it appeared.
The impressive Forth Bridge as seen during its first year in 1890
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian
Gray was fififififififirst first published in 1890
Forth Bridge engineer, William Arrol in 1890
Girls’ dresses was becoming less
constraining although the general line
still followed that of adult female
fashion. Their loose hair and simple
hats also reflflect these freedoms. The flflflower seller wears a ‘ post boy’ shaped hat, fashionable since the 1880s. The fur trim
bottom of the
gives emphasis to o the bustle under her skirt.
The man wears a three- piece lounge suit
although his facial whiskers and beard
would have been considered old fashioned
by this date when stylish younger men
were sporting just a moustache.