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Tay Bridge proposal


Matthew’s most famous letters to newspapers concern his resolute opposition to the proposed Tay rail bridge across the Firth of Tay, from Newport to Dundee. Despite Matthew’s opposition, public opinion in the region swung more and more in the opposite direction, and after many years of debate and planning the bridge was finally built and opened in June 1878, four years after Matthew’s death.

Matthew’s letters are remembered because 18 months later, on 28 December 1879, the Tay Bridge collapsed during a winter storm as a train was passing over it, resulting in considerable loss of life. Matthew had foreseen just such an accident.

Matthew put forward many potential reasons for the bridge’s failure, ranging from storms to earthquakes. Both contemporary commentators (e.g. Editorial comment at end of Matthew 1870-01-04) and modern ones (e.g. Wikipedia > Patrick Matthew > Talk) have argued that the number and diversity of his predictions diminish their impact and utility. This is missing the point. Matthew believed that a bridge so long and so high, spanning so treacherous a waterway, was inherently experimental and risky, and could not be built safely at reasonable cost (see his first known letter on the subject – Matthew 1864-10-31). Furthermore, it was unnecessary, because a safer and cheaper alternative site was available at Newburgh, a site that Matthew himself had proposed some 30 years earlier (see Newspaper Articles > Early rail proposals).

Editorial (1863-11-06): “The Bridging of the Friths”. Dundee Advertiser, 6 November 1863
An editorial arguing that the time is ripe for the construction of a rail bridge directly linking Dundee to routes south. The editorial recalls Matthew’s proposal in 1835 for a bridge across the Tay river at Mugdrum, near Newburgh, but questions “whether Mugdrum is now the best place for the purpose”.

Matthew (1864-10-31): “Bridge over Tay Firth”. Dundee Courier, 31 October 1864
Matthew’s first known letter on the subject of the proposed Tay Bridge at Dundee. He recalls his own proposal in 1835 for a bridge across the Tay river near Newburgh, and estimates that his scheme would cost one third of the Dundee scheme. He estimates that the cost of building a safe bridge at Dundee, one that would not “vanish as a phantom the first storm”, would cost at least double the current Engineer’s estimate.

Editorial (1864-10-31): “The Tay Bridge”. Dundee Courier, 31 October 1864
An editorial expressing concerns about the proposed Tay Bridge at Dundee, and generally favourable to Matthew’s alternative scheme for a bridge near Newburgh. The editorial notes Matthew’s “character for foresight and sagacity”.

Matthew (1866-01-24): “The Effect of the Tay Bridge on the Harbour”. Dundee Courier, 26 January 1866
An excerpt from a longer letter written by Matthew in the Daily Review on the Forth and Tay Bridges, concerning the possibility of reduced tidal flow and sandbanks.

Matthew (1866-07-07): “The Forth and Tay Bridges”. Dundee Courier, 7 July 1866
A copy of another letter written by Matthew to the Daily Review on the Forth and Tay Bridges. He warns that subsidence of the Forth Bridge will be a problem, and that the railway companies put forward to run the Tay Bridge will conspire to put ticket prices up to maximise their profit. He ends by again pointing out the advantages of his alternative Tay Bridge scheme near Newburgh, which he had first advocated more than 30 years previously.

Letter to Prime Minister Gladstone, acknowledgement by 10 Downing Street. 7 October 1869
Dempster (“Evolutionary concepts in the Nineteenth Century: Natural Selection and Patrick Matthew”, 1996, p.333) notes that Matthew wrote a letter to Prime Minister William Gladstone about the Tay Bridge proposal. No copy of that letter remains, but Dempster notes that an acknowledgement of receipt of the letter was returned by 10 Downing Street, dated 7 October 1869. Presumably this letter of acknowledgement was kept by the family and was seen by Dempster. This letter is also referred to by Wulf G. Gerdts in his unpublished two-volume work on the Matthew family history (The Matthew Saga, 2004). Note that this was not the first time that Matthew was moved to write to a member of the Gladstone family over railway policy. Matthew (1864-10-31) recalls a letter he wrote to William Gladstone’s father, Sir John Gladstone, around 1835 regarding early rail proposals.

Matthew (1869-12-07): “Proposed Dundee Railway Bridge”. Dundee Advertiser, 7 December 1869
In his first known letter to the Dundee Advertiser on the subject (his previous letters were all to the Dundee Courier), Matthew reprises all his previous objections to the proposed scheme, and adds some new ones. He argues that the money saved in building the bridge at his preferred site of Newburgh should be used to improve the housing conditions of Dundee’s wretched poor.

Matthew (1869-12-08): “Dundee Bridge”. Dundee Courier, 8 December 1869
Matthew warns, once again, that the proposed bridge might affect the “scour” of the Tay Firth, and block up the entrance to Dundee harbour. He questions, once again, whether the proposed scheme is “rationally practicable, within a paying cost, safe and necessary”, and he refers once again to his alternative bridge scheme at Newburgh.

Matthew (1869-12-13): “The Dundee Bridge”. Dundee Advertiser, 13 December 1869
Matthew responds to an editorial in the Dundee Advertiser (not yet uncovered) which apparently depicted Matthew as a “venerable, crotchety old man, with a head stuffed with old world notions, quite unsuited to the present age of progress”.

Matthew (1870-01-04): Dundee Advertiser, 4 January 1870
In a long letter, Matthew reviews once again the many reasons why the proposed Tay Bridge scheme at Dundee is ill-advised. In a memorable passage, Matthew imagines the scene of carnage that would follow a catastrophic collapse of the bridge while a heavy passenger train was passing over it, and the grisly feast that would be enjoyed by the Tay’s population of eels.

Matthew (1870-01-21): Dundee Advertiser, 21 January 1870
In another long letter, Matthew expands on a theme previously expressed in a previous letter (Matthew 1869-12-07), namely that the money saved in building the bridge at his preferred site of Newburgh should be used to improve the housing conditions of Dundee’s wretched poor. He also touches on other themes, including the “especial vital powers” of the sun’s rays and their effect in controlling the evolution of primordial life.

Matthew (1870-01-28): Dundee Advertiser, 28 January 1870
In another long letter, Matthew adds earthquakes to his list of possible disasters for the Tay Bridge if built at Dundee; predicts economic disaster; promotes his alternative bridge scheme at Newburgh; calls for “sanitary improvement of Dundee”; advocates devolution for Scotland; and refers again to the letter he wrote to Sir John Gladstone around 1835.

Matthew (1870-02-11): Dundee Advertiser, 11 February 1870
Matthew argues that the proposed bridge at Dundee would silt up Dundee’s harbour; would be inferior to one placed at Newburgh; would consume money that would be better spent improving Dundee’s unsanitary slums; and would be an economic disaster for its investors.

Editorial (1870-02-17): “The Tay Bridge – a Victory”: Dundee Courier, 17 February 1870
An editorial in the Dundee Courier reporting on the proceedings of a meeting of the Trustees of Dundee Harbour, in which it was voted by a majority of one to support the proposed Tay Bridge scheme. The editorial portrays Matthew as “a genuine and enthusiastic opponent”, but too fanciful in his doomsday scenarios.

Matthew’s letter to the Dundee Advertiser, 11 March 1870
In his book written after the completion of the Tay Bridge (“The Tay Bridge, Its History and Construction”, 1878, p.39), Albert Groethe notes: “Thus the Seer [Patrick Matthew] predicted the fate of the great undertaking in a series of eight letters written to the Dundee Advertiser, beginning, on the 7th of December 1869 and ending on the 11th of March 1870”. This implies there is a letter from Matthew in the 11th March issue of the Dundee Advertiser which has yet to be uncovered.

Matthew (1870-04-06): “The Spanish Castles in the Air Defunct”: Dundee Courier, Wednesday 6 April 1870
Matthew responds to a rumour that the bridge at Dundee would now be constructed as a low bridge, cutting off river traffic up the Tay and providing Dundee with an unacceptable monopoly on navigation.

“The Tay Bridge”. Dundee Courier, 7 June 1871, p.2 col.4-5 (pdf image)
An editorial arguing in favour of a wider two-track bridge, now that the rail bridge at Dundee has been given the final go-ahead. Matthew’s “gloomy and lugubrious prophesies” are mentioned in the excerpt below:

Nor have we exhausted the argument in favour of the double line. The question of stability is a very important one in considering the width of the bridge. A structure the required height of the Tay Bridge might be made so narrow that all Mr Patrick Matthew’s gloomy and lugubrious prophecies would come to pass. On the other hand, even that prophet of evil himself would admit that the bridge might be made so wide as to be almost as stable as an Egyptian pyramid. Let any one look at the plans, and his first criticism will probably be that the bridge is perched, like Dunbar, “high and windy.” And though we are not of those who would make the stability question a bugbear, and are far from thinking with hairbrained theorists that the bridge scheme should never have been mooted because the floods would sweep it away, still there can be no doubt that the breadth of the structure will at once add to its stability, and to the confidence in of those who have to pass over it.

“The Tay Bridge Interdict”. Dundee Advertiser, 27 June 1871, p.4 col.6-7 (pdf image)
Another editorial arguing in favour of a wider two-track bridge. Matthew’s prediction of destruction by storm is again mentioned in the concluding excerpt below. It is remarkable, and unfortunately all too close to the mark, that the editorial’s final comment should be that the only thing that might prevent the construction of a safe bridge would be “the want of money” – the very thing that Matthew is his first letter predicted would be the “insuperable barrier” that would lead to disaster:

Now that there is no chance of the work being further hindered, the unthinking will probably expect to see the Bridge built as if by magic; but a little reflection must satisfy them that considerable preparation is necessary for so great an undertaking, and that everything must be carefully and deliberately gone about. Apart from the immense quantity of cast and wrought iron, and the many millions of bricks required, a large amount of plant will needed during the process of construction. Some months will pass before much can be actually done, and then the short days of winter will have arrived. One of the chief difficulties the contractors will have to contend against will doubtless be the heavy gales wind from the west. Mr Patrick Matthew has predicted the danger of the Bridge being destroyed by some of those gales. There is no reason why they should blow over the Tay Bridge any more than many other great bridges; but it is not improbable that they may once and again do considerable damage while the work is in progress. We would also turn Mr Matthew’s warnings to profit in support our contention that the piers should be made wide enough for a double line. The wider they are the less chance would there be of the wind blowing them over — just as the Old Steeple is considerably safer from the effects of storms than an ordinary mill chimney. In fact, every conceivable consideration is in favour of the Bridge being built for a double line of rails, and the only present obstacle, we presume, is the want of money; but the North British Railway Company will be very shortsighted if, after going so far, it now allows this grand undertaking to be spoiled for the want of £50,000 or £60,000.

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