(Letter written Oct 28 1864, published Oct 31 1864)
Matthew’s first known letter on the subject of the proposed Tay Bridge. He recalls his letters written almost 30 years previously advocating an alternative bridge across the Tay near Newburgh, including one written (perhaps privately – no copy survives) to Sir John Gladstone (1st Baronet, a prominent Scottish ‘liberal Conservative’ and a noted supporter of railway development). Matthew’s first criticism levelled against the new proposed scheme succinctly gets to the heart of the matter – a safe bridge could be built at Dundee, but only at so great a cost that the financial backers of the scheme would inevitably seek to cut corners:
The fault of the Bridge scheme is the great cost — I believe an insuperable barrier. To erect a substantial bridge, not a flimsy spectral thing, which might or might not vanish as a phantom the first storm, or break down under the vibration caused by a heavy, rapid moving train, would, in my opinion, cost nearly double, and probably much more than double, the sum the Engineer states; upon this I stake my judgment against that of the Engineer.
Matthew notes that a sturdy bridge at his old proposed site near Newburgh “could be constructed at less than one-third the cost of one at Dundee”, partly because “the Tay Firth contracts into a quiet, narrow river” and partly because “from the geological indices, I would expect the foundation to be more regular at Newburgh than at Dundee, consequently better”. He recalls that, back in 1835, people had scoffed at his idea and referred to it in derision as “Matthew’s Bridge”.
At the end of his letter, Matthew memorably refers to the new proposed bridge at Dundee as a “castle-in-the-air”, whose “phantasy and failure” might wrongly cast a shadow on his own scheme.
Full text follows.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR.
BRIDGE OVER TAY FIRTH.
Sir,— No doubt it would be highly beneficial to Dundee and the opposite district of Fife to have a Railway bridge across from the centre of the city, immediately west of the Harbour — passengers and goods transported over the Firth, a distance of nearly two miles, in less than five minutes — while at the same time it would very much improve the Great Eastern Railway by rescuing it from one of the two very inconvenient, annoying, and hindersome ferries, which prove so great a drawback to this Railway, the result of an error of judgment in its designers, and which, before the commencement of the Perth and Dundee line, and while the Eastern, or Edinburgh and Northern, was only in contemplation, I foresaw, and attempted to correct, by proposing a bridge at Newburgh (see letters in the Dundee newspapers of October or November, 1835). I also wrote to Sir John Gladstone that one ferry (Burnt-island) was bad enough, would damage a railway greatly; but that a second ferry, where a bridge, by adopting a better and nearer line to Dundee, was quite practicable, was a superfluous absurdity. He replied that arrangements were already made for two ferries. My answer was, that the sooner such arrangements were unmade the better for all concerned. The present agitation for a bridge goes so far to prove I was not in error.
The fault of the Bridge scheme is the great cost — I believe an insuperable barrier. To erect a substantial bridge, not a flimsy spectral thing, which might or might not vanish as a phantom the first storm, or break down under the vibration caused by a heavy, rapid moving train, would, in my opinion, cost nearly double, and probably much more than double, the sum the Engineer states; upon this I stake my judgment against that of the Engineer. We have the cost of the Thames Tunnel before us; we have the cost of the launch of the Great Eastern before us, shewing the gross errors to which even celebrated engineers are liable. It is the cue of the engineer to make light of the difficulties of the enterprise which he proposes, and to allow nothing for the chance — in this case so much exposed to winds and waves — I may say, the certainty of accidents during the erection, which might undo much that had been done. However, a considerably less height than the proposed 100 feet might suffice. Seldom a vessel goes above Dundee requiring in height more than seventy feet clear, and, should any vessel have the topmasts higher, she could lower them. Ships are not increasing in height of rigging. Steamers require only low spars; besides, it is not right that a great public interest should suffer — that in such an object as a bridge at Dundee or Newburgh, it should raised to a dangerous or too costly height, to subserve comparatively minor interest. Such vessels as usually go up the Tay can easily accommodate themselves to pass under seventy feet without any appreciable injury to trade.
The very desirable object of a rapid and convenient communication with the Fife shore no doubt cannot be attained but by the proposed bridge, a far more feasible scheme than that formerly proposed farther down the Firth. But the Great Eastern Railway, taking Dundee in its course, can be far better served by a bridge at Newburgh, as affording a shorter and better approach to Dundee from the south and south-west (especially for the coal and lime traffic) than could be obtained by the proposed Dundee bridge and line round by Ferry-Port-on-Craig. At Newburgh the fairway for the small craft trading further up the river is not more than 100 yards wide, and close to the south shore. Here, where the Tay Firth contracts into a quiet, narrow river, a bridge could be constructed at less than one-third the cost of one at Dundee, while the connecting line of rail from its north end onward along the Carse level close to the south bank of Errol, and forming a junction with the Perth and Dundee rail at the bend of that rail near a mile east Errol Station, or at Inchture Station, would cost little more than the land and the rails.
At Newburgh the railway may be about 130 feet above the level of high water, but by a gradual descent, commencing half a-mile south-east of the station, the railway could be lowered to the level of the highest and southmost span of the bridge over the.fair-way of about 100 yards wide, through which only vessels would pass upward. The bridge would extend northward about three-fourths of a mile to the Carse side, gradually descending to the Carse level. Most of this distance being dry at low water, and part of it island, no great expense in the erection would be incurred. With the land ends properly fixed, the slight slope of the bridge, all one way, would not affect its security. From the geological indices, I would expect the foundation to be more regular at Newburgh than at Dundee, consequently better.
I am aware that the bridge has been proposed some distance above Newburgh, to join the Perth and Dundee line a mile or two further west than I have stated. But this would lengthen the Great Eastern railway several miles. I would rather propose the bridge to at Newburgh shore, or even a mile or more below Newburgh. This latter would be the shortest, and perhaps the best. The line to the bridge would deflect from the Newburgh line a little south of Clatchard Craig, and bending north and north-east, in the direction of Dundee, pass along the slope of the hill side by the Mare’s Craig and Parkhill, reducing its level to that of the southmost span of the bridge. This line of crossing, though it would cost a little more for bridge, would shorten by another mile or two the length of the Great Eastern.
When the Perth and Dundee, and the Edinburgh and Northern were first contemplated, I strongly urged that the former line should run on the south side of Errol, in order, ultimately, to communicate with a bridge at Newburgh. The engineers stated this to be their choice as the cheapest and easiest worked line between the two cities Perth and Dundee. I mentioned at the same time that this arrangement of rails would render the Perth and Dundee line doubly valuable, as at the same time it would form a portion of the Great North and South line of the East of Scotland, and also a portion of one of the most important east and west lines. But at the meeting when the position of the Perth and Dundee line was determined, my proposition to adopt the Engineers’ line did not meet a seconder, only Mr Hunter, of Blackness, expressed his opinion that I might be right; while bridge at Newburgh was termed in derision “Matthew’s Bridge.”
I may further mention that a bridge at Dundee would scarcely place Dundee on the Great East line, while a bridge at Newburgh would place it so. When once at Ferry-Port-on-Craig some of the passengers going north might prefer crossing by the steamer to Broughty, to taking a circuit of eight miles round by Dundee.
There is an evil which may result from this bridge castle-in-the-air. Its phantasy and failure may throw a shade of mistrust upon the proposed bridge at Newburgh, which is highly expedient and easily made. It is said that rivalry of Railway Companies prevents the erection of a bridge at Newburgh. The Government or Parliament should look to this.
October 28, 1864.