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Matthew (1869-12-07)



Proposed Dundee Railway Bridge. Dundee Advertiser, Tuesday 7 December 1869, p.6 col.1 (pdf image)

(Letter written Nov 1869, published Dec 7 1869)
This is Matthew’s first known letter to the Dundee Advertiser on the subject of the proposed Tay Bridge (his previous known letters were all to the Dundee Courier). It appears from Matthew’s letter (“…your paper, containing high-flown description of the practicability and utility of the proposed Bridge…”) that the Dundee Advertiser was more actively in favour of the scheme than the Dundee Courier.

Matthew reprises all his previous objections to the proposed scheme, and adds some new ones. The proposed bridge is too long and too high, and spans a dangerously tidal “wind storm-throat”; the scheme is “an experimental novelty, highly liable to serious accident, of total or partial destruction”; it will cost more than advertised; it will meet with objections from harbours upstream; it could be rammed and damaged by a boat during a storm, or perhaps by one manned by a drunken crew; it could alter tide flows and raise an obstructive sand bank in front of Dundee Harbour; and it would depress Dundee property prices by transferring business and trade to Newport on the south bank of the Tay. Most of all, “the position is not the most advantageous for Dundee”, because a superior location existed at Newburgh, as Matthew argued 34 years earlier (see Newspaper Articles > Early rail proposals).

Matthew ends with a potted history of Scotland’s subjugation by England, which had left “poor swindled Scotland, which had so long so nobly defended herself against a grasping, covetous neighbour of more than five times the population, very little better off than conquered Ireland”. Fortunately, the situation had recently improved thanks to “superior Scottish intellect and enterprise”, and Dundee was now rich and prosperous. With all the money that Dundee would save by building its bridge at Newburgh, Matthew argues that the moral course of action would be to spend that money improving the housing conditions of Dundee’s poorest inhabitants. These were currently so unsanitary that “the landlords who let out such fever dens to the wretched occupants ought to be punished, as wittingly supplying the means of effecting murders”.



SIR,— The town of Dundee — partly from the industry, energy and enterprise of its citizens — partly, a few years ago, from an unlooked-for course of events — has had an almost unprecedented rise for an old-world city. It is now more than seventy years since I first visited Dundee from a distant country parish. At that time it was sober and humble enough, and would no more have thought of bridging over Tay Firth then bridging to the moon. At that time I observed nothing that dwelt in the memory but the grand ancient Bell Tower attached to the churches, which looked down with the disdain upon the dirty, narrow streets, alleys, and closes below, and the ships that lay moored in a very homely, rude harbour.

At that time the town of Dundee remained comparatively in a torpid or chrysalis state. It has now, like a great dragon-fly or heather-bill, risen from the streamlet and spread its gilded wings aloft and wide; and in its new-felt powers and aspirations, contemplates bridging over an arm of the sea or tunnelling it underneath. In the case of this proposed rainbow bridge — extending about three miles in length, and rising in the central passage two vessels to more than 100 feet above high-water mark — it seems to me that it is the grandeur and difficulty more than the utility or wisdom of the enterprise that fascinates the movers of the scheme. It will meet with serious opposition from all the harbours higher up the Firth and river. It will cost an enormous sum. Its erection — like the tunnel of the Thames — is an experimental novelty, highly liable to serious accident, of total or partial destruction, increasing the cost to double or triple the proposed sum: while from the rapid tide-flow (it is said as much as six miles per hour), the high altitude, and the wind storm-throat which it spans, the result may be entire failure. Even though a success were attained, from the great and rising resort of shipping to Dundee, the probability is that some vessel drifting from her anchors in a gale of wind, or from the carelessness of a drunken crew and strong tideway, would run foul of, and carry away the Bridge. Even in your paper, containing high-flown description of the practicability and utility of the proposed Bridge, you make mention of a Bridge in Germany in course of erection being carried away by an unmanageable vessel, with forty men killed and ten wounded. A similar case of the destruction of a high Bridge occurred at Shields about a year ago, and at Montrose a vessel had to be sunk to prevent it destroying the Chain Bridge there. Should this proposed bridge ever be erected, it would require a guard of strong piles a little east of it, if not on both sides. These barriers to the rapid tide-flow would be certain to cause excavation and deep water below the Bridge, rendering it less stable, while sand banks would rise at some distance upward and downward from the Bridge, which might greatly interfere with the access of ships to Dundee. It might even cause a rising of the bar at the mouth of Tay Firth by promoting a mudding up of the Firth itself, causing diminished scour. After the probable effect of diminishing the scour, raising the bar at the mouth of the Tay, and of blocking up Dundee Harbour by a sand bank a little below the Bridge, the great objections to attempting to erect a Bridge at Dundee is its enormous and even unknown cost, and that the position is not the most advantageous for Dundee. A Bridge at Newburgh, where the river is quiet and comparatively narrow, would be easily and safely erected. It would afford a short and cheap line for the great North Road, from the crossings of the Firth of Forth to Dundee; a near and cheap access to the cold and lime fields of Fife, also to the manufacturing establishments in Fife; to Leslie, Dunfermline, Glasgow, &c.; and place Dundee on the Great East Railway of Scotland. A bridge at Newburgh could be erected at about a third of the proposed cost of the Dundee Bridge, and the distance required of new rail over the flat Carse would only be from two to three miles. Here no injury could be done to Dundee port, and the risk of accident the least possible.

Here I may mention a selfish motive, which may put Dundee a little out of conceit of the proposed Dundee Bridge. It would afford a premium of £20,000 yearly in favour of the transfer of Dundee trade and industry to Newport, thus diminishing the value of Dundee property.

Previous to the Reformation, shoals of Romish recluses harboured in Dundee, whose income from lands, along with the supply of a rich adjacent country, backed by considerable progress in city manufactures, served to support a rather numerous provincial town population. These religious recluses were, however, scattered at the Reformation. Soon afterwards, the Scottish King and Court were removed to London, the Scottish Parliament annulled, and the Scottish kingdom obliterated, a state of things producing all the evils of alien government. London thus became the centre of power and field of intrigue for the attainment of place and preferment, leaving poor swindled Scotland, which had so long so nobly defended herself against a grasping, covetous neighbour of more than five times the population, very little better off than conquered Ireland. The desertion of Scotland by many of her landlord class, carrying away the land rental of Scotland to England, formed an annual enormous tribute to her ancient enemy, steeping the whole Scottish land in poverty. The towns more especially were great sufferers, thus deprived of their landlord customers, and it was only after a time, when the superior Scottish intellect and enterprise had treasure to work its way, that a change has taken place to prosperity, in which Dundee has been especially conspicuous. Under the above malign circumstances, Dundee, not even being the leading county town to profit by any county business, was left entirely to her own resources. For a considerable time she lingered without advancement, subject to sad depressions of trade, heavy losses, and even famines. Eventually the Scottish mind has prevailed. Capital, the great agent in modern progress, has been obtained, gathered from the four quarters of the earth by her superiority in manufactures, and a danger threatens that a considerable portion of this most valuable product of industry may be wasted in a very hazardous attempt to improve communication, while a very superior means of improving communication, free of all hazard of failure or injury, is to be attained at so very much less cost. Here the rival jealousy of two railways must not be allowed to prevent the best arrangements from being adopted for the great East line.

In the case of a redundancy of Dundee capital, would it not be incomparably more judicious, more humane, more in accord with the Christian love and duty, to devote this capital to rebuilding the shamefully unwholesome portion of Dundee after an improved, well-ventilated, sanitary plan? At present a considerable portion of the crowded town is disgraceful to humanity — is criminally unwholesome. And the landlords who let out such fever dens to the wretched occupants ought to be punished, as wittingly supplying the means of effecting murders. No house should be allowed to be let to a tenant as a dwelling in which a healthy family cannot rationally be expected to be reared.

Gourdiehill, Nov., 1869

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