1890 - Opening of Forth Rail Bridge

'A Red Letter Day in the History o' the Ferry' The Opening of the Forth Rail Bridge

On 4 March 1890 the Forth Rail Bridge was opened by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). The massive cantilevered structure was one of the marvels of its day - and public holidays were proclaimed in the local Fife towns. The Edinburgh Evening News catches this mood of local rejoicing, describing the crowds and the excitement of the royal visit. The bridge came at a heavy price however. Fifty-seven workmen were killed and 518 injured in its construction.

At South Queensferry

The ancient burgh, which has been roused from its previous lethargy by the presence in its near vicinity of the great structure, with the necessary accompaniment of its army of workmen and legion of visitors, may be fated to return to comparative oblivion with the completion of the work, but seldom in its history has 'the Ferry' presented a more animated scene than today. The morning broke dull and cheerless, and save for the few hundreds conveyed from Edinburgh by the early tram, there was nothing to indicate the great occasion. A general holiday had been declared in the burgh, but the various tradesmen seemingly preferred business to pleasure, as the shops were opened as usual, and the only parties having a respite from labour were of school children. The works were of course comparatively deserted, the workmen, unlike the townspeople, having a compulsory off-day. A solitary pedestrian could now and then be observed crossing the bridge, which was by no means the most pleasant promenade. A stiff breeze from the west momentarily increasing in volume threatened to again test the vaunted stability of the structure. The view was limited by a thick haze, which partially obscured the coast a few miles off; but the wind promised to disperse the mist in some measure. The turret ship Devastation, two gun-boats, and a tender, lay in the estuary, a short distance off the bridge. The blue jackets had given the townspeople a lesson in demonstrative loyalty, strings of flags and bannerettes being suspended from the riggings; while on the other hand the burgh boasted a single token of respect for royalty, a 'Union Jack' floating proudly from a staff erected on the house occupied by one of the magistrates. As the forenoon advanced, the people from the surrounding districts, where a holiday was being observed, thronged into the burgh, Bo'ness, Falkirk, Linlithgow, and other towns contributing their quota by road. The crowds of Edinburgh people thronging into the burgh by road and rail swelled the multitude of sightseers, and in anticipation of witnessing the Royal train crossing the bridge, the people early sought for points of vantage. The Hawes Brae found favour with many, while on the pier, the road, and the houses, many of which are perched on eminences, and consequently command a capital view of the bridge and its southern approach, thousands of people located themselves. As the train steamed on to the bridge cheers were raised, handkerchiefs were waved and other tokens of approbation were indulged in. For some time thereafter the crowd studied the structure and speculated on the position of the Dolphin, while the breeze, which was gradually becoming more boisterous, caused a diversion by carrying several hats into the sea. As nothing could now be seen from the shore, the people dispersed, and the town assumed the appearance of a record fair. One of the principal things that struck even a casual observer was the number and variety of mendicants. Here 'two Scotsmen who have lost a limb' tried their fortune; there a whining beggar in stilts importuned passers-by; while a miscellaneous collection of 'wandering minstrels,' street vocalists, &c., sought to benefit by the occasion. Games of chance were not unknown; while portraits of the Royal visitors and the bridge and articles innumerable were vended by itinerant traders. The eating-house keepers were generally doing good business, their customers in some cases having to seat themselves on the stair leading from the street to consume their victuals. The provision staffs were also a centre of attraction. As the day advanced, matters became rather unpleasant, clouds of dust troubling the pleasure seekers.

The afternoon trains and coaches were well patronised, but when, after the prince and party recrossed the bridge, the weather became rather inclement, the ingoing conveyances were crowded, and by three o'clock the great bulk of the people had left for home. Inebriates made their presence known in the thinned crowd.

North Queensferry

The weather conditions in the early morning were not very favourable for sightseeing, and from the aspect of the little village perched in the cliff it did now, in the grey morning's light, seem as if it were to be favoured with a visit from Royalty. A stiff westerly breeze was blowing, accompanied by occasional showers of rain, and the few flags which had been erected in some half-a-dozen places by a few loyal burghers fluttered bravely on their slender staffs against the force of the gale. Within a couple of hours, however, the appearance of things was completely changed. By ten o'clock the adjoining roads were covered with pleasure seekers on foot, on bicycles, and in crowded brakes, all with one accord making their way from Inverkeithing, Dunfermline, Milnathort, Kinross and the surrounding districts to the Bridge. In these places public holidays were the rule, though in Dunfermline the recent death of provost Donald somewhat interfered with general participation in the holiday. The packed appearance of North Queensferry, however, by ten or eleven o'clock justified the remark made by one busy shopkeeper that 'this was a red letter day in the history o' the Ferry'. H.M.S. Devastation, a gunboat, and several other vessels lying in St Margaret's Hope were decorated with bunting and various small craft plying about, evidently on pleasure bent, served to add to the general holiday aspect of things. Owing to the influx of visitors, prices for stabling accommodation in the hotels, as also for refreshments for man and beast were rather dear. Besides the detachment of 50 constables, under the command of Chief-Constable Brebner (Fife), several bodies of volunteers were also set to guard the approaches to the stations and the bridge. The volunteers on duty included detachments from the 1st Fife Artillery, one of which, the Inverkeithing battery, was posted as a guard of honour at the station there. Other batteries of the same corps from Burntisland, Kinghorn, Kirkcaldy, and Lochgelly were stationed with a body of rifles from Dunfermline along the platform and also along the line of approach of the royal train to the Dolphin which was in waiting to the end of the jetty. Shortly after 11 o'clock the rumble of an approaching train raised expectations in the crowd below that the royal train was crossing the bridge, and a rush was made to the station to wait its arrival from Inverkeithing, but the appearance of the 15 carriages which issued from the north cantilever pier soon disappointed those hopes, not a saloon carriage being visible in the train. At 11.30 prompt the Devastation began to fire a Royal salute, and not long afterwards the locomotive came into view proceeding at a slow pace. It had just reached the Inchgarvie pier when its predecessor steamed into the station at Queensferry, and the directors, municipal dignitaries, and other gentlemen on it alighted - the train itself being shunted into a siding. The royal train took nearly ten minutes to cross, so slowly did it proceed and little interest was manifested in it by the few people immediately below, the greater portion of the crowd having rushed to the station when the first train passed. After 20 minutes had elapsed it reappeared again at the North Queensferry Station, and the prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh, who occupied the first carriage immediately behind the engine, being recognised were greeted with a ringing cheer from a large crowd. The band of the 6th V.B.R.H. (1st Fifeshire) at once struck up the National Anthem and the guard of honour presented arms. The stiffish breeze blowing had caused a considerable sea, and the waves were lashing with some violence against the end of the jetty, where the Dolphin was lying. The Royalists experienced its full force in walking down the pier to the Dolphin on which they immediately embarked. It crossed round by the Devastation, on which the crew were ranged, and, encircling Inchgarvie, returned below the north arch nearly half-an-hour afterwards. The party from Edinburgh, who had followed its course in the steamer William Muir, returned about 10 or 15 minutes later than the Royal party and directors, who remained in the station till their arrival. Shortly after one o'clock they left, the prince and his son Prince George and the Duke of Edinburgh this time occupying the rear carriage, and were followed in about five minutes by the other train. The arrangements for keeping order at the station were perfect. Chief Constable Brebner and Superintendent Allan, of N.B.R. police, being in charge of the police and Major Hepburn and Captain Shearer of the volunteers. Not long after the train was again seen on the bridge, halting at the Inchgarvie cantilever, and most of the sightseers returned as they came in brakes, on bicycles or on foot. The weather latterly grew more boisterous and disagreeable, the wind being accompanied by heavy showers of rain.

Edinburgh Evening News, 4 March 1890.

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