Sir Thomas Bouch (1822-1880)


Engineer of far-reaching influence who tragically overreached himself.


Thomas Bouch was born in Thursby near Carlisle on 25th February 1822, the son of a sea captain. He attended the village school before going to board at the Academy School in Carlisle. The death of his father in 1838 led him to take up an apprenticeship in Liverpool with a firm of mechanical engineers, but he found this was not to his taste.  With the first railway routes to the north being surveyed he returned to Carlisle to assist George Larmer, a Berkshire-born railway surveyor fifteen years Bouch’s senior who was seeking the best alignments between Lancaster, Kendal, Penrith and Carlisle for the Lancaster & Carlisle line’s engineers Joseph Locke and John Errington.  The Lancaster & Carlisle proved how great savings could be made with a careful choice of route: the L&C cost half as much per mile as its trunk connection to the south, despite crossing more difficult terrain. 

Bouch continued to work in the North in the decade of enormous railway expansion that followed. He was at Leeds under John Dixon and then at Darlington with Henry Pease’s Stockton and Darlington Railway. Before he turned 27, he was appointed Engineer and Manager for the Edinburgh and Northern Railway, despite his limited managerial experience. The Edinburgh & Northern crossed the estuaries of Forth and Tay by ferries between Granton and Burntisland and between Newport and Broughty Ferry.  Here Bouch brilliantly distinguished himself by designing and introducing the world’s first roll-on-roll-off rail ferries. This operation soon attracted other railway engineers’ attention and gained Bouch a very favourable reputation. 

On the back of this success, Bouch left the company in 1851 (it was soon to merge with the North British Railway) and began work as a consultant engineer, having been accepted as an Associate Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1850. In 1853, he married twenty-one-year-old Margaret Nelson. They had three children, Fanny, Elizabeth and William.


Working on the Forth had brought Bouch into contact not only with the legendary Stevenson family of civil and lighthouse engineers (the Northern Lighthouses depot was close to the train ferry pier at Granton), but also with new mathematical approaches which were to support so much of Bouch’s later career.

Edward Sang

The fountainhead of these ideas was Edward Sang (1805-1890) one of eleven children of a Kirkcaldy nurseryman and Provost of the same name. Gifted with precocious mathematical talent, Sang first worked in Edinburgh as a surveyor and civil engineer and lectured on natural philosophy. After a Professorship of Mechanical Sciences at Manchester’s nonconformist New College, Sang went to Constantinople to establish engineering schools, plan railways and an ironworks, lecturing in Turkish at the Imperial School there.  Sang’s technological mission to Imperial Turkey was to be a forerunner for similar work by Brunton and others in Imperial Japan, with Edinburgh providing the common springboard.  Based in Edinburgh, Sang wrote extensively on mathematical, mechanical, optical and actuarial topics including wire vibration, toothed wheels theory, lighthouse lights, railways, bridges, manufacturing and life insurance. He published actuarial, annuity and astronomical tables, books on Elementary and Higher Arithmetic and widely used 7-place logarithm tables.  Sang’s mathematical groundwork made much more accurate land surveying and construction calculations possible.  Sang and Bouch worked with Sang’s protégé, the Edinburgh civil engineer and photographer Robert Henry Bow (1832-1908).  Bow’s textbook Economics of Construction in Relation to Framed Structures appeared in 1871 and Treatise on Bracing in relation to Bridges and other Structures in 1874, drawing extensively on the calculations he’d done for Bouch.


With all this calculating power to hand, and working from Edinburgh on a big range of projects, Bouch’s reputation in the railway industry grew.  He made surveys and plans for a whole series of railways and branches, mostly in Scotland and Northern England, including the Darlington & Barnard Castle, the South Durham & Lancashire Union, the Eden Valley, the Cockermouth, Keswick & Penrith, the Sevenoaks and Maidstone, the Jedburgh railway, the Peebles Railway, the Kinross-shire, the Leven (Fife), the Leslie, the St. Andrews, the Creiff Junction, the Coatbridge, the Edinburgh, Loanhead & Roslin, the Leadburn, Linton & Dolphinton, the Penicuik Railway, the Arbroath & Montrose and the Edinburgh Suburban. These included some remarkable bridges: the Bilston trestle viaduct at Loanhead (rebuilt after Bouch’s death), the bridge over the Esk at Montrose, and Hownes Gill viaduct at Consett on the Stanhope & Tyne Railway. Bouch was inexpensive, sometimes charging only £100 per mile when the average fee was £500. With lattice and bowstring he could thread his lines between unlikely places that for other engineers the modest traffic could not justify.



PCDT  One of Bouch’s many minor lines - with tunnels, bridges and a viaduct- was the river-hugging Penicuik railway  Jim Neil  


 Bouch’s proposals were bold and yet always economical and uncluttered. Pared down to an elegant minimum, Bouch’s work was attractive to promoters; he could be relied on not only to take railways most cheaply from A to B, but to give passengers and promoters a thrilling ride on the way as they soared over earth and water with few visible signs of support. The Peebles and Penicuik lines were examples of his elegantly simple and highly economical approach. A more dramatic example was the South Durham and Lancashire Union. 

Here, the Stockton and Darlington railway interests sought to extend their empire with a new east west route across the north Pennines for the iron ore trade.  Who better than Bouch to engineer it, with his experience on both sides of the fells?  The line, the South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway, was planned by Bouch as a single track across the severe Pennine gradients on the Stainmore route between Barnard Castle and Tebay.  The line as designed by Bouch included the highest viaduct in England at Belah (Wales had a higher at Crumlin).  It was 1,040 feet long and carried the railway 196 feet over the gill below.  Construction of this magnificent high-girder structure began on 25th November 1857 when the foundation stone was laid by Henry Pease of Darlington, the builders were Gilkes, Wilson & Co of Middlesbrough and the cost £31,630.  The line opened in 1861 and was taken over by the Stockton & Darlington Railway Company in 1863. Bouch’s older brother William was superintendent at the company’s Shildon works where the locomotives were built to work the line. Heavy coke and ore traffic led to the doubling of the line, with all its structures, after Bouch’s death, but it was not to last much more than a century.  The Belah Viaduct was pulled down with unseemly haste in the teeth of local and national protest a hundred years later, as soon as the line was closed by Beeching.


Belah Viaduct: click images to see originals on


It’s worth remembering that all these images show the Belah viaduct as modified after Bouch’s death.

Bouch’s original was half the width, with more slender supports and probably lacked the open screen parapet shown here.

Wind screens on high structures came to be seen as necessary protection in the light of later experience on the Tay.



An outstanding example for Bouch to follow:

The magnificent Crumlin Viaduct designed by Falkirk contractor Thomas Kennard over the

Ebbw valley on the Taff Vale extension of the Newport, Abergavenny, and Hereford Railway

 Opened in 1857 and over 1800 feet long, it was Britain’s highest viaduct, over 200 feet above the river at its greatest height

The Crumlin Viaduct was pulled down in 1965


At the same time as Bouch and his contractors were working on the highest bridge at Belah, across the Atlantic the Grand Trunk Railway’s engineer Alexander M. Ross was also busy. Ross had worked with Robert Stephenson on the elegant Britannia Tubular Bridge across the Menai Straits in the 1840s and was now using a similar construction in association with Stephenson’s firm to build the world’s longest bridge over the St Lawrence at Montreal.


The Britannia Bridge across the Menai Straits as designed by Stephenson          building Britannia Bridge tubes before floating to the towers for raising

Alexander Ross’s multi-span tubular bridge across the St Lawrence at Montreal -the world’s longest when built in 1859


Bouch took up the challenge to surpass Stephensonian solidity with his usual confident lightness and economy.  In 1869, a Bill was presented to Parliament for the building of the Tay Bridge. The Bill was passed in July of the following year and the construction process began with Bouch in charge.  He needed a bridge with central high girders to allow clear navigation. To achieve it he combined an ultra-light central lattice section like the 267ft span that had stood the test of time at the Drogheda Viaduct in Ireland, with extended approaches on either side of the kind he had just designed for Portobello pier.  To cross the vast expanse of the Tay estuary, these elements would be stretched and multiplied.

Drogheda railway viaduct by William Evans and James Barton 1851-1855


Portobello Pier by Thomas Bouch 1871 photographed in 1911


But things did not go to plan. The first contractor Charles de Bergue resigned from the contract for reasons of illness and was replaced by Hopkins Gilkes & Company of Middlesbrough. Surveyors having first predicted a solid riverbed found it unexpectedly gravelly. As a result, Bouch was forced to hastily redesign his bridge to lighten the load on the foundations: apart from a short length at the southern end he replaced the planned brick piers with cast iron columns. The last minute changes Bouch had to make were resourceful, but there were no specifications of standards of materials and workmanship to cover them in the contract with Hopkins Gilkes & Company. Despite the unexpected alterations to the design, the bridge made good progress and the first trial train crossed the Tay on 26th September 1877, missing the planned completion date by just a matter of weeks.


This is an account of a visit to the bridge as it approached completion. It was written by Charles Cowan the Penicuik papermaker who had been a director of Bouch’s cheap railway projects to Peebles and Penicuik.

On 31st August 1877 Edinburgh was in a state of unusual excitement in the expectation of a visit from General Grant, the distinguished ex-President of the United States during a period of great anxiety and danger, but which issued in the preservation of the Union in its integrity. The occasion was the presentation to General Grant of the freedom of the city, in a beautiful silver casket, by the Lord Provost, in the Free Church Assembly Hall, in the presence of a vast assemblage of ladies and gentlemen. The Lord Provost, who was supported by his Bailies and Councillors, in their brilliant robes of office, read an admirably composed and appropriate address of welcome to the gallant General, who expressed his thanks to his Lordship and the citizens for the honour conferred upon him, 1 doubt not sincerely, but certainly most laconically, to the great disappointment of the vast assemblage, who expected more than merely "Thank you."  The distinguished warrior is evidently a man of deeds but not of words, and his silence may truly be termed "golden." …


On the following day, Ist of September, by the kindness of some of the Directors of the North British Railway, I had the privilege of accompanying General Grant and party to visit the Tay Bridge, by special train, which went through without stoppage from Burntisland to Tayport. 1 had the honour of being one of six gentlemen who occupied a compartment of the saloon carriage, namely, the Lord Provost, General Grant, Colonel Badeau, Consul-General, and Mr. Robeson, Consul for the United States in Edinburgh and Leith, the Mayor of Oxford, and myself.  1 sat opposite General Grant, and we had some conversation on the connection of his ancestors with Scotland, which dates from about 200 years ago, he having sprung, I believe, from the Grants of Seafield, the head of whom is the British Earl of Strathspey. …


Training ship Mars moored in the Tay


On reaching the Tay the party embarked in a small steamer, which conveyed us to the 'Mars,' formerly a war-ship, now a reformatory for juvenile criminals, on which we spent half an hour, when 1 am sure the whole party were charmed with the perfect discipline, admirable order, and good conduct of the boys, their appearance of strong muscular power and high health, their activity and vigour in manning the yards and other gymnastic exercises, all testifying to the value and efficiency of the services of the excellent superintendent, Captain Scott, to whom the happy results of this valuable national institution are in no small degree due; and 1 ought not to omit the musical performances of the young men, both vocal and instrumental, among the former the Canadian Boat Song, admirably performed.


We spent about an hour at the south or Fife end of the Tay Bridge, which is fully two miles in length.  An achievement hitherto so successful as this mighty work is well fitted to take its place among the modern wonders of the world.  Having seen and passed under the Victoria Bridge at Montreal in 1867, which is almost exactly the same length –two miles- I could not avoid contrasting the apparent slightness of the Tay Bridge with the more massive structure across the St. Lawrence, and especially the piers; but there cannot be the slightest doubt as to the perfectly secure and substantial execution of this wonderful monument of the skill and enterprise which have distinguished so many of our gifted and intrepid countrymen of the nineteenth century.  After passing in our steamer several times under the bridge between the piers, and thereafter crossing the Tay by a circuitous course, owing to sandbanks and low water, the tide being out, the party, in various conveyances, drove to the north end of the bridge, in order to walk upon it.  In place of joining them, 1 spent half an hour with Mr. George Duncan, M.P. for Dundee from 1841 to 1857, and was glad to find my esteemed friend, who is now eighty-six years of age, in better health than when we met last at his house, "THE VINE," in August 1873.

like a silver thread through the aether  - Thomas Bouch’s Tay Bridge


1 believe the whole party enjoyed the day extremely, and the variety of scenery through which we had passed, though we had two excessively heavy showers in crossing and recrossing the Tay.  We arrived in Edinburgh about 7 P.M., there being again great crowds at various places en route, and on our arrival at the station at Waverley, to give hearty greetings to the gallant General and his friends, although General Grant, the ladies, and the Lord Provost were no longer of the party, having proceeded to Edinburgh in the Lord Provost’s carriages from Granton.  Long may a cordial and friendly feeling pervade the English-speaking or Anglo-Saxon race on both sides of the Atlantic, now so safe and easy a highway for the two nations.



In February 1878, with some of the railway company’s heaviest engines being driven forward and back at full speed along the single track, the bridge was inspected by Major-General Scrope Hutchinson on behalf of the Board of Trade. In March his report passed it with the qualification that the supports should be carefully watched for the effects of scour, that trains should be restricted to 25 miles per hour and that he “would wish, if possible, to have an opportunity of observing the effects of a high wind when a train of carriages is running on the bridge” The North British Railway was now free to open the bridge and did so at an official ceremony that May. The Tay Bridge was the longest in the world and cut journey times between Edinburgh and Dundee by an hour. There were triumphant length and cost comparisons with the Stephenson engineers’ bridges at Menai and Montreal –perhaps Bouch was nursing an old grudge from his Liverpool days.  The Times commented on 30 May that:

 The Tay-bridge was something more than a merely local interest. As a triumph of engineering skill and well-directed energy and perseverance, it is worthy of, as indeed it has already attracted, very general attention. It is certainly the longest bridge of its kind in the world, and that is a thing of which its projectors and makers are quite entitled to be proud. There are longer viaducts over meadows and marshes, but there is no structure of nearly the same length over a running stream. Its length may be stated broadly at two miles. Including the extension on the northern shore, the exact length is 10,612ft. -- that is to say, it is longer than the Victoria-bridge, Montreal, and the Britannia tubular bridge taken together. This great length is taken in 85 spans of varying width, the widest (of which there are 11) being 245ft. The level at the shores is between 70ft. and 80ft. above the sea; in the middle it is 130ft. above high-water mark. The skill displayed in a work of this kind is proportioned to the difficulties that were encountered and overcome; and in this view the engineers of the Tay-bridge are deserving of the highest praise. In many respects their resources were put to a severe test, but on no point have they failed. The greatest difficulty that met them arose from the varying character of the bed of the river, which compelled them to adapt both the foundations and the superstructure of the piers to the different conditions that presented themselves. Near the shore the rocky bed was easily reached, and on it piers were raised built of brick throughout. Further out it was found that the rock suddenly shelved away to a great depth under clay and gravel. There, the cylinders, filled with concrete, which form the foundation were made of much greater diameter, and above the high-water level iron pillars were substituted for brick. The lattice-work girders, as well as the cylinders were prepared on shore and were floated out on rafts to their position. The only serious accident that occurred in connection with the undertaking was the bursting of a cylinder within which men were excavating; the water rushed in, and six of the workmen were drowned. The platform on the top of the bridge, which carries the single line of rails, is only 16ft. wide. The bridge does not form a straight line; towards the north end it curves towards Dundee. The whole structure has a remarkably light and graceful appearance. It is so lofty, and yet so narrow, that when seen from the heights above Newport it seems like a mere cable strung from shore to shore; and seeing a train puffing along it for the first time excited the same kind of nervousness that must have been felt by those that watched Blondin crossing the Niagra. Fragile as its appearance is, however, there is no doubt of its thorough stability. The total cost of the bridge was £350,000. The cost of the Britannia tubular bridge, which, however, has a double line of rails, was £601,865. The Tay-bridge was designed by Mr. Thomas Bouch, C.E. Mr. A. Grothe was the superintending engineer; and the contractors were Messrs. Hopkins, Gilkes and Co. of Middlesborough.


McGonagall’s Address to the Tay Bridge: the poem that made him famous


Bouch was awarded the Freedom of the Burgh of Dundee.  More was to come when Queen Victoria crossed the bridge a year later.  Her diary for Friday, June 20 1879 reads:


We reached the Tay Bridge station at six. Immense crowds everywhere, flags waving in every direction, the whole population out; but one's heart was too sad for anything. The Provost, splendidly attired, presented an address. Ladies presented beautiful bouquets to Beatrice and me. The last time I was in Dundee was in September 1844, just after Affie's birth, when we landed there on our way to Blair, and Vicky, then not four years old, the only child with us was carried through the crowd by old Renwick. We embarked there also on our way back. We stopped here about five minutes, and then began going over the marvellous Tay Bridge, which is rather more than a mile and a half long. It was begun in 1871. There were great difficulties in laying the foundation, and some lives were lost. It was finished in 1878. Mr. Bouch, who was presented at Dundee, was the engineer. It took us, I should say, about eight minutes going over. The view was very fine.


Thomas Bouch travelled south to receive his knighthood at Windsor Castle a week later.


In his history of the North British Railway, Hamilton Ellis remarks that the Illustrated London News engraving of July 5 1879 shows Queen Victoria leaning quite far out-of-window “a most improper gesture, if she did so –and one wonders if this was to show herself to the loyal boys of her training ship Mars, or to make certain that she was on a bridge at all, for the structure was so narrow that, except in the middle high girders, one could sit in a carriage and see nothing but the wide waters on either side.” Passengers marvelled at the slender lines of the single-track bridge, but locomotive men began to report that it swayed alarmingly from side to side on occasion. Even worse, Henry Noble, retained by contractors Hopkins, Gilkes to check the bridge, was finding loose ties and packing them at his own expense without informing Bouch.



Meanwhile Sir Thomas was busy making plans with contractor William Arrol for an even more ambitious project for the North British Railway to replace their train ferry across the Firth of Forth from Granton to Burntisland with a magnificently economical suspension bridge at Queensferry. He had reached the point of laying a foundation stone there in September 1878.  Then the fateful storm of Sunday, 28 December intervened. The wind howled.  On the Tay, HMS Mars recorded wind force of 10 to 11 on the Beaufort scale, with gusts higher.  The North British Railway’s Sunday mail train made its return trip north from the Forth ferry at Burnisland. Buffeted by the wind, the carriages pulled on to the slender unprotected deck of the Tay Bridge at 7.14 pm, heading across the river to Dundee with a crew of four and eighty passengers aboard. The train’s red tail-light vanished in the high girders and did not reappear beyond them. The telegraph line had gone dead. On HMS Mars the sailor on watch saw the train lights and the high girders disappear after a gust of wind, and the Mars put out its boat in the storm to take the terrible news to Dundee. 




After the great storm: the high girders are gone


McGonagall’s salute to the Tay Bridge Disaster


No survivors were found and the questions raised at the inquiry into the disaster brought Bouch’s career to a halt. His hopes of being allowed to rebuild the Tay Bridge proved forlorn.  Bouch was released from the service of the North British Railway in July 1880 and by August his doctor had ordered him to take a period of complete rest. Despite an apparent recovery after two months of illness, Bouch took a turn for the worse, catching a cold which led to his death on 30th October 1880 at his house at Moffat in the Scottish southern uplands.


After careful tests the Tay Bridge was rebuilt alongside the remains of the old structure by Barlow and Arrol to a more substantial double track design, using new piers and supports but with many of the original girders.


McGonagall’s Address to the second Tay Bridge




More LIVES & fragments  

 Early fears of Sunday travel -Robert Skeldan & the railway emigrants





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