Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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It all started with a sheep’s head. A boiled sheep’s head. Or, more accurately, a singed and boiled sheep’s head. It might not sound appetizing but there was a time when a singed and boiled sheep’s head was considered something of a delicacy by the Scots. It was particularly popular on the Sabbath.

Here’s how you cook it. Take one saucepan, fill with water, whack in a sheep's head and boil into as broth. Yummy.

And yet it wouldn’t be quite so yummy if you spooned a mouthful of fur or wool into your mouth. So, as any boiled sheep’s head aficionado will tell you, the trick is to singe all the wool and fur off the head beforehand.

And who better to do that than a blacksmith with a red-hot poker.

That is how William Arrol got his break. As a teenage blacksmith’s apprentice in Scotland in the 1850s, he became the man to go to for anyone with a craving for boiled sheep’s head. He was so adept at singeing that he became known as ‘The Barber’.

One wonders whether anyone who saw young ‘Wully’ Arrol at work imagined he would go on to become perhaps the greatest bridge builder of his generation. It seems unlikely. And yet by the time of his death in 1913, Arrol had completed several of the biggest civil engineering projects in history, as well as constructing what was then the tallest building in Dublin City, namely the Guinness Storehouse. The Storehouse is one of several structures in Ireland which stand as a legacy to Arrol’s remarkable life.

Given that the theme for the 2015 National Heritage Week was ‘Industrial Heritage’, it was therefore most apt that the room where I was invited to give a talk at its launch was the Arrol Suite in the aforesaid Storehouse. Most of my short talk was about Arrol himself.

William Arrol was born in 1839 in Houston, a small town about 16m west of Glasgow. His father worked as a cotton-spinner at a thread factory in nearby Paisley and, after leaving school aged 9, Arrol went to work in a cotton mill in nearby Johnstone. He started out making bobbins, the spindly cylinders around which thread or yarn is wound.

After five years, of bobbin-making, he became an apprentice blacksmith in 1853 and it was at this time that he became such a deft singer of sheep’s head. * Such extracurricular activity earned the young Scot enough extra shillings to attend night school where, always a diligent student, he excelled at mechanics and hydraulics.

By his early 20s, ‘The Barber’ of Paisley had been headhunted to work for a Glaswegian bridge builder. He greatly impressed his employers by inventing a new mechanical drill and hydraulic riveter.

In 1872, the 33-year-old set up his own company in East Glasgow, the Dalmarnock Iron Works, which mainly focused on the manufacture of girders and boilers.

At this time, one of the big conundrums facing the Scots was how to bring the railway lines across the mighty estuaries of the Forth and Tay rivers. Bridges were the obvious answer but these bridges had to be right. And the one they had built across the River Tay wasn’t at all right. Opened in 1878 and hailed for its low cost and light, airy structure, it collapsed during high gales over Christmas 1879, sending one train, six carriages and 75 people to their doom in the icy waters of the Tay.

In the wake of the Tay Railway Bridge Disaster, Arrol was whistled up to reconstruct a replacement bridge. He did this with immense precision, installing a dozen steam cranes on site, reclaiming land, laying down railway lines, sidings, workshops, jetties and then bringing in the girders.

His bridge across the Tay was such a success that he was quickly commissioned to build another one north of Edinburgh. The Forth Railway Bridge was to be made not of iron but from a relatively new material called steel and it would also be the world’s first steel super-structure. Indeed, when Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) hammered home the final rivet (which was made of gold) in 1890, it was also the World’ Biggest Railway Bridge.

The Forth Bridge, which opened 125 years ago, is an absolute beauty. It looks like it’s made of Meccano and yet this cantilevered gem is still in use today, apparently carrying nearly 200 trains daily on the main Edinburgh to Aberdeen line. In July 2015 it was granted UNESCO World Heritage status, prompting Clydesdale Bank to put Arrol’s portrait on the pioneering plastic £5 notes which they released earlier this year.

Having successfully completed the Tay and Forth bridges – the two biggest projects in British civil engineering history up to that time - Arrol became exceedingly popular with bridge building contractors across the British Empire. He provided all the steel for Tower Bridge, the Gothic towered bridge in London, which was built of steel and then clad in granite and Portland stone. He was also involved in constructing the Nile Bridge in Egypt, the Hawkesbury Bridge in Australia and all the bridges along the Manchester Ship Canal.

Arrol was a workaholic who arose at 5am to be at his office by 6pm. He racked up an enormous amount of ‘train miles’ shunting between his home in Glasgow and places such as Edinburgh, Dundee and London to which he frequently took the overnight sleeper. Such a lifestyle would have been next to impossible if Arrol was a family man but tragically his wife Elizabeth was declared insane early on in their marriage and so the only babies he was to have were made of steel and iron.

He was an excellent organizer with a keen eye on delegation, particularly with his very capable brother James Arrol who ran the Ironworks whenever he was away. He also developed what he called a ‘one-man principle’ by which each employee was given responsibility for ensuring the success of the specific aspect of a job in their brief. There was no room for idle minds, blame-throwers or those who lacked initiative.

And yet he was also regarded as a good employer, championing the riveters, painters, pontoon men, girder men and such like who built his bridges. He established a fund to cover doctor’s fees, compensation and insurance for anyone injured whole working for him, while he also laid on an annual festival for his employees complete with singers, musicians and comedians.

Arrol was very active in Ireland. In 1908 Harland and Wolff contracted his company to built an immense steel gantry at their Belfast shipyard. Known as the Arrol Gantry, it was used for the construction of three new super-liners, including the Titanic.

He also built the Barrow Rail Bridge across the Barrow Estuary between Counties Waterford and Wexford, which was the third longest bridge in Britain or Ireland when completed in 1906.

At about this time he was commissioned by Guinness to build a new fermenting house where the wort (ie: the liquor from brewing the malt) could be fermented for several days with brewer's yeast to turn sugar into alcohol. Completed in 1910 and designed by A.H. Hignett, the 7-storey Guinness Storehouse was apparently the first steel framed multi-storied building constructed in Britain or Ireland. The Ritz Hotel in London was the next.

It was built in the avant garde Chicago Style, with steel girders forming the main structure and all that interior steelwork remains wonderfully exposed today. The exterior was clad in granite, red brick and crenellated parapets to give it a convincing old world effect.

Arrol died in 1913 aged 74, having served 11 years as a Liberal Unionist MP and been knighted by Queen Victoria in 1890. By that time the Dalmarnoch Ironworks employed 5000 men and was the biggest girder constructor in the world.

The company continued to produce work for Ireland after his death. In the Dublin Docklands, it installed the pair of Scherzer rolling lift bridges still extant at the entrance to the Custom House Docks. These were based on an innovative design patented by Chicago engineer William Scherzer in the 1890s.

Less successful was the Loopline Bridge in central Dublin which carries the railway line across the River Liffey from Pearse Station to Connolly Station. It is by no means a bad-looking bridge. In many ways it’s an epic reminder of the latter days of the Industrial Age. Unfortunately, its location is the problem because it completely cut off the hitherto splendid view of the Custom House from O'Connell Bridge, leading ‘Big Jim’ Larkin to lambast it as ‘the foulest thing that ever disgraced the city.’

At any rate, hopefully you will recall some of Sir William Arrol’s amazing achievements next time you’re tucking into a bowl of boiled sheep’s head soup.

* The sheep’s head reference comes from 'Confusion to Our Enemies: Selected Journalism of Arnold Kemp (1939-2002)’, edited by Jackie Kemp (Neil Wilson Publishing, 2013). It is also cited in 'The Arrol, Arroll and Arrell families’ by John Arrol (Arrol House Publishers, Danville, California: 1994) at http://archive.org/stream/arrolarrollarrel00arro/arrolarrollarrel00arro_djvu.txt