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Thomas Bouch

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Thomas Bouch

Sir Thomas Bouch
Born (1822-02-25)25 February 1822
Thursby, Cumbria, England
Died 30 October 1880(1880-10-30) (aged 58)
Moffat, Scotland
Nationality British
Engineering career
Engineering discipline Civil engineer
Structural engineer
Institution memberships Institution of Civil Engineers (Associate 1850, Member 1858)
Significant projects Waverley Station, Tay Rail Bridge

Sir Thomas Bouch (; 25 February 1822 – 30 October 1880) was a British railway engineer in Victorian Britain.

He was born in Thursby, near Carlisle, Cumberland, England[1] and lived in Edinburgh. As manager of the Edinburgh and Northern Railway he introduced the first roll-on/roll-off train ferry service in the world. Subsequently as a consulting engineer, he helped develop the caisson and popularised the use of lattice girders in railway bridges. He was knighted after the successful completion of the first Tay Railway Bridge but his name is chiefly remembered for the subsequent Tay Bridge Disaster, in which 75 people are believed to have died as a result of defects in design, construction and maintenance, for all of which Bouch was held responsible. He died within 18 months of being knighted, with his reputation destroyed.

Early career

Bouch's pioneering ferry ramp

Bouch's father (a retired sea-captain) kept the Ship Inn at Thursby and Thomas was educated locally (Thursby and then Carlisle) before at the age of 17 beginning his civil engineering career as assistant to one of the engineers constructing the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway. After a short spell working in Leeds (1844–45) he was for four years one of the Resident Engineers on the Stockton and Darlington, leaving in 1849 to become manager and engineer of the Edinburgh and Northern Railway, one of the precursors of the North British Railway.[1] He introduced the first roll-on roll-off train ferries in the world, across the Firth of Forth from Granton to Burntisland in Fife (3 February 1850.[2]). Others had had similar ideas, but Bouch put them into effect, and did so with an attention to detail (such as design of the ferry slip) which led a subsequent President of the Institution of Civil Engineers[3] to settle any dispute over priority of invention with the observation that "there was little merit in a simple conception of this kind, compared with a work practically carried out in all its details, and brought to perfection."[1]

Railway and bridge designer

Bouch then set up on his own as a railway engineer, working chiefly in Scotland and Northern England. Lines he designed which were actually built included most notably four connecting lines all built by separate companies, which together allowed a direct connection between the West Cumbrian haematite mines and the area served by the Stockton and Darlington (which was behind them):

He made considerable use of lattice girder bridges, both with conventional masonry piers and with iron lattice piers ; the most notable examples of the latter being on the Stainmore line: the Deepdale[6] and Belah Viaducts.[1] A contemporary treatise on iron bridges[7] praised the detailed engineering of the Belah viaduct piers (and described the viaduct as one of the lightest and cheapest of the kind that had ever been erected.)

Elsewhere, Bouch's forte was cheapness, and an ability to construct branch lines at a capital cost that might allow them to pay their way, especially if operated frugally (In 1854 Bouch advised the directors of the Peebles Railway that the company should work the line themselves, as they could do so much more economically than a large undertaking[5]). Examples included branches to St Andrews, to Leven, and to Peebles, the Peebles line being described in his obituary as "long the pattern for cheap construction".[1] This could leave over-optimistic clients with a railway designed and built to a price and not making enough money to support proper maintenance (and hence laying up problems for itself as an accident on the St Andrews Railway[8] showed).

Bouch did the initial survey for the Edinburgh Suburban and Southside Junction Railway, laid out tramway systems in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and London, and designed the Redheugh viaduct a road bridge across the Tyne at the same height as and not far upstream of Stephenson's High Level Bridge. He also designed Hownes Gill Viaduct in Consett, County Durham, which at 700 feet (210 m) long and using a 12-arch design constructed in brick, carried the Stanhope and Tyne Railway 175 feet (53 m) above Hownsgill. Today it forms part of the Sea to Sea Cycle Route.

Bouch returned repeatedly to the problem of bridging the two great East Coast firths. Eventually authorisation was given to bridge both the Tay and the Forth; in both cases Bouch was the engineer selected to design the bridge.

Tay Bridge

Original Tay Bridge from the north
Fallen Tay Bridge from the north

He designed the first Tay Rail Bridge while working for the North British Railway, and the official opening took place in May 1878. Queen Victoria travelled over it in late June 1879, and she awarded him a knighthood in recognition of his achievement. The bridge collapsed on 28 December 1879 when it was hit by strong side winds. A train was travelling over it at the time, and 75 people died.

The subsequent public inquiry revealed that the contractors to the railway company sacrificed safety and durability to save costs. Sloppy working practices such as poor smelting and the re-use of girders dropped into the estuary during construction were factors in the bridge's collapse.

The inquiry concluded that the bridge was "badly designed, badly built, and badly maintained". All of the high girders section fell during the accident, and analysis of the archives has shown that the design of cast iron columns with integral lugs holding the tie bars was a critical mistake. The lugs were composed of cast iron, which is brittle under tension. Many other bridges had been built to a similar design using cast iron columns and wrought iron tie bars, but none used this design detail. Gustave Eiffel built many such bridges in France in the 1860s, some surviving and still carrying railway traffic.

As the engineer, Thomas Bouch was blamed for the collapse of the Tay bridge, his assistant Charles Meik, having merely left an impression that he "was aptly named", implying that he had no great influence over the design and construction.

Aftermath of the disaster

South Esk Viaduct

After the inquiry, Bouch rapidly removed and reinforced similar lugs on the new bridge he had built, the South Esk Viaduct, at Montrose, but after another inspection, the bridge was demolished and replaced.

Tay Bridge

The remains of the original Tay bridge were demolished and replaced by an entirely new design by William Henry Barlow and his son Crawford Barlow. Some of the wrought iron girders were re-used in the new double track bridge by cutting them in half and re-welding to form wider structures for the track. The brick and masonry piers from the old bridge were left as breakwaters for the new piers, which were monocoques of wrought iron and steel.

Forth Bridge

Bouch's design for the Forth Bridge had been accepted and the foundation stone laid, but the project was cancelled due to the Tay Bridge Disaster. One of the piers still remains at the site. A different design was proposed by Sir Benjamin Baker and Sir John Fowler. A cantilever bridge, not a suspension bridge as proposed by Bouch, it was completed in 1890.

Other works

Grave in the Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh

Bouch also seems to have been involved in the design of pleasure piers. He designed Portobello Pier in 1869, which opened in 1871. The structure rusted badly and by 1917 was uneconomic to repair and was demolished.[9]


Thomas Bouch retired to Moffat, "his health", already not good, "more rapidly gave way.. under the shock and distress of mind" caused by the disaster, and he died 30 October 1880 a few months after the public inquiry into the disaster finished.[1] He is buried in Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh. "In his death" said the journal of the Institution of Civil Engineers "the profession has to lament one who, though perhaps carrying his works nearer to the margin of safety than many others would have done, displayed boldness, originality and resource in a high degree, and bore a distinguished part in the later development of the railway system".[1]


  • Shipway, J S, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press (2004)
  • Lewis, Peter R, Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay, Tempus (2004).
  • Rapley, John, Thomas Bouch: The Builder of the Tay Bridge, Tempus (2007)


  1. ^ a b c d e f g
  2. ^ Marshall, John (1989). The Guinness Railway Book. Enfield: Guinness. ISBN 0-85112-359-7
  3. ^ George Parker Bidder; not to be confused with the lawyer (his son)who represented Bouch at the Tay Bridge Inquiry
  4. ^ a b c
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^ a picture of the viaduct under construction [1] gives the clearest idea of what these looked like when done properly
  7. ^
  8. ^ [2]
  9. ^

See also

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