SIR JOHN FOWLER (1817 - 1898) and the FORTH RAIL BRIDGE (1890)

JOHN FOWLER  was born on 15th of July 1817 at Wadsley Hall, near Sheffield, where his father also called John, was a local estate valuer and land-surveyor. There are entries for the family in the Barnsley Poll Book 1835 and in a "transcript of the entry of professions and trades for Ecclesfield in Pigot's Directory of 1834".

His parents were married on Christmas Eve 1815, his mother being Miss Elizabeth Swann, the daughter of William Swann of Dykes Hall. His brothers and sisters were

Two of the sisters married, one to a Mr Whitton who was a railway engineer in New South Wales Australia and the other to a Captain Holmes of Norfolk. The other sister never married  but stopped at home to look after her aging parents. His mother died on 5th June 1858 and his father fourteen years later on 19th August 1872 at the age of 89.

John attended a private school at Whitley Hall Grenoside Sheffield from the age of nine and on leaving he began his career in 1833 as a pupil of John Towlerton Leather*, the engineer of the Sheffield water-works. Showing great promise John moved to London where he spent two years in the offices of Mr Rastrick who was responsible for the construction of the railway line from Sheffield to Manchester. In 1844 John became a consultant engineer, specialising in the fields of railway construction with a special emphasis on railway bridges. Two of his earlier projects were the railroads between Sheffield and Grimsby and London and Brighton, the start of what proved to be a long and illustrious career as one of Britain's leading civil engineers.

Amongst many other projects, he designed much of the London Metropolitan Railway, forerunner of the underground railways, and later served as an engineer in the development of the London subway system. In 1860 he designed the Pimlico Rail Bridge, the first rail bridge over the Thames within the metropolis of London.

By1865 he was elected president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the youngest president who had ever sat in the chair and by 1885 he was made  K.C.M.G, (Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George) by Queen Victoria. Full details of his career can be found in the 1911 Edition Encyclopedia

However his greatest achievement was that together with Benjamin Baker, he designed and built the Forth Rail Bridge (188290) in Scotland, the first major structure made of steel.  

The plans for the Forth Rail Bridge were initially placed with another prominent Victorian engineer Sir Thomas Bouch but at around 7:15 p.m. on the night of 28th December 1879, the central navigation spans of the Tay Bridge collapsed into the Firth of Tay at Dundee, taking with them one train, six carriages and 75 people to their death. It was the worst structural engineering failure in the British Isles. The designer of  the Tay Bridge was Sir Thomas Bouch. The disaster brought an immediate halt to work on Bouch's Forth Rail Bridge with just part of one pier built.

One of the consequences of the collapse of the Tay Bridge was that the Forth Rail Bridge was to be designed using the most thorough structural analysis possible. Due to the problems with brittleness of the material and the inherent conservatism on the part of the Board of Trade, steel bridges were initially viewed with suspicion but, in the light of the disaster, a consortium of rail companies finally commissioned the engineering partnership of John Fowler and Benjamin Baker, with Sir William Arrol, (of Tancred-Arrol) as chief contractor, to design and build the cantilever bridge over the Firth of Forth. 

Forth Rail Bridge

"the supremest specimen of all ugliness", William Morris

"a testament to robust and conservative over-engineering"

The completely redesigned bridge that was started in 1883 remains one of the world's most distinctive structures and certainly can be classed as one of the wonders of the industrial world. The Bridge was officially opened by Edward, Prince of Wales on 4th March 1890.  but the bridge was first used on 21st January 1890. when two 1000ft long test trains each comprising a locomotive and 50 wagons, and each weighing 900 tons, rolled onto the bridge side by side from the south entrance. It passed the test with flying colours
There is no doubt that even nowadays the Bridge is a massive and remarkably imposing structure. It was built as three separate double cantilevers. When each had been constructed, they were linked together by 350ft long girder spans joined to the main structure of the bridge by huge pins. The whole bridge is balanced by 1000 ton counterweights on the outside of the outer cantilever structures. The Forth Rail Bridge has an overall length of over 8,000ft. The towers reach a height of 361ft and trains cross the river at a height of 158ft. 

The Forth Rail Bridge was

In 1890 John Fowler was created a baronet the year the Forth Rail Bridge opened. He died peacefully in Bournemouth on the 20th of November 1898 at the age of 81 after a long period of ill health

His funeral was covered in depth by the London Times



1. John Towlerton Leather (1804 - 1885) born Beeston Park, Yorkshire John was the designer of the sea-forts off Spithead and the founder, in 1864, of The Hunslet Engine Co. He lived at Leventhorpe Hall Swillington Yorkshire at one time. There is a brass plate in the church of Belford St Mary Northumberland  which states that the bells of the church were donated to the Church by John's son in memory of his father. 


1911 Edition Encyclopedia

Scottish Tourist Board

The Life of Sir John Fowler - Thomas Mackay (John Murray, London 1900)

Old Sheffield - Its Streets, People and Stories by J. Edward Vickers (1970)

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This page was last updated on 03/04/14 16:22