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Nunthorpe man ruined by Tay Bridge disaster

Then in 1879 at about 7-15 pm on a stormy night in December the rail bridge spanning the Firth of Tay, collapsed, plunging a train and its 75 passengers into the dark waters beneath. There were no survivors.

As the news sent shock waves through the Victorian engineering profession.
The disaster came as a hammer blow to a well respected Nunthorpe business man

William Innes Hopkins was a flamboyant figure who enjoyed the good life. He was a member of the Tees Conservancy Commission and a Middlesbrough Town Councillor and had been elected mayor for two years running. He had married well, to his second wife Miss Everald Hustler of Acklam Hall at a ceremony attended by the families of all the local gentry.

The Hustlers and their ancestors had occupied Acklam Hall for close on three hundred years and it is thought that King Charles 1 was entertained beneath its superb plasterwork ceilings.

Understandably Hopkins needed to establish similar standards for his bride and spared no expense in building the impressive Grey Towers hall at Nunthorpe with its extensive gardens and lake.

Hopkins had arrived on Teesside in 1850 to manage a fuel plant and three years later had met a Mr Snowdon. Together they formed the Teesside Ironworks which eventually merged to form Hopkins Gilkes & Co. a construction company specialising in bridge buildingas as well as the building of locomotives.

The company suffered a serious blow when a boiler supplying steam to operate the rolling mills exploded. The blast hurled a number of the men into the River Tees and 16 workers were seriously injured by the scalding steam and flying debris. Middlesbrough at that time had a population of 15,000 yet the nearest hospital was at Newcastle and many of the men died on the journey to Tyneside.

Winning the contract to construct the Tay Bridge came as a great relief to the company which was running into financial problems 

The Tay Bridge carried a single railway line from London and Edinburgh to Dundee and Aberdeen and crossed the Tay estuary from Wormit in Fife to the City of Dundee. At the time it was the longest bridge in the world.
On the night of the disaster, a gale force wind was blowing down the estuary at right angles to the bridge which had been opened only nine months previously and passed as safe by the Board of Trade inspectors. 

It had been created by Thomas Bouch who received a knighthood for his design and who was working on the design of the Forth Bridge. But he had failed to make adequate allowance for the wind loading. He had used a wind pressure of only 10 pounds per square foot and yet on his Forth Bridge design, he had increased this calculation to 30 lbs/sq.ft

The Tay bridge was nearly two miles long and consisted of 85 spans including 13 navigation spans. These “high girders” as they were known were 27 ft high with an 88 ft clearance above the high water mark and it was these spans that collapsed under the strength of the wind.

At a subsequent Court of Inquiry, Sir Thomas Bouch was made to shoulder the blame together with Hopkins Gilkes & Co who were accused of grave irregularities at its Wormit foundry on the south of the Tay.

The inquiry concluded ..”had competent persons been appointed to superintend the work there, instead of it being left almost wholly in the hands of a foreman moulder, there can be little doubt that the columns would not have been sent out to the bridge with serious defects. They would also have taken care to see that the bolt holes in the lugs and flanges of the 18 inch columns were cast truly cylindrical, or if that could not have been done, thay would have drawn the attention of the engineer. But that does not appear to have been done. The great object seems to have been to get through the work with little delay as possible without seeing whether it was properly and carefully executed or not “…

It was an indictment that ruined the company. Hopkins as general manager was finished, and in 1880 he became bankrupt, his public life was in ruins. He tried to sell Grey Towers for £30,000 but failed to find a buyer. Finally he and his wife and his small son moved to Norton near Malton North Yorkshire and the house was left empty.

By a twist of fate his son Mostyn Hustler Hopkins inherited Acklam Hall and sold it to Middlesbrough Borough Council who in turn converted it into a grammar school which opened its doors to pupils in 1935.