Sir William Arrol lived from 1839 to 1913. He was a civil engineer who become one of the foremost bridge builders of the 1800s, responsible in particular for the iconic Forth Bridge. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Arrol was born in Houston in Renfrewshire, and at the age of 9 started work in a cotton mill. Four years later he began training as a blacksmith, meanwhile studying at night school in a range of subjects such as mechanics and hydraulics. In 1863 at the age of 24, he took up a post with a bridge-building company in Glasgow. Nine years later, in 1872, he established his own company based in the east end of Glasgow, the Dalmarnock Iron Works.
Arrol's breakthrough came in 1878 with the award of a contract for the building of a bridge over the River Clyde for the Caledonian Railway Company. Meanwhile 1878 was also the year in which Thomas Bouch completed the Tay Bridge, which had been under construction since 1871. Daringly engineered, the Tay Bridge stood for just over a year before collapsing while being crossed by a train on 28 December 1879, with the loss of at least 46 lives.
At the time of the collapse of the Tay Bridge, Bouch had just started building a rail bridge across the River Forth. Work stopped immediately while an enquiry into the Tay Bridge disaster was held. This concluded that Bouch's engineering was simply too daring, and that the quality of the work and materials was also a problem. In 1882 the contract for a replacement Tay Bridge was awarded to William Arrol. This was completed in 1887, and still carries trains across the River Tay today. Meanwhile, Arrol was also awarded the contract to build the Forth Bridge. The result, which opened on 4 March 1890, remains one of the engineering wonders of the world, though since the opening of the Forth Road Bridge it tends to be referred to as the Forth Rail Bridge.
Renamed "Sir William Arrol & Co" to reflect Sir William's knighthood in 1890, his company went on to produce bridges and other structures around the world. The best known outside Scotland is certainly Tower Bridge, over the Thames in London, which opened in 1894. Sir William was also responsible for the Nile Bridge in Egypt and the Hawkesbury Bridge in Australia. He also built the Arrol Gantry at the Harland & Wolff Shipyards in Belfast. This were used to help build the SS Titanic and her two sister ships.
Sir William was elected as the Liberal Member of Parliament for South Ayrshire in 1895, and served as an MP until 1906. He died in 1913 at his estate at Seafield near Ayr. His company, Sir William Arrol & Co, carried on until 1969, when it was taken over by Clarke Chapman, a Tyneside-based engineering company.