Disaster at Camperdown Docks

The Victorian era was a time of huge change and transformation. It was a time of technological, scientific and economic revolution. It was an era of iron steamships, the railways and magnificent new buildings and bridges. It was also the era of thundering machinery which powered the industrial revolution. Victorian Britain was leading the world.

But not everything they did went according to plan. Dundee experienced its fair share of Victorian engineering disasters. The Tay Bridge disaster in December 1879 immediately springs to mind. But very few people are aware of the disaster at Camperdown Dock in October 1861.

Within the Harbour Trust collection  is a “Daily Journal” written by George Langlands (Ref: GD/DH/C1/20-21). Langlands was the Inspector of Works for the Harbour Trust. His journal begins on Monday 4th  May 1857 and is a weekly account of the work to build Camperdown Dock.

George Langlands Daily Journal
George Langlands Daily Journal of the works at Camperdown Docks (Ref: GD/DH/C1/20)

On 2nd of May 1857 Carstairs, Mitchell & Company signed a contract with the Harbour Trust  to build the new dock. The terms of the contract were clear; complete the construction of Camperdown Dock on or before 1st of May 1861. For every day the construction ran late a penalty of £10 was payable – that’s about £850 today.

From the very beginning the project was in difficulty and running behind schedule. After signing the contract nothing happened for over a month. It wasn’t until the 15th of June that the contractors started work on site.  There weren’t enough men with the necessary skills to build the dock on the workforce. And it didn’t help that the original design specifications were often ignored. May 1861 came and went and the dock was not yet complete.

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The entry in the journal showing that the collapsed wall brought down part of the sewer

In early October 1861 the dock wall began to shift and bulge. On the morning of the 6th the dock wall collapsed taking with it part of Dundee’s common sewer. The town’s sewage was now spewing into the dock. Passers by described the water as being inky-black. Despite the nature of the incident it soon became a sight to see for the public. A millworker, a Miss Rose Ann Forrester, got a little too close to the action and slipped into the dock. Now covered in sewage, she was quickly plucked from the water, but was left to walk home by herself.

It was a dire situation that needed urgent action. The Harbour Trust moved quickly and took control of the entire dock construction site. Carstairs, Mitchell & Company were out on their ear. With feathers ruffled they threatened legal action. It was a crude attempt to shift the blame for the disaster at Camperdown Dock onto the Harbour Trust. The Harbour Trust was having none of it and stood firm. If Carstairs, Mitchell & Company wanted a fight in court they would get one.

The collapse of the dock was the last straw for Carstairs, Mitchell & Company. The company was already facing heavy financial penalties for being months behind schedule. The collapse of the dock spelled complete financial ruin. To add to their woes further defects appeared in the masonry around the lock on the 22nd of January 1862 – the masonry wall was sinking!

George Langlands Journal Entry for 22 January 1862

Carstairs, Mitchell & Company wrote to the Harbour Trust on the 21st of February 1862. In their letter they proposed having all their differences settled under the arbitration of an eminent engineer. The Harbour Trust agreed and the process of arbitration began on the 24th of February 1863. It was a complicated and protracted affair which concluded on the 24th of June 1865.

Carstairs, Mitchell & Company failed to secure the favourable outcome they had hoped for. We have found no evidence of them carrying out work after 1865 so can only assume that the failure at Camperdown Docks caused the business to fold.

In the meantime, work to complete Camperdown Dock continued. The labours of the Harbour Trust ended with the ceremonial opening of Camperdown Dock on Thursday the 20th of July 1865 – 4 years behind schedule!

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The Camperdown Dock walls today

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