On a nice sunny evening the Esplanade is a great place to go for a walk or a cycle. Or perhaps you would prefer a moonlit stroll like the people in the picture above. You can take in some fresh air and admire the views. For those of you who don’t know, the esplanade is now the part of Riverside Drive that runs between Discovery Point and the Tay Bridge. This promenade was a major civil engineering project for the Victorians. So why was it built?
The story begins with the railway mania of the 1840s which saw many new companies formed . The Dundee and Perth Railway was one of those companies. The railway opened for business on the 22nd of May 1847. A feature of this railway at Dundee was that it ran along an embankment out in the river. There was a flaw to this design though. If the railway needed to expand in the future where would the land come from to expand into? We find the answer to this question in the 1860s.
The railways were vital to Dundee’s expanding economy but there were problems. The Caledonian Railway, who were now the owners of the Dundee and Perth Railway, needed a new station. The one they had lacked space for goods trains and needed extra capacity. The North British Railway also needed a large area of ground for a railyard to store their coal and freight wagons. They didn’t even have a railway station of their own in Dundee. Instead they shared facilities at the Dundee East and Dundee West stations. It was an arrangement that was expensive and compromised their business.
Both the Caledonian and North British railway companies turned to the River Tay to solve their problems. If they could reclaim land from the river they would have the space they needed to expand their railways. By December 1866, the railway companies had made their move to resolve the problem. Both companies put Bill before Parliament which set out their plans. They also claimed the right to use the river bed.
Dundee Town Council realised that a sea wall was essential on many fronts. If placed in the right position it would prevent the build-up of silt at the harbour, great for the Harbour Trust. The railway companies would get the land they needed to expand and grow their business. The Town Council would get a grand esplanade that would add to the civic amenities of the town. Everybody wins.
It made sense that the Town Council talk to all parties concerned to reach an agreement. Their proposal was simple. The railway companies would pay for the land they needed. Add this money to that from the Harbour Trust and it would pay for the construction of the esplanade.
The Caledonian Railway Company were the first to sign the agreement on the 26th of February 1867. The North British Railway Company and the Harbour Trust followed a couple of weeks later on the 11th of March. The Council now had the green light to build the seawall and esplanade. The Dundee Reclamation, Esplanade and Street Bill received Royal Assent on the 13th of July 1868. The Town Council wasted no time in progressing matters. On the 5th of August the Esplanade Committee agreed to the preparation of plans.
In January 1869 the Council invited tenders to build the esplanade. The estimates ranged from £63,000 to £23,000. The tender put forward by Hugh Kinghorn from Leith won him the contract on the 24th of February. As you might guess, his estimate was one of the cheapest. He signed a contract for building the Esplanade on 19th March 1868, with an adjusted estimate of costs of £23,374 12s 8d. He had 3 years to complete the job.
Eighteen months later in December 1870 all was not well at the work site and by early January 1871 work had stopped. It turns out Kinghorn didn’t do his sums properly and under estimated the costs of the contract. Facing huge losses he made his excuses and left the site. The Town Council were not happy about this.
James Leslie was appointed the arbiter and delivered his decision on 14th January 1871. Kinghorn was told to get back to work and complete the esplanade. The instruction was ignored and on the 3rd of March the Council ended Kinghorn’s contract. Kinghorn would later have to pay compensation for leaving the job.
The hunt for a new contractor was on. Adverts seeking tenders for completing the esplanade appeared in the newspapers in June 1871. The Town Council met on the 12th of July and of the 5 tenders received they chose Robert Laing from Dundee. Laing’s quote for the job was the cheapest at £18,892. Laing, despite a few setbacks, successfully completed the esplanade in July 1875. With building works completed the Property Committee on the 14th of July agreed to open the esplanade to the public.