Sir William Arrol was born in Houston in 1839. His father was a cotton-spinner who later became a manager at J & P Coats thread manufacturers in Paisley. The family were not well off and William left school at the age of nine to work in a cotton mill in Johnstone.
Extracts from the accompanying The Greatest Scot television programme are being added to these biographical notes as the programme is broadcast between November 9 and 13. If you live outside the UK, you will not be able to see these, but you may enjoy other videos about some of the subjects which are available via links in the text. Here is a video about the Forth Bridge, which was built by Sir William Arrol.
Factory work was not to William's liking, and at the age of fourteen he started an apprenticeship as a blacksmith with Reids of Paisley. When his apprenticeship was completed, he took the unusual decision to ply his trade in different towns throughout Scotland and England, to gain as varied an experience of his trade as possible.
At the young age of twenty-four, Arrol was appointed foreman in the firm of Laidlaw and Sons, boilermakers of Glasgow. Not content with his rapid rise in his chosen trade, in 1868 Arrol set up in business for himself in Bridgeton, Glasgow, and then in 1871 he founded the Dalmarnock Iron Works in the east end of Glasgow.
A noted innovator, Arrol demonstrated this trait in the first major bridges he constructed. With the iron bridge over the Clyde at Bothwell, Arrol tested out his theory by constructing the bridge on land before rolling it into place as a complete structure. Previously, all bridges had been constructed on site. During the construction of his next bridge, the Caledonian Bridge over the Clyde at the Broomielaw, Arrol invented a mechanical driller and a hydraulic riveter. These inventions saved both time and money.
On a stormy night in December 1879, the new railway bridge over the River Tay in Dundee which had been built by Sir Thomas Bouch, collapsed, sending a train crashing into the water below and killing 75 people. This disaster shocked the nation. The bridge had only been completed 19 months earlier. Arrol was the man selected to build the replacement which opened in 1887 and is still in place today.
Sir Thomas Bouch had been working on plans for a bridge over the Forth but his plans were now scrapped. William Arrol stepped in and built it instead. It opened in 1890. At its opening the Prince of Wales announced that Queen Victoria intended to make William Arrol a knight.
Whether the Forth Bridge or the later Tower Bridge in London, which opened in 1894, is Sir William Arrol's best known achievement will be a source of debate for years to come. For Scots, the Forth Bridge is undoubtedly one of the most iconic structures in the land.
In 1895 Arrol was elected Member of Parliament for South Ayrshire as a Liberal Unionist and served for ten years. He died in 1913 and is buried in Woodside Cemetery, Paisley.