Sun, Steel & Spray - A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge

Sun, Steel & Spray

A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge

The following extended feature is adapted from 'Sun, Steel & Spray - A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge', researched and written by Peter Roberts and first published in 2011. The book is available to order online through Amazon and specialist book suppliers.

The Bridge Builders

The first group of specially selected engineers were sent by Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company in early 1904 to prepare for the construction process. Including Imbault and his chief assistant engineer, Mr A Prince, they travelled by steam-liner from the United Kingdom to Cape Town in March 1904, and then by passenger train to Bulawayo.

“In the first week of March 1904, Mr Imbault, who had returned to England in October... and the first detachment of English workmen, started from England for the Falls. We travelled from Cape Town to Bulawayo in the train de luxe, which is wonderfully comfortable and rather upsets the ideas of those who come to Africa expecting to have to rough it. There are many trains in Europe which would suffer badly in comparison.” (Prince, 1906)

This was followed by an uncomfortable journey to Victoria Falls that included travelling on construction trains to the railhead and the remaining 56 kilometres by Zeederberg coach. “The post cart trip of about thirty-five miles occupied two days instead of ten hours, as we had expected and provided for.” (Prince, 1906)

A second group of about 30 construction engineers appear to have travelled to the Falls via Beira on the east coast. One of the group, Arthur Frederick Davison, recalled travelling through Umtali and Salisbury before arriving in Bulawayo, where they appear to have spent some time, perhaps awaiting the completion of the railway line and transportation of the steelwork sections of the Bridge to the Falls. Mr Davidson was among many who remained after the completion of the Bridge to work on the continuation of the railway line north and eventually settled in Northern Rhodesia. Davison later recalled:

“The story of the Falls Bridge should be written for the benefit of the thousands of visitors... Mr Prince, second engineer in charge, a fine and honest man, Charlie Beech, Charlie Brooks, Longbottom, are all names that should be preserved. If they had been in a cricket team or soccer team they would have been, but since they were only a crowd of hard-working and hard-drinking bridge builders who created a vision of Rhodes into reality and gave access to Northern Rhodesia and the Katanga, they have had no write-up. They put up with conditions that were, to say the least, very primitive, and it says wonders for all the men engaged on the construction - quite a lot of men were later engaged in Africa, mostly in Kimberley - that they remained to see the job finished.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, January 1952)

The handful of engineers named in references and reports include Mr Charles (Charlie) Albert Victor Beech, foreman for the construction; Mr Howard Schofield Longbottom, responsible for all the plant equipment used during construction (electrical, mechanical, hydraulic and pneumatic) and who also later took over as Bridge foreman; Mr Chalmers, who operated the specialist electrical transporter known as the Blondin; and Mr E D Peile, who was involved in a tragic accident during construction whilst operating one of the construction cranes. Mr Beech also settled in the country, and is recorded travelling north after the construction of the Bridge with “Freddy Binloss, Big Charlie Osborne (there were two Charlie Osborne’s) and another fellow who died en route and was buried in some lonely spot” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, July 1953).

Others whose names have been recorded include Mr I A Powell, Mr Rutherford and Mr McEvoy, who were all also involved in the rebuilding of the top deck and reinforcing of the Bridge in 1929 (Powell, 1930). Mr Powell also refers to a Mr Perch, involved during the original construction of the Bridge.

They were a colourful bunch and no doubt accurately described by a visiting hunter, Mr J W B White, as “the most extraordinary collection of cosmopolitan toughs I have encountered anywhere.”

Builders of the Victoria Falls Bridge

Builders of the Victoria Falls Bridge

Imbault established his base of operations on the north bank, known alternatively as the Bridge Engineer’s, Imbault’s or Salmon’s Camp, and where the majority of the Cleveland Bridge engineers and workmen were based. Captain Ernest Harry Lindsell Salmon was the Rhodesian government transport officer and responsible for ensuring the camp was prepared to the necessary standard. Accommodation was also provided for the African labourers, but before being occupied one source recorded that they “...unfortunately burnt down, owing to the fusing of some electric wires, and had to be re-built... they are of a highly inflammable nature, and were burnt to the ground in a few minutes, together with all they contained.” (The Engineer, April 1905)

Conditions for the construction workers must have been difficult, with the European men unaccustomed to the temperature and humidity. Several of the workmen had to leave on account of bad health, suffering from malaria, fever, and dysentery. One visitor to the Falls in June 1904, Mr George Pallet, recorded:

“The men here have to work under great difficulties, owing to the continual spray from the Falls. Sometimes it is falling over them continuously, and they have to work in oilskins. Their pay is £18 per month and rations - not much for this part of the world - and considering the hardships and sickness they have to put up with. They all say that as soon as the time they signed on for is up, they will get back to England.” (Bendigo Advertiser, September 1904)

It was even rumoured that in October 1904 an attempt had even been made to sabotage the foundations of the Bridge with dynamite, allegedly due to disaffection among the workers (Rhodesia Railways Magazine, August 1955).

The engineers were assisted by an estimated 400 African labourers over the period of construction, although the average number working on the Bridge was about 200. Labourers were paid from £3 to just 10 shillings a month.

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A History of the Victoria Falls Bridge

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