This week I had an interesting email exchange with a prospective research student, James Wells, a semi-retired riveter who now lives in Saudi Arabia. He sent me an article on riveting that he wrote which included this paragraph:

When riveting hull plates in place, the hot rivet would be inserted in the relevant hole from inside the hull by the riveters mate, held in place by the “Holder On” with aid of a heavy hammer and closed from the outside by the riveter. I am firmly of the opinion that it is impossible for anybody to be riveted inside a compartment despite regular stories to this affect.

This immediately brought to mind the story of two skeletons, a man and a boy, that were supposed to have been found when Brunel’s SS Great Eastern (once the biggest ship in the world) was broken up on the River Mersey in 1889. The story goes (often mentioned in documentaries) that the nameless pair must have been riveted inside, either alive or after an accident of some kind.

The nearest thing to hard evidence of this that I could find was a reference in a Wikipedia article to Dugan’s The Great Iron Ship which reports that David Duff wrote to the author: They found a skeleton inside the ship’s shell and the tank tops. It was the skeleton of the basher who was missing. Also the frame of the bash boy was found with him. (1)

But this still seems to be hearsay, and doesn’t explain why the adult riveter and the ‘holder on’ would be on the same side of the wall of plate; or why no newspaper reports, records or memorial of the events have been found. The same Wikipedia article (which James has contributed to) also notes that there were inspection hatches which would have allowed access into the superstructure of the ship.

Similar stories are told about the Titanic, the Hoover Dam and I daresay other massive projects of this kind – which led me to wonder why such tales seem to have spread so successfully.

Could it be because many people felt profoundly insignificant in relation to these epically proportioned structures? Perhaps the very idea that people could be lost inside them forever without detection is not so surprising.

And these were dangerous times – fatal industrial accidents were not uncommon, although they were well reported, if not memorialised. Even today there are still more deaths in construction than any other sector (50 fatalities a year in the UK).(2)

Which brings us to a more recent example – this time verifiably true – of someone who died in another massive construction project, this time the Terminal 5 building at Heathrow airport (opened in 2008).

Carpenter Mathew Gilbert, aged 27, fell 17 metres to his death when a faulty concrete slab that he was standing on broke. Another worker, 21 year old Parminder Singh, also fell but survived with serious injuries). The two companies involved were fined £210,000 for not having adequate safety inspection procedures and failing to remove the faulty slabs when they were recalled by the manufacturers some time before the incident.(3)

This tragedy didn’t go unrecorded or unremembered. In fact there are two memorials to Mathew. One is presumably now invisible, a small plaque placed in the bottom of the lift shaft in which he died. The second is rather bizarrely carved in stone a few inches off the ground on the side of the flower beds between the terminal building and the bus station. If you can spot it you have to crouch down to read it.


Terminal 5 memorial
The inscription reads: ‘In memory of Matthew Gilbert 1977-2005. Remembered by everyone who helped build T5’

Presumably this position was chosen to spare the blushes of the negligent companies involved. Soon after the terminal opened I spoke to a construction worker who told me that there was some disappointment amongst his fellow workers that this memorial wasn’t placed somewhere more prominent. It is an unusually half-hearted memorial – personally I have very mixed feelings about it.

I’d be interested in any comments from people who know of other sites where workers who have given their lives to their job have been remembered in some way.

There is a nice list of UK workers memorials here – but it is surprisingly short and many don’t have photographs. If you live near such a memorial, do send a description or picture in to Sheila Pantry’s website so she can develop the list.

3 See and

(all websites viewed 13 October 2011)




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