From the Great Eastern to Terminal 5: (Mis)remembering Industrial Deaths

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 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)


  1. My wife’s Great Great Grandfather, Thomas Hope, is reputed to have had an accident on Great Eastern, after she was launched, by falling down stairs. He died shortly after. We can’t find any record. Any idea of a source to investigate?

    1. Hi John – sorry it took so long to respond(!) I would have thought the death certificate would be the first thing to track down which would have cause of death. Once you have the date you could check local press and perhaps coroners records – Tower Hamlets Archives should be able to advise.

  2. I was the first aider who ran to the scene and tried along with Matthews friend Dan to keep him alive. Obviously that day I shall never forget. I didn’t know Matthew or Parminder as I worked for an entirely different company and Matthew and Parminder fell into our worksite.
    I have been back to T5 since the event and taken my daughter to pray for Matthew, and to be truthful to try and find my peace.
    I shall return again and find this plague as I never knew it existed. Balfours, Laing O’Rourkes or T5 never contacted me after I left the site exactly one year after the accident.
    Thanks for this information Toby, I don’t know why I didn’t search for it earlier.
    Kevin Birrane

    1. I have somehow stumbled across this post and as Mathew was one of my very dear friends I would really like to thank you for everything you tried to do for him. He was one of life’s great people.

      1. Hi Sarah,
        thank you for your reply that is very kind of you.
        I’ve struggled a lot dealing with the accident and Mats death after he was airlifted.
        Not knowing him or being able to pass on my condolences to his family and loved ones and friends has clouded over me.
        Can you please tell his parents, that I did all I possibly could that day and I’m sorry I couldn’t not help more. I looked Mat in the eyes until they shut and held him.
        Thank you.
        Kevin Birrane

        1. Hi Kevin

          I’m so sorry that it has taken me a while to respond. I did not see the reply until today.

          Do you have a number I could reach you on by any chance? I can imagine that you have had a hard time dealing with things and maybe being in touch could help? No problem if you would prefer not to, I would completely understand.


  3. I’ve heard of a ship that was supposedly haunted by the sounds of hammering in the hull. When the ship was scrapped, a body was discovered in the hull (I assume skeleton, I don’t know it conditions in the hull would have mummified the body). It had been rumored that the riveter who disappeared at the time of the ship’s construction had riveted himself in. Upon discovery of the body the salvage crew quit since a murder had also happened in a scuffle between two men. The ship had a terrible history of misfortunes involving death and other matters. I’ve been searching for the name of the ship, hence my landing on your website.

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