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Thursday, 28 October 2010

Dreadful Accident on the Tay Bridge...

I feel that most of the posts on this blog so far have been heavily linked to London, as that is my main area of Victorian interest and I live fairly close to the capital. But, today I am spreading my wings a little, and looking into one of the darkest days in the recent history of Scotland – and indeed, Britain – the Tay Bridge Disaster.

When it was built in 1878, the Tay Rail Bridge that spanned the Firth of Tay between Dundee and Wormit in Scotland, was considered a marvel of engineering. Designed by architect, Thomas Bouch, the bridge was fabricated using ten million bricks, four thousand tons of cast iron and fifteen thousand casks of cement.

However, eighteen months after the marvelous bridge opened, on the stormy night of December 28th 1879 the bridge collapsed as a passenger train crossed it, plunging into the freezing Firth of Tay and killing all 75 people on board.

The exact cause of the collapse has never been discovered, though, at the time Bouch – who had received a knighthood upon the bridge’s completion – was heavily criticized for not allowing for strong enough winds when designing the bridge, for allowing poor quality girders to be used in the construction (there was some evidence that imperfect castings were disguised from the (very inadequate) quality control inspection) These were tested for the Inquiry by David Kirkaldy and proved to break at only about 20 long tons rather than the expected load of 60 long tons, causing the entire mid-section of the bridge to become destabilized during the storm and indeed recent research has suggested that the cast iron used on parts of the structure was too soft.

Below is the disaster as reported in The Times the following day:

Dreadful Accident on the Tay Bridge
Loss of Passenger Train
Dundee, Sunday Midnight
To-night a heavy gale swept over Dundee and a portion of the Tay bridge was blown down while a train from Edinburgh due at 7.15 was passing. It is believed that the train is in the water, but the gale is still so strong that a steamboat has not yet been able to reach the bridge. The train was duly signalled from Fife as having entered the bridge at 7.14. It was seen running along the rails, and then suddenly was observed a flash of fire. The opinion was that the train left the rails, and went over the bridge. Those who saw the incident repaired immediately to the Tay-bridge station at Dundee and informed the station master of what they had seen. He immediately put himself in communication with the man in charge of the signal-box at the north end of the bridge. The telegraph wires are stretched across the bridge, but when the instrument was tried it was soon seen that the wires were broken.
Mr. Smith, the station-master and Mr. Roberts, locomotive superintendent, determined, notwithstanding the fierce gale, to walk across the bridge as far as possible from the north side, with the view of ascertaining the extent of the disaster. They were able to get out a considerable distance, and the first thing that caught their eye was the water spurting from a pipe which was laid across the bridge for the supply of Newport, a village on the south side, from the Dundee reservoirs. Going a little further, they could distinctly see by the aid of the strong moonlight that there was a large gap in the bridge caused by the fall, so far as they could discern, of two or three of the largest spars. They thought, however, that they observed a red light on the south part of the bridge, and were of the opinion that the train had been brought to a standstill on the driver noticing the accident. This conjecture has, unfortunately, been proved incorrect. At Broughtyferry, four miles from the bridge, several mail bags have come ashore, and there is no doubt that the train is in the river. No precise information as to the number of passengers can be obtained, but it is variously estimated at from 150 to 200.
The Provost and a number of leading citizens of Dundee started at half-past 10 o'clock in a steam-boat for the bridge, the gale being moderated; but they have not yet returned.
Monday, 1.30 A.M.
The scene at the Tay-bridge station to-night is simply appalling. Many thousand persons are congregated around the buildings, and strong men and women are wringing their hands in despair. On the 2d of October 1877, while the bridge was in course of construction, one of the girders was blown down during a gale similar to that of to-day, but the only one of the workmen lost his life. The return of the steamboat is anxiously awaited.
The Times, 29th December 1879

In an enquiry held to establish the cause of the collapse, clear evidence was heard that the central structure had been deteriorating for months before the accident. The maintenance inspector, Henry Noble, claims that he heard the joints of the wrought-iron tie-bars "chattering" a few months after the bridge opened in June 1878, a sound indicating that the joints had loosened. Noble did not attempt to re-tighten the joints, but hammered shims (thin sheets) of iron between them in an attempt to stop the rattling.
However, the problem continued until the collapse of the High Girders. It indicated that the centre section was unstable to lateral movement, something observed by painters working on the bridge in the summer of 1879. Passengers on north-bound trains complained about the strange motion of the carriages, but this was, apparently, ignored by the bridge's owners, the North British Railway.

Tay Bridge Today
The Lord Provost of Dundee had reportedly timed trains on the bridge, and found they were travelling at about 40 mph – well in excess of the official limit of 25 mph.

The enquiry destroyed Bouch's professional reputation, and the contract for the new Forth Bridge was awarded to William Arrol & Co. using designs by Benjamin Baker and John Fowler. Bouch died within a year of the disaster.
To this day, the collapse of the Tay Bridge remains the worst structural disaster in British history, and the lessons learned from it proved a major influence on the way bridges were built afterwards – particularly the replacement Tay Bridge which was built alongside the remains of the original – and the much larger Forth Rail Bridge near Edinburgh.

On the picture above can be seen the re-built Tay Bridge, the foundations of the old bridge run alongside the new in a fitting tribute to its predecessor.

The last word on this subject I will allow to the Scottish poet William McGonagall, who, in 1880 wrote a poem about the tragedy. Although he states there were 90 victims, there were only 75.

The Tay Bridge Disaster

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

'Twas about seven o'clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clods seem'd to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem'd to say-
"I'll blow down the Bridge of Tay."

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers' hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
"I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay."

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sught,
And the passengers' hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov'd most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov'd slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o'er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill'd all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav'd to tell the tale
How the disaster happen'd on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of thSilv'ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

For a far more detailed and informative read about the disaster, see this website, which gives lots of details about the investigation too.

Also, if you prefer to read upon paper than on screen, then try these:

High Girders: Tay Bridge Disaster, 1879 by John Prebble,

The Bridge is Down: Dramatic Eye-witness Accounts of the Tay Bridge Disaster: of 1879 as Reported in Transcripts of the Public Enquiry by Andre Gren,

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay: Reinvestigating the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879  by Peter R Lewis


  1. Another fascinating post. The sad thing about disasters like these, the same as with various types of murder and crime, is that they had to happen for the world to advance. Of course, negligence really doesn't help matters but...

  2. Unfortunately, you’re correct. Most advances in sciences and technologies throughout history have been brought about as a reaction to something, rather than a technique geared at prevention in the first instance, but then it’s difficult to perfect something when the problems are unknown.

    A good example of this is the strictness of security at airports – after 9/11 it became a lot tighter, with even shampoo bottles and drinks being disallowed on board a plane – this tightened security was brought in as a REACTION to the terrorist attack, not to prevent it from happening in the first place.

    This makes it clear that, in terms of crime, and the advances seen in police investigation science, it’s the criminals who set the benchmark, and the police who have to follow and improve their investigation techniques.

    As it says in the article too, the Tay Bridge disaster forced all future similar engineering projects to be overseen better, so you’re quite right with what you say.

  3. Thanks for your post. I’ve been thinking about writing a very comparable post over the last couple of weeks, I’ll probably keep it short and sweet and link to this instead if thats cool. Thanks. Elia & Ponto