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Issue 63 - The Tay Bridge Disaster

Scotland Magazine Issue 63
June 2012


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The Tay Bridge Disaster

Annie Harrower-Gray looks at the infamous incident

When the first bridge to span the river Tay officially opened in May 1878 its innovative design was regarded by many to be a remarkable piece of engineering. Queen Victoria was so impressed by the bridge she awarded designer Thomas Bouch a knighthood, 19 months later the construction was being described as the worst structural disaster in British history.

The coming of the railways in 1848 brought prosperity and employment to the North East of Scotland but the two great estuaries; the Firth of Forth and Firth of Tay were proving problematic as they slowed down communications with Edinburgh. There were only two ways to reach Dundee. Passengers could travel through Stirling and Perth adding 60 miles to their journey, or alternatively take two ferry crossings over often turbulent waters. Even with the fastest boat train leaving Waverley station at 6.25 am it took three hours, 12 minutes to cover 46 miles.

A Bill of Parliament was passed in 1870 to allow the building of a bridge over the Tay from Wormit to Dundee. The Edinburgh and Northern Railway in charge of the construction appointed Thomas Bouch, a civil engineering consultant and a former employee, as designer.

Bouch’s reputation was founded on creating cheap and speedily built viaducts and presented the company with a strange and ambitious plan. He was inexperienced when it came to the design and construction of bridges. Nevertheless the construction went ahead and the first train crossed the Tay Bridge on 26th September 1877. It was officially opened the following year after an inspection by the Board of Trade.

When Captain Wright crossed the Tay in his ferry ‘The Dundee’ at 1.15pm on the afternoon of Sunday, 28th December 1879 he reported that the weather was fine and the waters calm. His return crossing at 4.15pm went as planned but the captain reported a ‘freshening wind’. By a quarter past five, a gale coming from the west was gathering momentum, forcing its way across central Scotland and leaving a trail of destruction behind it.

The local shuttle train left Newport at 5.50pm.

As it made the crossing, sparks flew from the wheel flanges and carriages swayed violently in the growing force of the wind. The bridge was being strained almost to the point of collapse.

As the local train was pulling into Dundee, the 5.27pm train from Burntisland was at Thornton Junction 27 miles south of the bridge. William Walker should have driven locomotive No 224, a 4-4-0 engine drawing five carriages and a luggage van but he swapped shifts with his friend David Mitchell.

The train reached Wormit signal box at 7.13pm and Mitchell slowed the engine to check with the signalman that the single-track line was clear.

Opening up the regulator, Mitchell took the train out onto the bridge and the signalman sent the ‘train entering signal’ to his opposite number in Dundee.

When the train failed to pass the Dundee signal box at 7.19pm the signalman tried to telegraph Wormit but without success. He assumed the storm had brought down the lines.

George Maxwell was entertaining three friends at his father’s house at Magdalen Green opposite the north end of the bridge. One member of the party remembered the Edinburgh train was due and Maxwell lowered the lights so they could watch its progress through the gale force wind.

One moment the lights of the train were advancing along the curve of the line and the next there was total darkness. To the onlookers, it seemed as if the train had disappeared into thin air.

James Smith the Dundee stationmaster was becoming concerned about the train’s non-arrival and the only way to ascertain its whereabouts was to go out onto the bridge.

James Roberts, the Locomotive Superintendent offered to accompany him and the pair ventured out into the raging storm with only the moonlight to guide them.

Clinging to the rails the two men crawled out far enough onto the line to see a great chasm where the girders should have been.

Charles Mann was waiting for the Leuchars train when news of the tragedy reached Wormit.

His mother and niece had been visiting him and he escorted them as far as the bridge on their homeward journey. His nephew William should have been with them, but after misbehaving was kept at home in Dundee. Elisabeth Mann and Elisabeth Brown were two of 40 passengers whose bodies were never recovered from the Tay.

Word was brought to Mr. Gibb, a Dundee postmaster, several of the mailbags that should have been on the train were picked up on the beach at Broughty Ferry.

It was conclusive evidence that the locomotive was now lying on the riverbed. By 10 o’clock the gale had subsided enough for the steamer ferry ‘The Dundee’ to venture out into the swollen waters.

The nature of the accident soon became apparent to those on board. Not one of the 13 large girders spanning the centre of the river still stood. Only fragments of the piers that supported them remained.

As the steamer approached the second pier, the sailors saw a human form standing on the debris. A small boat was launched and rowed towards the pier only to find the figure gone.

It took several months for the Tay to give up the bodies. The engine that pulled the train into the disaster was recovered from the riverbed, repaired and worked for North British Railways until 1908.

It was nicknamed ‘The Diver’ and many a superstitious railwayman refused to drive the infamous locomotive.

An official enquiry chaired by Henry Cadogan Rothery concluded the bridge was not strong enough to sustain the force of a gale and the weight of the train. Sir Thomas Bouch was held mainly to blame for the loss of the bridge and some 75 lives.

A broken man, Bouch died on 30th October 1880. His son-in-law was one of the passengers on the ill-fated train.

The enquiry managed to cover up the failings of North British Railways – the company used substandard iron in the construction, it did not maintain the bridge properly and when minor repairs were carried out, cheap materials were purchased from a Dundee ironmonger.

The railway company not only came out of the enquiry clean as a whistle, it was given possession of the enquiry documents for 70 years.

The people of Scotland were unable to view the contents until 1969.

Consequently, North British Railways was able to avoid its responsibility to pay compensation. The vast majority of relatives were treated appallingly and widows dependent on their husband’s income, left to starve.

On Wednesday 28th December 2011, the 132nd anniversary of Britain’s worst engineering disaster, an Atlantic jet of low pressure led to westerly gale force winds causing havoc with the country’s transport systems.

The Tay bridges were immediately closed – the result of a lesson learned from experience? Or could it have been a whispered warning from past voices carried on the wind?.

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