Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Tay Bridge Disaster

One of the worst spirits to haunt Dundee, in a certain sense, is that dubious poet, William Topaz McGonnagall (1825-1902).  Never mind that he was born in Edinburgh of Irish parents, he gravitated eventually to Dundee and here his name was made.  Here is his immortal take on the serious subject of this post, 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 clouds 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 sight, 
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 people’ 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 the Silv’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.

Bad bard:  McGonnagall.

  But enough of that tragic-comic bard and down to the facts.  At around 7:15pm on 28th December 1879 a wild storm ravaged east and central Scotland.  The worst consequence of this weather was the collapse of the Tay Railway Bridge.  It was a supreme tragedy that a northbound train, which had come from Edinburgh, was crossing the bridge at the time. The train was seen running along the rails, and then suddenly was observed a flash of fire.  The engine and all six carriages plunged into the Firth of Tay before the train could safely reach Dundee.   The number of dead is not absolutely certain, but was reckoned to be 75 souls, both passengers and crew, calculated according to the number of tickets sold at St Fort Station in Fife., although it was initially thought that between 150 and 200 people were killed.  Dundee constabulary identified the names of 60 people who perished that night.  Nobody from the train made it out of the river alive.  The number of bodies recovered was 46.

   It was reported in the Times next day: 
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 the course of construction, one of the girders was blown down during a gale similar to that of to-day, but only one of the workmen lost his life...

   The bridge had started its life only eight years before and its designer, Sir Thomas Bouch, died within the year. (One of the victims of the disaster, ironically, was his own son-in-law.)  Repercussions about the cause of the tragedy and accusations of design fault caused his design for a Forth Bridge to be abandoned and may have hastened his demise.  The actual construction was such an architectural wonder that people, celebrities and otherwise, would come far and wide to look at it.  Among those who came to view it was General Ulysses Grant, the 18th President of the United States of America, in 1877.  The construction had been completed in that year, the directors of the bridge marking the occasion of 28th September by crossing the river on the engine ‘Lochee’.  After the tragedy there was an official enquiry which found that design faults had contributed to the event.  The train engine that pulled the train was dredged up from the river bed and was restored into service. Staff from the North British Railway sardonically nicknamed it The Diver and it continued in operation until 1908.  Some of the doors from recovered carriages were later displayed at the Barrack Street Museum in Dundee.

   A second, successor bridge was built, parallel and just upstream of the first, following a design by William Henry Barlow.  It opened in summer 1887 and fourteen men lost their lives during its four year construction.  The foundation pillars of the first, ill-fated bridge can still be seen of course jutting out of the Tay.  

   For those who are correctly appalled by the well meant literary excesses of McGonnagall, other works to feature the disaster include The Brück 'am Tay by the German author Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), which uses the characters of Macbeth’s witches to signify the horror of the tragedy.  Other written representations occur in A J Cronin’s novel Hatter’s Castle,  Alanna Knight's 1976 book A Drink for the Bridge, plus The Blood Doctor,  by Barbara Vine, published in 2002, and a play by Kevin Dyer named The Bridge, staged at Dundee Rep in 2010.  More scurrilously, there is an episode of the Goon Show which also features the disaster.

Theodor Fontane.

   Supernatural traces of the event are not abundant .  It was once said by some that a ghostly train appeared above the river on the anniversary of the event.  Screams of the doomed passengers were also sometimes reported, but this 'tradition' seems entirely  spurious.  More intriguingly, the author Violet Tweedale (1862-1936) reported (in her book Ghosts I Have Seen, 1919) that her father had suddenly commented during the dreadful contemporary storm in Edinburgh, ‘At this moment, seven fifteen, on Sunday the 28th of December, 1879, something terrible has happened. I think a bridge must be down.'  Geoff Holder, in his book Haunted Dundee (2012), gives another recorded psychic episode perhaps connected with the disaster, sourced from Frank Podmore's  Apparitions and Thought Transference (1894).  According to Podmore, a lady in Perth - identified only as 'Miss Y' - was struck one Sunday evening with a terrible premonition.  She had an overwhelming, eerie feeling that was accompanied by intense feelings of death and disaster.  She screamed and ran to her mother, but could not tell her what she thought it meant.  Next morning the family learnt of the Tay Bridge Disaster.


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