Tuesday, 28 December 2010

A Victorian Disaster

A permanent reminder - the old pillars remain

One hundred and thirty one years ago today in 1879, at around 7.15 in the evening, the central navigation spans of the Tay Bridge collapsed into the Firth of Tay at Dundee.  The collapse of the bridge, which was only opened 19 months previously and passed safe by the Board of Trade, sent shock waves through the Victorian and engineering profession and general public.

However, the collapse caused despair and grief to many because, when the bridge fell that stormy night, a train comprising of 6 carriages and 75 travellers, was chugging its way across the Tay.  All 75 people died.  The total number was only established by a meticulous examination of ticket sales, some from as far away as King's cross.  Forty-six of the sixty known victims were found, with two bodies not being recovered until February 1880.  Fifteen of the victims were never identified.

The disaster is one of the most famous bridge failures and to date it is still one of the worst structural engineering failures in Britain.

The first Tay rail bridge - nearly two miles long - took six years to build and was completed in February 1878 to the design of Thomas Bouch.  He was responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of the bridge.  The building of the Tay bridge culminated in him being knighted.  At the time it was the longest bridge in the world.  At the time of the collapse Bouch was working on the design of the proposed Forth Bridge.  In consequence, the design of the Forth bridge was transferred to Benjamin Baker and Sir John Fowler.

Theories abound as to who was responsible but Sir Thomas Bouch was held chiefly to blame for the collapse in not making adequate allowance for wind loading.  The wrought iron girders which remained standing after the disaster were transferred onto the present bridge where they are still in use today.  The engine which hauled the train to its doom was recovered from the river bed and put back in service.

To mark the 131st anniversary of the Tay Bridge disaster, an appeal to pay for a memorial is being formally launched today.  The exact form of the memorial is under discussion and the trust are keen to hear the opinions of the public.

Every Dundonian knows the story of the Disaster. As a child I travelled many times across the rail bridge (there was no road bridge until the 1960s) and was always relieved to reach dry land.

No story about the Tay Bridge disaster would be complete without the words of the 'Bard of the Tay'.  Some also describe him as Scotland's worst poet, but I'm sure he would be pleased to know that finally Dundee has decided to honour those who perished.

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 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 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.

William McGonagall  1825-1902


Joe Public said...

A sad story SR, with both local & national interest. The core of which remains important today.

".....(built) to the design of Thomas Bouch. He was responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of the bridge."

Of all the "lessons to be learnt" (to paraphrase many modern politicians) is the appointment of a single individual with overall responsibility.

No delegation to committee.

subrosa said...

I've been rather kind about Bouch Joe. It was said by many that he was totally corrupt and brown envelopes were like confetti all around Dundee at the time.

There was also talk about the quality of the mortar etc., all in an effort of saving money for the supply companies.

A few years ago I went to a talk at Dundee uni when the disaster was topic. Intriguing it was. There was one benefit though. The law tightened up hard on bridge building techniques.

Johnnyrvf said...

I bought a very much shortened version of the book published by the engineer who was in charge of the construction of the central tower of the Fourth bridge after the contract had been taken from Bouch, he died a broken man a little after a year of his bridge falling into the Tay, in this book quite a lot of pages were given to Bouch and it has to be said he was not a visionary when it came to Engineering, actually quite the opposite using old techiques and materials, hence wrought iron used in it's construction when steel was readily available. My mother was born in Rattray next to Blairgowrie and as a child she often went to London via rail, she never had any concerns about traversing the Fourth bridge but on the occaisions she had to go over the Tay bridge she was as most people were, always concerned. If you look at pictures of the original bridge, especially in comparison with the Fourth bridge, so slight and flimsy was it's constuction as in shown by what is left of the old pillars, it was a disaster waiting to happen, but very few people at the time believed that Bouch was anything but an excellent engineer, including himself, time as always, proved otherwise. The way my mother told me of the Tay bridge horror still brings back memories of how affected Dundee was by the deaths of those innocent people, so I hope that the memorial is established and the appeal is succesfull.

Conan the Librarian™ said...

My good mate, Hamish Gilchrist, made a memorial to the people who died in the construction of the Forth Bridge.
You can see photos here.

subrosa said...

Thank you for your story Johnny. There has been a lot of research done on the disaster in recent years, not least that done by Tom Martin in the link in the post.

I know well where your mother was born. There used to be a railway from Blairgowrie over to Dundee and, as well as a passenger service, it carried the flax from Dundee to the Blairgowrie mills.

Your mum's concerns were like most locals. Nobody I know was comfortable going over the new bridge. I certainly wasn't and much preferrred the Fifie to get me over the Tay.

Yes a memorial would be fitting. Not only for those who died in the disaster but for those 20 men who were killed during its construction.

subrosa said...

Conan, what a fitting memorial. It's a pity it's taken so long for Dundee to get round to it.

Thanks so much for the link.

Jo G said...

The story of the Tay Bridge always frightened me when I was a wee girl. Even reading the poem again now makes one shiver at the thought of those poor people on that train on such a wild and merciless night. What absolute carnage. Whenever I've visited Dundee it is impossible not to recall it. I can imagine the city was scarred forever by the tragedy.

Someone spoke of lessons learned earlier. Were they do you think? Look at the Forth Road Bridge and the astounding facts to emerge in recent years about corrosion in the cables. Why wasn't it properly maintained? They say monitoring reduced over the years. Why for God's sake would anyone reduce monitoring of such a structure under the sort of pressure the Forth Road Bridge carries on a daily basis?

I always loved the Forth Road Bridge. We had an auntie who lived in Fife and when my dad got his first wee car we went there and we went over the bridge. I still remember my first glimpse of it. I was mesmerised by the arch of the roadway approaching from south of the bridge. I fell in love with it and with engineering which, ever since, has fascinated me. We owe a great debt to all connected with that industry and especially to the men who actually did the building.

I feel sad when I look at the Forth Road Bridge now as my eyes invariably linger on those cables. It isn't like she is an old lady now, she's not even 50, yet she was allowed to corrode dangerously. It is a scandal that those responsible for the neglect were never challenged.

I have crossed the bridge many times both on wheels and on foot. I like the foot crossings best as I was able to see the detail and feel amazed by it. You look up at the towers and think, good heavens how did men work at these heights without tranquilisers! And even tho' she is no longer seen as perfect I still think she's beautiful.

Richard said...

I had an excellent English teacher when I was about 14. He once introduced us to the Tay Bridge poem by reading it out ('here's a poem you boys might like') without comment. By the end, we were in stitches, but he kept a straight face. "OK, you found that funny, did you? Why?" So we started to explain the bits we thought were less than brilliant, and the whole lesson was lit-crit in reverse. I think I learned more about what makes good and bad poetry on that day than at any other time, and that includes 3 years doing a BA in English. McGonagall was superb, and of course he was right: it was 'remember'd for a very long time', as this post proves.

subrosa said...

Aye Jo, when I was wee and taken to 'the Ferry' beach on a Sunday, I used to be scared that one of the bodies that was never found would be washed up on the beach. That's how deep the story was in the minds of Dundonians.

The Forth Bridge is a wonder of engineering. I've walked over it a few times (and back) and remember once it was late at night for fun. We were frozen but to warm ourselves up had a play in the children's playground at the Fife end. I don't think that's there anymore.

The road bridge always takes a little of my breath away when I approach it from the north as you come over the hill on the M90, but I agree it hasn't been well maintained.

subrosa said...

Lovely story Richard. McGonagall was mocked by many, but as you say, he's the one who has had the last laugh.

Goes to show the meaning of tenacity doesn't it? I'm sure he knew his poetry wasn't up there with the elite, but he's formed his own 'McGonagall club' and that can't be bad.

Joe Public said...

SR 11:57

"There was one benefit though. The law tightened up hard on bridge building techniques."

But not everybody learned though:-

London's Millenium Wibbly Wobbly Bridge.


English Pensioner said...

I first read John Prebble's book "The High Girders" over 50 years ago and got it down from my bookshelf to refresh my memory. There were many reasons for the failure apart from the basic design, one of the most important being the poor quality of the iron castings made at the Wormit foundry. It would seem that many of the castings had large blow holes which were filled with a substance called "Beaumont's Egg", a mixture of beeswax, rosin and iron borings. After the event, it was discovered that many castings were honeycombed throughout, and it was admitted that there had been a very high wastage rate at the foundry with many castings having to be remade.
Personally, I tend to believe that the design was OK, but that it was poor workmanship during the construction and poor maintenance afterwards. But Bouch was in charge, and his deputy as site manager had no engineering skills having been apprenticed as a bricklayer!
For anyone interested the book, if you can get hold of a copy, is well worth reading. Having got my copy down, I'm going to re-read it.

As an afterthought. 131 years does seem to be rather a long time to wait before thinking about a memorial. Can it really be that Scots are as tight with their money as the English like to think?

subrosa said...

I remember when that bridge was found to be badly constructed Joe. Never heard of the cost to repair it either.

subrosa said...

EP, that book is one of those highly regarded by the quality of research on this subject. I read it some years ago now.

My ancestors blamed poor workmanship which involved backhanders and poor quality materials but I've no idea where they gained their opinions.

Yes 131 years is a long time. Throughout my lifetime the idea was mooted but never came to anything.

It's said this proposed monument will be expensive but no explanation as to why. Surely a memorial doesn't need to cost vast amounts of money and could be tastefully done for a reasonable cost.

I think it's rather 'out of sight, out of mind' by our city fathers rather than the meanness of Dundonians. They are people who built the first (I think) publicly subscribed hospital in Scotland. The council sold it to a developer for a mere £740,000 a few years ago. When I questioned the sale price I was stalled with jargon at every turn.

Strathturret said...

My grandfather told me that McGonigal used to visit Crieff (and doubtless other small towns) to read his poetry. His story was that people used to mock him and chase him through the streets. My grandfather was born in 1895 so I guess this was a story he heard growing up.

subrosa said...

I believe he did Strathturret because he left the mill thinking his vocation was as a poet.

He even travelled to New York:

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