The Tay Bridge Disaster
The Firth of Tay is a wide estuary immediately to the south of Dundee on the east coast of Scotland. During the Victorian railway building boom, proposals were made to build a bridge across the two-mile wide expanse of water to connect Dundee more directly with the south. In 1873, work began on building the bridge under the direction of Thomas Bouch.
Cast Iron Bridge to Span the River Tay
Bouch’s design called for the bridge platform to be supported high above the water on a lattice work of iron girders. These girders were, in turn supported by cast iron columns sunk into masonry piers. The whole structure sat on concrete foundations anchored onto the bedrock below the river bed.
There were 85 spans which carried a single rail track across the estuary. For most of the length the train ran on top of the girders, but for 13 spans the train ran under the ironwork. These were the spans that allowed for marine navigation below.
After five years of work, the bridge was complete and was opened on June 1, 1878; at the time, it was the longest bridge in the world. Queen Victoria was well pleased with the triumph of British engineering and crossed the bridge in the royal train to get to Balmoral Castle. She knighted Bouch for his work.
Storm Brings Down Bridge and Train
On December 28, 1879 a gale was blowing down the Firth of Tay with winds of 55 to 70 miles an hour hitting the bridge at right angles. The storm had left a path of destruction in Central Scotland.
To the south, the 4:15 pm train left Edinburgh, with six cars behind a steam locomotive. At a little before 7:15 pm, the train rolled onto the Tay Bridge from the south.
The passengers and train crew probably felt the bridge swaying underneath them, causing alarm. The signalman at the south end said he saw sparks come off the train followed by a sudden flash of light. Then, there was total darkness and the connection to the signal box at the north end was severed.
About halfway across, the bridge had swung over to the east and with the added weight of the train it collapsed.
It was the girders above the navigation channel that failed.
“Terrible accident on Bridge one or more of high girders blown down – am not sure as to the safety of last train down from Edinr [Edinburgh] will advise further as soon as can be obtained.”
Telegram sent to railway company headquarters by the Dundee station master shortly after the accident.
All Lives Lost
There was no hope of escape because all the carriage doors were locked by railway personnel for safety reasons.
All 75 people on the train plunged into the frigid water below and none survived. However, the casualty count is only an estimate because railway employees and children travelled without tickets.
Recent (2011) research by the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster Memorial Trust suggests the death toll was closer to 59.
Only 46 bodies were recovered; it was days, and even weeks, before some victims were found. Sometime after the disaster a body washed up on the shoreline. It was that of 5-year-old Bella Neish who had been traveling with her father. In her pocket were a gold-plated brooch and a penny. Her mother had not wanted her to travel.
Structural Engineering and Design Flaws Caused Disaster
After the tragedy, horror stories came out about poor workmanship during construction and maintenance.
The cast iron used to support the bridge was found to be of poor quality. In his 1968 book The High Girders, John Prebble writes that the iron supplier masked defects by filling holes in the supports with a mixture made of iron filings and cement; it was called Beaumont’s Egg.
Long before the accident, bolts that held the structure together were found to be loosening. Men working on bridge maintenance reported the structure was inclined to shake, especially when a train passed.
Some passengers complained about the strange motion of their carriages as they crossed the bridge. The North British Railway, which owned the bridge, ignored all warnings that something might be amiss.
Court of Inquiry Blames Designer for Bridge Disaster
The Court of Inquiry set up to investigate the disaster decided, “The fall of the bridge was occasioned by the insufficiency of the cross bracing and its fastenings to sustain the force of the gale.”
Bouch strongly denied his design was at fault but his career was shattered. At the time of the Tay Bridge collapse he was engaged in designing a bridge the cross the Firth of Forth. He was taken off that project and he died 10 months later.
Interestingly, in designing the Tay Bridge, Bouch allowed for wind loading of 10 pounds per square foot. However, in his early work on the Forth Bridge he was allowing for a wind loading of 30 pounds per square foot.
More recently, Sir Thomas Bouch has been relieved of some of the blame for the disaster. A BBC2 investigation 2001, put the cause as bad workmanship. The broadcaster said computer simulations suggest that as the project was over budget and behind schedule some corners were cut.
However, as Bouch was in charge of the construction he must still bear the weight of responsibility for what happened.
Rebuilding the Bridge
Today, trains regularly rattle across the Firth of Tay on a regular basis. The replacement bridge was opened in 1887 right next to the destroyed one. The stumps of the original support columns are still visible, silent reminders of the tragedy (below).
Many of the girders from the first bridge were salvaged and used in the second bridge that’s still in use today.
William Topaz McGonagall is widely regarded as one of the worst poets ever to take up a pen. He felt moved to memorialize the Tay Bridge Disaster in verse. Here’s the opening stanza; you have been spared the rest.
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.
In a somewhat macabre postscript Engineeringhistory.com reports, “The engine that had hauled the train to its doom was recovered from the river bed and put back into service.” With gallows humour, railway staff nicknamed it ‘The Diver,’ and it carried on working for the North British Railway until 1908.
- “Tay Bridge Disaster Court of Inquiry Report.” 1880
- “The High Girders.” John Prebble, Secker & Warburg, 1975.
- “The TayBridge Disaster.” BBC History.
- Tom Martin’s Tay Bridge Disaster Web Pages.
- “Scotland’s History: The Tay Bridge Disaster.” Scotland’s People, August 15, 2016.
- “The Tay Bridge Disaster.” McGonagall Online,
© 2018 Rupert Taylor