The Tay Bridge Disaster, December 1879 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Tay Bridge Disaster, December 1879

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The first rail bridge built to cross the River Tay in Scotland was opened in May 1878 to the design of Thomas Bouch, a noted engineer for the Edinburgh and Northern Railway. He was asked by the company to design and construct bridges over the Firths of both the River Tay and the River Forth, allowing the railway line to extend up the East coast of Scotland.

Before the construction of the bridges, trains travelled across both river estuaries on 'train ferries', boats specially designed by Bouch to carry trains from one set of rail lines to another across a river. These were forerunners of today's modern 'Roll on-Roll off' car ferries and were an innovation at the time, but were subject to weather and currents, making them unreliable and expensive to run. Rail bridges were seen as the next logical step to providing an efficient train service throughout the East coast of Scotland.

A Bill was presented to Parliament for the building of the Tay Bridge which was passed in July 1870 and the construction process began with Bouch's design.

The Bridge

At the time of the bridge's design, there were very few rail bridges across rivers in the world, and none as long as the span across the Firth of Tay. There were no previous examples or tested studies for Bouch to copy, so he based his structural design on his own previous experience.

In the past, Bouch had designed bridges in the North East of England and notably, the high Esk crossing on the Montrose basin. Those bridges had been constructed of latticeworks of girders supported on cast iron columns. These lattices were braced with iron struts. He followed his tried and tested designs when he was designing the Tay Bridge. At nearly two miles long, the longest bridge in the world at the time, the bridge carried one single rail track along its length. The bridge had a total of 85 spans across the river in a curved design, including 13 navigation spans which allowed ships to sail under the bridge and up the River Tay to Perth, which was a major port in Scotland at this time. On completion of construction, the first train crossed the Tay on 26 September, 1877 - only a few weeks short of the planned completion date.

The bridge was inspected and cleared for use in February 1878 by the Board of Trade, and the Edinburgh and Northern Railway was free to open the bridge and did so at an official opening in May. Queen Victoria crossed the Tay Bridge in June 1879 and went on to award him a knighthood. He was also awarded the Freedom of the Borough of Dundee.

The Disaster

On 28 December, 1879 there was a howling storm raging about the Firth of Tay. Winds estimated to be of gale force 10 to 11 (approx 65 mph or 100kph) were blowing down the River Tay estuary towards the sea, at right angles to the bridge. At approximately 19.15 on this stormy night, a passenger train consisting of 6 carriages plus the engine, and carrying an estimated 75 passengers, started to cross the bridge. As it crossed over the central navigation spans, they collapsed, taking the train with them and plunging it and most of the central part of the bridge into the icy River Tay.

No survivors from the train were found and only 60 bodies were ever recovered. The estimated number of passengers was from the last ticket count at the previous stop, St Fort railway station, 4 miles before the bridge. The collapse of the bridge, which was one of a kind and had been opened only 19 months before and passed as safe, was a terrible shock to both the engineering profession and the British public. The disaster is to date, still the worst British engineering disaster and is one of the world's most famous bridge collapses.


After the disaster, a public inquest, or Court of Inquiry, was held to discover the reasons behind the bridge's collapse. The Court of Inquiry report concluded that, 'The fall of the bridge was occasioned by the insufficiency of the cross bracing and its fastenings to sustain the force of the gale.' The official report indicated that if the supporting iron columns, and particularly, the bracing which held the iron girders in place, had been constructed and maintained to a higher standard, the bridge could have withstood the storm that night and the disaster averted. Sir Thomas Bouch was held chiefly to blame for the collapse as his design had not made allowance for the fierce winds which frequently blew down the River Tay. He was vilified throughout the inquiry and and was released from his job with the Edinburgh and Northern Railway. His health never recovered from the stress of the Inquiry and he unfortunately died in disgrace after a two-month illness on 30 October, 1880, before the official report was published.

Not everyone agreed with the official report however. Even now, there is still some speculation as to the cause of the collapse and whether Thomas Bouch was to blame. Various other theories have been put forward for the collapse, including derailment of the train. It is a common exercise in some British University Engineering campuses to recreate a model of the bridge and propose alternative disaster theories.

At the time of the Tay Bridge collapse, Sir Thomas Bouch was working on the design of the proposed Forth Bridge for the Edinburgh and Northern Railway. As a result of the collapse, his designs for the bridge were scrapped and probably the most famous bridge in the world, The Forth Bridge, was the result of the designs of Benjamin Baker and Sir John Fowler.

Many of Bouch's other bridges were inspected and extra buttressing added to their construction to strengthen them against high winds. His bridge across the River Esk at the Montrose basin was demolished and replaced. No one else wanted to be responsible for another bridge failure of this magnitude.

As for the wreckage of the Tay Bridge, most of the iron girders were recoverable and were put to use when construction of the second and present Tay Bridge began. This bridge is now over 100 years old and is regularly maintained and inspected.

At low tide in the Tay estuary, it is still possible to see some of the original brick pilings standing out of the water just downriver from the newer bridge.

As an interesting aside, most of the train carriages and engine were recovered from the water, and although the carriages were damaged beyond repair, the engine of the train was restored and was used for another few years of service by the Edinburgh and Northern Railway.

Possibly the most interesting consequence of the Tay Bridge disaster was that it inspired the following poem by William Topaz McGonagall – The World's Best Bad Poet.

The Tay Bridge Disaster - abridged from the original

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."
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.
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.

Reference: Court of Inquiry (1880) Report upon the circumstances attending the fall of a portion of the Tay Bridge.

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