“On The Last Sabbath Day of 1879”

drawing of the Tay Bridge disaster, published in the Illustrated London News, 1880. Photo by Getty Images, Hulton Archive.
drawing of the Tay Bridge disaster, published in the Illustrated London News, 1880. Photo by Getty Images, Hulton Archive.

One of the engineering marvels of Victorian Britain in the 1870s was the Tay Bridge which spans Scotland’s Firth of Tay.  It connected Dundee and Wormit.

It was designed by Sir Thomas Bouch, a civil engineer for the North British Railway.  At the time it was the longest bridge built in the world—just over 2 miles.

At a cost of £300,000 it was a “real bargain”.  It took six years to build.  Based on accounts, over 20 workers died accidently in its construction.

What the public and the Board of Trade did not know was that the North British Railway cut corners on this engineering marvel.  The structure was “sound”, but it was not designed to withstand high winds.

On the night of December 28, 1879, as 37-year-old train engineer David Mitchell, 24 year-old stoker John Marshall and 21 year-old engine cleaner George Ness of the North British Railway Sunday Mail train approached the Tay Bridge heading for Dundee, they felt their train buffeted by the winter winds of a raging gale.  They had crossed this bridge many times.

On the train the passengers were between Christmas and New Year festivities.  They felt the winds against the train cars, but many of them had ridden this train before over the firth.

Based on official accounts the passengers ranged in ages from 5 to 62.   Among the passengers were a grandmother returning her granddaughter home; a newly engaged couple; a father and his two sons; a brother and sister; and many precious children.

What happened once the train was on the bridge is found in the official inquiry.  Every man, woman and child died in the cold waters of the firth. Unfortunately, a number of bodies were never recovered.

At the formal inquest the truth came out about the cost cutting.  Bosch’s apprentice Charles Meik was instrumental in hanging his boss on this matter, even though the North British Railway was equally guilty. Thomas Bosch bore the lion’s share of the official judgment and public outrage, especially from the families of the victims.

What added to the tragedy for Bosch was that his son-in-law perished as well on that fateful night.  To deal with his daughter’s sorrow and tears was an added burden on this man who was recently knighted by Queen Victoria for his greatest achievement.

From greatness to ashes, Bosch never recovered.  He died on October 30th 1880.

Scotland’s William Topaz McGonagall wrote his most famous poem on the bridge disaster.  It is the one poem that gave him literary immortality.

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…”

The full poem is in the links below.

Perhaps, the best words to close this post are from Horne’s poem IN MEMORY OF THE TAY BRIDGE DIASTER: 

Ah ! what’s our life—a thread—a breath—

That’s easy snatch’d away ;

In midst of life we are in death,

Is taught us day by day…”

G. D. Williams       © 2012

POST 424

1879 Tay Bridge


Historical Note: The train engine number 224 was salvaged and placed back into service for many years to come.  It was nicknamed “the Diver”.