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.

Dreadful Accident on the Tay Bridge

Loss of Passenger Train

Dundee, Sunday Midnight

To-night a heavy gale swept over Dundee and a portion of the Tay bridge was blown down while a train from Edinburgh due at 7.15 was passing. It is believed that the train is in the water, but the gale is still so strong that a steamboat has not yet been able to reach the bridge. The train was duly signalled from Fife as having entered the bridge at 7.14. It was seen running along the rails, and then suddenly was observed a flash of fire. The opinion was that the train left the rails, and went over the bridge. Those who saw the incident repaired immediately to the Tay-bridge station at Dundee and informed the station master of what they had seen. He immediately put himself in communication with the man in charge of the signal-box at the north end of the bridge. The telegraph wires are stretched across the bridge, but when the instrument was tried it was soon seen that the wires were broken.

Mr. Smith, the station-master and Mr. Roberts, locomotive superintendent, determined, notwithstanding the fierce gale, to walk across the bridge as far as possible from the north side, with the view of ascertaining the extent of the disaster. They were able to get out a considerable distance, and the first thing that caught their eye was the water spurting from a pipe which was laid across the bridge for the supply of Newport, a village on the south side, from the Dundee reservoirs. Going a little further, they could distinctly see by the aid of the strong moonlight that there was a large gap in the bridge caused by the fall, so far as they could discern, of two or three of the largest spars. They thought, however, that they observed a red light on the south part of the bridge, and were of the opinion that the train had been brought to a standstill on the driver noticing the accident. This conjecture has, unfortunately, been proved incorrect. At Broughtyferry, four miles from the bridge, several mail bags have come ashore, and there is no doubt that the train is in the river. No precise information as to the number of passengers can be obtained, but it is variously estimated at from 150 to 200.

The Provost and a number of leading citizens of Dundee started at half-past 10 o’clock in a steam-boat for the bridge, the gale being moderated; but they have not yet returned.

Monday, 1.30 A.M.

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 course of construction, one of the girders was blown down during a gale similar to that of to-day, but the only one of the workmen lost his life. The return of the steamboat is anxiously awaited.

The Times, 29th December 1879

Notes

Despite well over a century of subsequent train travel, the Tay Bridge disaster remains one of Britain’s worst ever railway accidents. A terrific storm, which had spread mayhem and destruction throughout central Scotland, was howling down the Tay just as the Edinburgh train was crossing the bridge. As the train reached the “high girders” at the centre of the bridge, they suddenly collapsed – plunging the train and its seventy-five passengers and crew into the icy waters. There were no survivors, and only forty-six bodies were ever recovered.

The bridge, which had been hailed as an engineering masterpiece on its opening the previous year, was found to have been severely flawed. The official enquiry discovered that the iron superstructure was of inferior quality and had been badly maintained. Most damning of all, little or no account was made of wind pressure in the design of the bridge. The enquiry laid the blame at the door of the designer, Sir Thomas Bouch. Bouch vehemently denied the charge, but his career was in ruins. He died just ten months after the fall of the great bridge.

Though none of the passengers were saved, there was a survivor of a sort. The engine that had hauled the train to its doom was recovered from the river bed and put back into service. Sardonically nicknamed “The Diver” by railway staff, it carried on working for the North British Railway until 1908.

The masonry piers that once supported the iron columns of the bridge remain standing in the river to this day, a grim reminder of that terrible December night in 1879.

If the events of the 28th December 1879 have indeed been long remembered outside the ranks of civil engineers and Dundonian rail passengers it is thanks to McGonagall’s poem. The Tay Bridge Disaster is by far his best known poem. How it became so is unclear. By his own account, it was his initial address to The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay that “was the only poem that made me famous universally”. Nor did the poem figure prominently in his live performances, where the “Poet and tragedian” would usually recite Bruce at Bannockburn, The Battle of Tel-El-Kebir and The Rattling Boy from Dublin. Yet somehow this unhappy story of the Tay Bridge has become the definitive McGonagall poem. Perhaps, since it deals with visionary ideals plunged into total disaster, it’s a fitting commemoration of his career.

Soon a new bridge would rise beside the ruins of the old, and the “Bard of the Tay” would once again be inspired to pick up his pen.

Further Reading

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Comments (28) »

  1. Alex
    In the year 2011, on the 16th day of November at 8:48 pm

    Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
    At least many sensible men confesses…

    For some reason, I always end up reading these two lines as

    Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
    At least many sensible men confuttresses…

    Maybe I’m just weird.

  2. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2011, on the 17th day of November at 1:04 am

    Possibly, though your version rhymes better at least.

  3. Robert Rasciauskas
    In the year 2011, on the 27th day of November at 4:31 pm

    hahaha i love this shit :)

  4. In the year 2011, on the 7th day of December at 4:23 am

    Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
    (but then again, maybe it should have been mattresses),

  5. In the year 2011, on the 24th day of December at 1:50 am

    Anagram:

    The Tay Bridge railway disaster =
    What I’d say a terrible tragedy is.

  6. terence lee
    In the year 2012, on the 13th day of January at 12:00 am

    The most terrible tragedy of all is accepting McGonagall lines as ‘poetry’

  7. drew
    In the year 2012, on the 23rd day of May at 7:16 pm

    wow i feeel so bad for all the ones who where close or knew people in the disaster

  8. Slartibartfast
    In the year 2012, on the 30th day of September at 12:52 pm

    Definitely the worst poem in the English language. It’s even worse than “Ode to a small lump of green putty I found in my armpit one midsummer morning” which goes like this:
    Putty. Putty. Putty.
    Green Putty – Grutty Peen.
    Grarmpitutty – Morning!
    Pridsummer – Grorning Utty!
    Discovery….. Oh.
    Putty?….. Armpit?
    Armpit….. Putty.
    Not even a particularly
    Nice shade of green.

  9. Peri Farnsworth
    In the year 2012, on the 1st day of November at 9:41 pm

    That’s even worse than this poem, by Paul Neil Milne Johnstone, a scoolmate of Douglas Adams. I apologize for writing this…

    The dead swans lay in the stagnant pool.
    They lay. They rotted. They turned
    Around occassionally.
    Bits of flesh dropped off them from
    Time to time.
    And sank into the pool’s mire.
    They also smelt a great deal.

  10. Michael Byrne
    In the year 2012, on the 27th day of November at 12:30 pm

    What terrible poetry I do say
    About this terrible tragedy on the river Tay.
    It could have been written far better I do think
    Because this “poem” gives off a stink!

  11. Michael Byrne
    In the year 2012, on the 3rd day of December at 12:04 pm

    It’s not that bad, you want to read some of my poetry,it doesn’t scan or rhyme,and you could say it’s a waste of time.

  12. L. C. Nielsen
    In the year 2012, on the 19th day of December at 12:30 pm

    I make it a virtue to read this poem once in a while, to never forget this horrid disaster. Every time I read the first three lines;

    “Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
    Alas! I am very sorry to say
    That ninety lives have been taken away”

    I burst into tears. The blunt force with which McGonagall delivers the awful truth pierces my chest and wounds my heart. Occasionally, I read it out loud to a few friends, and most of us are invariably crying before the first stanza is over.

    Never forget the last sabbath day of 1879, which will be remember’d for a very long time. Never.

  13. Conrad von Metzke
    In the year 2013, on the 26th day of January at 5:50 pm

    Somehow I wandered into this site, courtesy of a friend’s suggestion, as an extension of my spending time with the Bulwer-Lytton Awards. Let me just say that, after today, Bulwer’s not so bad at all!

    I’ve never been to Scotland. (I’m in the USA.) Is the accompanying story about the disaster still correct, i.e. do the old pier supports still stand in the river?

  14. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2013, on the 28th day of January at 4:37 pm

    The second stanza has a Bulwer-Lyttonesque ring to it, doesn’t it? It was a dark and stormy night and all that.

    McGonagall was fond of putting all sorts of factual information into his poems, most of which was true. When I add notes to the poems, I aim for 100% accuracy – so yes, the old pier supports are still there. Not only did they use the old bridge as a handy platform from which to build the new one, they even reused some of the old girders in the new structure. There’s nothing new about recycling.

    Here’s a picture of the new bridge today, alongside the remains of the old one.

  15. In the year 2013, on the 25th day of March at 12:05 am

    Ballad of the Tay Rail Bridge – http://youtu.be/Ty36a9Z4gHE

  16. Philippe WINES
    In the year 2013, on the 28th day of April at 7:47 pm

    The first time i heard a rendition of this work, about 30 years ago, I just sat, open-mouthed, with blank disbelief. It was such an awful moment – I think that even time stopped.

    I snapped back into a fully conscious state and tried to relate the poet’s work to the sentimental Victorian obsession with tragic affairs. Then i started to giggle – and I haven’t stopped giggling ever since.

    The poem must be read out loud, with a distinct Scottish accent, to generate tear-jerking disbelief and giggles.

  17. dylan
    In the year 2013, on the 22nd day of May at 2:34 pm

    hi this was bottom dollar quality

  18. Pete Kurton
    In the year 2013, on the 22nd day of May at 4:51 pm

    ODE ON READING PREVIOUS COMMENTS WRITTEN BY JOHNNY FOREIGNER

    Oh Robert Rasciauskas what is the translation word for ‘shit’?
    Are you perchance from Europe, the Lithuanian bit?
    Or maybe your forebears from that poor land did come,
    To escape their poor lives which were very humdrum.

    You have come a long way since those far off days bleak and drear,
    When your ancestors made their way over here.
    Their poor broken English you have put in the past.
    With your knowledge of syntax, grammar and vocabulary so vast.

    So now we have a Lithuanian Anglo Saxon as well
    The last of which upon you let your mind overdwell
    But at much as you struggle and however you might.
    You should never use words that rhyme with might.

    To be a true and loyal subject of Her Gracious Majesty the Queen
    You should refrain from and never give in to venting your spleen.
    A straight back and stiff upper lip is what is required here,
    Understatement is better than expletives so clear.

    So come Robert Rasciauskas, we can tell by your handle
    That to true sons of our soil you can’t hold a candle
    But what’s in a name? I don’t really know.
    But if you use words like that you must be a cazzo.

  19. In the year 2013, on the 5th day of August at 8:37 am

    Here’s My Animated version!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Et_RJBrWOdo

  20. Megan
    In the year 2013, on the 9th day of October at 5:28 pm

    I will remember this touching poem for a very long time.

  21. Derek A
    In the year 2013, on the 17th day of October at 3:09 pm

    It will be remembered for a very VERY very long time/

  22. In the year 2013, on the 17th day of October at 9:55 pm

    The Tay Bridge Disaster – A Hero from Sunderland.

    Henry (Harry) Watts is a famous Diver hero from Sunderland who save 36 lives at sea and in rivers. Having at one time been a heavy drinker, Harry ‘saw the light’ and became a Christian and stopped drinking and became involved in the church. At the time of the Disaster, Harry went to the Tay Bridge with a recovery team and worked for 3 weeks bring bodies from the river. Harry refused to be paid for this work as he felt that it was his ‘duty’ as a Christian to recover these people from the river and return them to their families.

    Harry was not a stranger to tragedy. In 1883 there was a disaster in Sunderland which resulted in the loss of approx 150 children who died in the Victoria Hall Disaster when they were crushed to death, due to doors opening inwards instead of outwards – thus a change in the law regarding public buildings.

    2 of the children who died were Harry’s niece and nephew named Pescod. He also helped to recover the bodies of the children from the Victoria Hall.
    - WHAT A HERO !!!!!!!

  23. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2013, on the 18th day of October at 11:38 am

    The Victoria Hall Disaster inspired a Poetic Gem of its own. So Mr Watts has the dubious distinction of being connected to the subjects of two McGonagall disaster poems.

  24. In the year 2014, on the 27th day of June at 10:00 pm

    […] synopsis, from a blurb that reads in parts like the Great McGonagall, says that on a bitterly cold evening, schoolteacher Kyra Hollis (Mulligan) receives an unexpected […]

  25. Ted
    In the year 2014, on the 23rd day of August at 6:05 am

    I find this particular work to be sort of an accidental avant triumph. Well, actually I feel that way about most of McGonagall’s poems, but the way that this one seems to puzzle continuously as I attempted to wrap my head around the rhyming scheme is especially wonderful. It’s like a textual version of one of those picture illusions, where you stare at it really hard attempting to figure it out and suddenly all the concave cubes appear convex and vice versa, and then you can’t figure out the mental trigger to bring back your original perception of them. Sorta like that.

  26. In the year 2014, on the 29th day of September at 6:30 pm

    […] as a poet and, as such, is unbelievably entertaining to read. If you don’t believe me, read The Tay Bridge Disaster which is one of his most famous poems. While you’re on his website, do take a look around. […]

  27. In the year 2014, on the 10th day of October at 11:45 am

    […] carriage; Eliot’s Shimbleshanks: the [bleeding] railway cat; McGonagall’s classic The Tay Bridge Disaster; Wilfred Owen’s sombre The […]

  28. In the year 2014, on the 18th day of October at 10:21 pm

    […] it’s not like narrative poems had to be even as good as Coleridge’s. The existence of William Topaz McGonagall’s infamous “Tay Bridge Disaster” (about the, erm, infamous Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879) shows that the bar was set comfortably low […]

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