Remembering the Tay Bridge disaster


A rare photograph of the disaster

On this night in 1879, the Tay Bridge Disaster occurred, claiming 75 lives and shocking the population.

The disaster happened after the centre section of the bridge, known as the “High Girders”, collapsed under a six carriage northbound train which was plunged 130ft into the freezing waters of the Tay.

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Initially, the North British Railway company stated that there had been 300 deaths and soon gained international press coverage including newspaper reports in Australia.

However after bodies were discovered months later, it was confirmed that 72 passengers and three crew members had lost their lives in the tragedy, nine of the dead were children.

The youngest, Bella Neish, was just four-years-old and was the only casualty to be washed upriver.

Designed, constructed and maintained by Sir Thomas Bouch, it was seen as a marvel of engineering when completed in early 1878.

The longest bridge in the world at the time, it was subsequently given the royal seal of approval by Queen Victoria.

Photograph of the Tay Bridge disaster

It stood for less than two years.

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The initial inquiry found that the Sir Bouch, had not made sufficient allowance for wind pressure and that the contractor had used imperfect metal castings, although Bouch claimed that the collapse may have been the result of the train derailing and colliding with the girders.

His case was disregarded and Sir Bouch was widely blamed for the tragedy and the authorities decided to not consider his design for the Forth Road Bridge which was given to Sir Benjamin Baker and Sir John Fowler instead. He died of ill health brought on by his ordeal shortly thereafter.

Memorial to the victims of the Tay Bridge disaster Photo: WALTER NEILSON

An extensive inquiry was carried out, including numerous witnesses, experts and reports. To this day it is unknown whether the strong winds that night were to blame, the poor design or the mechanical failure.

A new double­track bridge was designed by William Henry Barlow and built by William Arrol & Co, 18 metres upstream of, and parallel to, the original bridge. The foundation of the new Tay Bridge was laid in 1883 and was opened on 1887 and remains in use today.

The foundations of the collapsed bridge can still be seen today.

The train driver who died in the disaster was commemorated in 2011, more than 130 years after the tragedy. An inscribed headstone was placed on the previously unmarked grave of David Mitchell at Leslie Cemetery in Fife.

Artist Impression drawing of the Tay Bridge Disaster

In December 2013, granite cairns with the names of the victims were erected on both sides of the river, in Dundee and Fife.

The train engine which was recovered after the disaster