When the first Tay Bridge was built, it was the longest rail bridge in the world, over two miles long. It was the talk not only of Scotland, but of the world. During its construction, the Emperor of Brazil visited, as did US president Ulysses S. Grant. The first crossing, by the directors, took place in September 1877 and then the structure was officially opened in May 1878 to great pomp and ceremony. In June 1879, Queen Victoria crossed the bridge, adding her royal approval to the already feted icon of engineering prowess.
It was the most admired of bridges. Dundee became well known throughout the world and now not only for its shipbuilding, the jute industry and whaling.
And then on 28 December 1879, disaster struck. A storm raged over Scotland, the gale blowing with ferocious strength along the River Tay, decimating some of Dundee’s homes, with roofs being ripped off and chimney stacks crashing to the ground.
The 4.15pm train from Edinburgh Waverley had arrived at Granton on time at 4.35pm, then the passengers transferred as usual to the paddleboat ferry over to Fife. As the storm intensified and the wind howled, the train continued on through Fife, arriving at the River Tay some minutes late.
The train, consisting of five passenger coaches, one luggage van and the engine, reduced speed a little as it continued onto the bridge.
It entered the high girders and witnesses on the Dundee side who had been watching from their windows saw it disappear, plunging into the dark waters. They watched a streak of light and fire plummet downwards, taking with it the lattice girders designed by Sir Thomas Bouch.
A total of 59 lives were known to be lost that fateful night. Many more bodies were never found; Dundee was in mourning for months. The foundation stone piers in the water today alongside the second Tay Bridge are often described as tombstones. They are testament to a tragedy that, at the time, had as much impact globally as the sinking of the Titanic 33 years later.
READ MORE: Remembering the Tay Bridge disaster
The headlines of the Dundee Courier and Argus on 29 December read “Terrific Hurricane – Appalling Catastrophe at Dundee – Tay Bridge blown down – Supposed Loss of 200 Lives” together with the rather incongruous words “Great Excitement”, presumably at the time when excitement had negative as well as positive connotations.
The reason some 200 were feared dead was because had it not been a Sunday there would have been far more passengers on the train. There were also those who suggested it was an act of God to punish those travelling on the Sabbath. Those with more superstitious leanings blamed the fact the bridge had 13 girders.
There was “great excitement” then, when, on the Tuesday edition of the newspaper, it was announced that the first body had been found on the Monday: “The first body which was recovered was that of a woman, which was observed floating in the water close to the beach some distance to the east of Tay Grove, East Newport. The body was taken charge of by the Newport officer of health, and removed to the temporary deadhouse at the Tay Bridge Station in the afternoon, where it lies for identification.”
None of the remaining passengers were recovered until Day 8, as predicted by the whalers whose marine expertise was utilised. This was because of the build-up of methane gas which caused bodies to float to the surface. Many bodies, as well as flotsam from the train and passengers’ belongings, were washed up on Broughty Ferry beach.
There were of course, lucky escapes. A woman whose daughter was believed to have perished learned by telegram that instead of travelling home, the girl had stayed overnight in Edinburgh.
There was also a gentleman travelling in first class who had ordered a coach to take him to St Andrews, but when the train arrived at Leuchars station, there was no sign of it. So he decided to stay on the train and continue on to Dundee.
The Stationmaster was about to blow the whistle for the train to depart when he saw lights approaching and he helped the gentleman off the train with his luggage. He was the last person to leave the train alive.
There was talk that criminals had taken advantage of the situation by hiring witnesses to state that they had been seen boarding the train at various stations. Since they were presumed dead, the police no longer sought them out and they were able to continue their criminal activities unimpeded.
During the research for my novel The Night He Left, I became even more interested in the tragedy and its affects on Dundonians of the day. The inefficient design of Sir Thomas Bouch (whose bridge was criticised by the Board of Inquiry for being badly designed, badly constructed and badly maintained) contributed to the accident but the designer died a mere nine months afterwards ; no one therefore was ultimately held to account for the tragedy that at the time was mourned across the world. By 1887, when the new Tay Bridge was opened, the citizens had begun to attempt to put the tragedy behind them.
The two granite memorials to those lost in the disaster, one on either side of the river, are fitting tributes to those who died on the day that Dundee’s pride became its anguish.
lThe Night He Left by Sue Lawrence. (Freight Books £9.99)