Failed design triggers horrific Tay Bridge terror

THE TAY Bridge disaster of 1879 remains one of Scotland's most notorious and haunting events. The story has an almost gothic intensity: a great man-made structure, the pride of Victorian Britain and the longest bridge in the world at the time, is destroyed by the wild forces of nature one winter night, sending 75 people plunging to their deaths.

Although a bridge over the great estuary of the Tay had been planned for many years, it was not until a meeting of the North British Railway Company, in November 1869, that the dreams were finally turned into action. A proposed design by Thomas Bouch received overwhelming approval from shareholders. Bouch had constructed several bridges previously and had a reputation for building structures that were completed on time and within budget. Work began and soon the foundation stone of the structure was laid on 25 July 1871.

The bridge's construction involved sinking piers into the riverbed that would then be built upon with a structure of columns and girders to the height required. The bridge had 85 spans between the piers which, at the highest section, rose to 88ft (26.8 metres) above the river and were known as the "high girders".

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The construction of such a mighty and unprecedented structure understandably encountered problems. In February 1877, a violent storm blew up and, as a boat approached the bridge to rescue some stranded workers, "…the whole sky was lighted up for a few seconds with great bursts of fire," The Scotsman reported at the time. "It was evident … that some serious disaster had befallen the bridge."

Two of the large girders, each weighing 200 tons, had been blown down. A degree of hubris was noticeably evident after this accident, as it was now felt that the event proved the bridge's strength rather than pointing out the fragility of its most critical sections.

One of the damaged girders was recovered, repaired and, astonishingly by today's standards, replaced on the bridge. This is pinpointed as a critical error as the weakened girder may have contributed to the later disaster. Nevertheless the bridge was ready on time and within budget and opened for rail traffic on 26 September 1877.

Less than two years after the bridge's opening, on 29 December 1879, a storm, estimated by observers to be around 10 or 11 on the Beaufort 0-to-12 scale, began to sweep across eastern Scotland.

In Edinburgh, the 4.15pm train to Dundee left on time, making its way north across Fife, before arriving at St Fort, the last station before the Tay Bridge crossing. There, 72 passengers were counted, which, along with the train's three crewmen, are accepted as being the disaster's final death toll. The train then made its way across the bridge, on time for its 7.20pm arrival. It would never arrive.

Only one eyewitness seems to have observed what happened from the southern end. Railway worker John Watt had been sheltering in a signalman's hut when the train set out. He watched the light on the guard's wagon until it was in the vicinity of the highest part of the bridge. Then Watt observed two events: the light was seen to "fall away" and bright flashes appeared from what he surmised was the front part of the train. He remarked to the signalman: "either the girders or the train is down."

Observers on the Dundee side reported a more dramatic sight: "Almost simultaneous with the entry of the train upon this part [the high girders section] of the bridge, a comet-like burst of fiery sparks sprang out as if forcibly ejected into the darkness from the engine. In a long visible trail, the streak of fire was seen till quenched in the stormy water below. Then there was absolute darkness on the bridge." Something had obviously occurred, but what?

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James Roberts, locomotive superintendent along with the Dundee stationmaster, James Smith, went out onto the bridge to investigate. The winds were still extremely strong and they found that they had to crawl along the rails on all fours until they saw a terrible sight. The entire high girders section of the bridge had gone. Now there was no doubting the horrible truth. The train had plunged into the Tay and 75 persons had almost certainly lost their lives.

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Causes of the disaster

Tay Bridge Disaster – MacGonagall poem

From the archive

Appalling CatastropheThe Scotsman29 December 1879

An immediate launch of rescue vessels took place, but the weather conditions made such efforts in vain. Bodies were soon being recovered from the shores of the estuary. Although great efforts were made to find all of the dead, tides swept some corpses into the North Sea beyond recovery. In the end, only 46 bodies were found.

After a six-month investigation, two accident reports were issued. Two of the inquiry members were engineers and their findings differed from the chairman's. However, agreed conclusions were that:

the design was basically faulty

construction and materials were not of a high enough standard

supervision of the bridge was unsatisfactory

train speeds over the bridge were too high

generally, safety had been ignored in favour of savings.

Blame was mostly apportioned to Sir Thomas Bouch (he had been knighted after the bridge's completion) for failing to design a sufficiently strong structure. Whether from stress induced by the disaster - in which Bouch's own son-in-law had been one of the dead - or otherwise, the health of the famous engineer started to fail, and on 30 October 1880 he died and was buried in Edinburgh's Dean Cemetery.

The disaster was a shock for the entire engineering and construction profession in Britain. Future projects such as the Forth Bridge and replacement Tay Bridge were designed and built with safety in mind. If one compares the original Tay Bridge with the new constructions, then the flimsy Bouch structure looks woefully inadequate. Tragically, it is in large part due to the deaths of 75 people that Victorian engineering came to enter its greatest era.

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