Did your ancestor die in the Tay Bridge disaster?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Tay Bridge Disaster
From the Illustrated Police News for 10 January 1880

On Sunday 28 December 1879, a 1,060 yard stretch of the Tay Bridge, the longest railway bridge in the world, collapsed killing 75 men, women and children.

The UK TV series Find My Past featured a programme about the disaster which prompted me to dust off this research which I carried out several years ago and post it here together with a short series of posts telling the story of the disaster.

Sixty victims were identified but only 45 victims’ bodies were recovered.  The known victims are listed below – where no town is given in the address then the victim lived in Dundee.

Name   Occupation Address
Anderson, Joseph 21 Compositor 13 South Ellen Street
Annan, Thomas 20 Iron turner 48 Princes Street
Bain, Archibald 26 Farmer Mains of Balgay
Bain, Jessie 22 Sister of the above Mains of Balgay
Benyon William + 1 Photographer Cheltenham
Brown, Lizzie 14 Tobacco spinner 28 Arbroath Road
Cheap, Mrs 51 Domestic servant 121 High Street, Lochee
Crichton, James Ploughman Mains of Fintry
Cruickshank, Annie 54 Domestic servant Moray Place, Edinburgh
Culross, Robert Carpenter Newport
Cunningham, David 21 Mason 23 Pitalpin Street, Lochee
Davidson, Thomas 28 Farm servant Linlathen
Easton, Mrs Widow
Fowlis, Robert 21 Mason 23 Pitalpin Street, Lochee
Graham, David 37 Teacher Stirling
Hamilton, John 32 Grocer 16 North Ellen Street
Henderson, James 22 Labourer 3 Church Street
Hendry, Elizabeth 62 Prior Road, Forfar
Jobson, David 39 Oil & colour merchant 3 Airlie Place
Johnston, David 24 Railway guard Edinburgh
Johnston, George 25 Mechanic
Jack, William Grocer 57 Mains Road
Kinnear, Margaret 17 Domestic servant 6 Shore Terrace
Leslie, James 22 Clerk Boffin Street
Lawson, John 25 Plasterer 39 Lilybank Road
McBeath, David 44 Railway guard 46 Castle Street
Mackdonald, William 41 Sawmiller 70 Blackness Road
Mackdonald, David 11 Schoolboy 70 Blackness Road
Mitchell, David 37 Engine driver 89 Peddie Street
Marshall, John 24 Stoker 18 Hunter Street
Murray, Donald 49 Mail guard 13 South Ellen Street
Milne, Elisabeth Dressmaker
Murdoch, James 21 Engineer 1 Thistle Street
Millar, James Flax dresser Dysart
McIntosh, George 43 Goods guard 25 Hawkhill
Neish, David 37 Teacher & registrar 51 Couper Street, Lochee
Neish, Bella 5 Daughter of the above 51 Couper Street, Lochee
Ness, Walter 24 Saddler 4 Bain Square, Wellgate
Ness, George
Neilson, William 31 53 Monk Street, Gateshead
Nicoll, Mrs Elisabeth 24 46 Bell Street
Paton, James 42 Mechanic Edinburgh
Peebles, William 30-40
Peebles, James 15 Apprentice grocer Newport
Robertson, William 21 Labourer 100 Foundry Lane
Robertson, Alexander 23 Labourer 100 Foundry Lane
Salmond, Peter 43 Blacksmith 50 Princes Street
Scott, David 26 Goods guard 7 Yeaman Shore
Scott, John 30 Pipe maker
Sharp, John 35 Joiner 76 Commercial Street
Smart, Eliza 22 Domestic servant Union Mount, Perth Road
Spence, Annie 21 Weaver 62 Kemback Street
Syme, David 22 Clerk Royal Hotel, Nethergate
Taylor, George 25 Mason 56 Union Street
Threlfell, William 18 Confectioner 9 Union Street
Veitch, William 18 Cabinet maker 39 Church Street
Watson, David Commission agent Newport
Watson, Robert 34 Moulder 12 Lawrence Street
Watson, David 9 Son of the above 12 Lawrence Street
Watson, Robert 6 Son of R Watson 12 Lawrence Stree




Beautiful Railway Bridge

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Tay Bridge Disaster

The Tay Bridge from Tayside (The Graphic, 3 January 1880)

On the last Sabbath day of 1879

At approximately 7.20 pm on Sunday 28 December 1879, a 1,060 yard stretch of the longest railway bridge in the world collapsed, killing 75 men, women and children.  The Tay Bridge disaster sent shock waves through Victorian Britain, ended the career of its designer Sir Thomas Bouch and inspired William McGonnagal, Scotland’s worst poet, to write his famous poem The Tay Bridge Disaster.

During the 1850s and 1860s, the Caledonian Railway and the North British Railway were locked in a bitter struggle for dominance of Scottish railway industry.  The 64-mile journey from Edinburgh to Dundee took three hours and 12 minutes to complete: by train from Edinburgh to Granton on Forth, by ferry to Burntisland, train to Tayport, another boat to Broughty Ferry then a third train to Dundee.  Thomas Bouch had long dreamed of bridging the River Tay, and the North British Railway, which dominated in the east of Scotland, could see the commercial advantages.  After much opposition and politicking, the idea of a bridge over the Tay caught the public’s imagination and the parliamentary bill authorising the construction of Thomas Bouch’s bridge received royal assent on 15 July 1870.  The foundation stone of the new bridge was laid at Wormit, on the south bank of the Tay, on Saturday 22 July 1871.  The river at this point was one mile wide.  However, the line’s route at an angle across the river, and the bends necessary at either end, meant that the bridge would be almost two miles long.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!

The men employed to build the bridge worked 12 hours a day and were paid up to 10d per hour (about 4p in today’s currency).  The developing bridge became a tourist attraction and was visited by many professional engineers.  The most famous visitor was General Ulysses S Grant, former president of the United States, who inspected the work in September 1877.

The bridge took 600 workmen six years to build and cost £300,000 and 20 lives.  The inauguration of a passenger service took place on Friday 31 May 1878.  It was a memorable day: the sun shone, flags flew, bands played, the militia marched, toasts and speeches were made and children lined the street cheering and sucking Tay Bridge rock.

The bridge was a success: the journey time to Edinburgh was cut by an hour, land values on the south bank of the river rose rapidly and the North British Railway Company now dominated the railways in the north of Scotland.  In late June of 1879 Queen Victoria, on her way back from Balmoral, stopped briefly at the new Tay Bridge Station in Dundee and then crossed the bridge.  Thomas Bouch received a knighthood.

Some harboured doubts about the bridge, however.  Regular travellers complained that they could see the girders moving and that trains were exceeding the speed limit.  Maintenance men found bolts that had fallen out and bolts that had rusted through, and there were holes in the girders.

The wind it blew…

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Tay Bridge Disaster

The central girders (from The Graphic of 3 January 1880)

The wind it blew with all its might,

And the rain came pouring down,

December 1879 was a bad month all over Europe, with storms and frosts prevailing.  By about six o’clock on the evening of 28 December, the rain was torrential and an 80-mile-an-hour gale was blowing down the river.  Three railway wagons loaded with coal were blown 400 yards along the track at Tay Bridge Station before the wheels were chocked to prevent them from moving any further.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,

Until it was about midway,

Very few trains ran on Sundays in Scotland at that time, but one that did was the mail train between Dundee and Burntisland in Fife.

At 5.20 pm on that Sunday evening the mail train picked up ferry passengers from Edinburgh and set off on its journey north, stopping at Ladybank, Cupar and Leuchars to pick up additional passengers.  At 7.05 pm, the train arrived at St Fort, the final station before the bridge.  As was the custom, the station staff collected the tickets of all the passengers intending to get off the train at Dundee.  When they sorted the tickets, they had collected 57.  There had been two season-ticket holders, and the 10 or 11 passengers travelling on beyond Dundee still had their tickets.  There were five railway staff on the train.  Five minutes later, the engine reached Wormit signal box and the men on the footplate were given the baton or staff which was the driver’s authority to proceed along the track across the bridge

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known…

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Tay Bridge Disaster
from the Illustrated Police News for 17 January 1880

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known,

The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,

Over in Dundee, several groups of people who were watching the train cross the bridge saw its lights disappear.  In Tay Bridge Station, staff became increasingly worried; the train had not left the bridge and the telegraph was faulty.  Word spread rapidly.  The bridge was down.  A crowd started to gather outside the station and lights sprang from windows across the city as people opened their curtains to stare towards the bridge.  A ferryboat was sent to the bridge and put down a lifeboat to search for survivors.  Unsuccessful, they returned to the harbour about midnight.  Telegrams were sent, via Perth, to the North British Railway, to Sir Thomas Bouch and, from a reporter on the Dundee Advertiser, to the London press.  Few in Dundee slept that night.

On Monday, rumours spread and the crowd grew.  The news travelled across Britain by telegraph and all the later editions of the newspapers used the Tay Bridge disaster as their lead story.  Just before sunset, floating three miles downstream from the bridge, the first body was found.  By Wednesday, divers had found the train and its engine, but no more bodies.  Debris and personal effects started be washed up on the beach.  That evening, the Town Council called a public meeting and proposed that a disaster relief fund be set up.  They had already received £1,980 in donations, including £500 from the North British Railway, £500 from the directors of the company and £250 from Sir Thomas Bouch.

The week dragged on.  A Board of Trade Inquiry was convened.  No more bodies were found, but the crews of the whaling boats searching at the mouth of the river claimed that a drowned man would not rise to the surface until seven days had passed.

 On the Sunday, Sabbatarian ministers had a field day:

 “If there is one voice louder than others in this terrible event it is that o God! Determined to guard his Sabbath with jealous care.”

 “Is it not awful to think that they must have been carried away when many of them must have known that they were transgressing the lawof God?”

On Monday 5 January 1880, the eighth day after the disaster, a second body was found.

By the middle of the second week the bodies of 25 men, women and children had been recovered.  The search went on throughout January.  By the end of the month, 33 bodies had been found.  About four months after the disaster a body, identified as one of the passengers, was washed ashore in Caithness.

In total, 46 bodies were recovered.

from the Illustrated Police News for 17 January 1880

Your central girders…

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Tay Bridge Disaster
from the Illustrated Police Gazette for 17 January 1880

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.

 The Court of Inquiry presented its findings to parliament in June 1880.  The Court concluded that the bridge had been badly designed, badly constructed and badly maintained, but it could not explain what has happened on the night of the disaster.  Sir Thomas Bouch was held almost totally responsible for the disaster.

 Sir Thomas Bouch died on 30 October 1880 and was buried in Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh.

The Disaster Relief Fund totalled £6,527.  Small sums were distributed to the bereaved families, intended to provide immediate assistance rather than long-term support.  The final application to the fund was made, just before the Second World War, by Miss Janet Patterson Scott.  Her brother had been one of guards on the train.  Before the directors of Fund had reached a decision, Miss Scott died in St Andrews, aged 74.

The balance the Fund was ultimately transferred to the Piper Alpha Disaster Appeal and the Fund wound up in 1988.


The grave of Sir Thomas Bouch in Edinburgh's Dean Cemetery (photo by Kim Traynor)