Skip to content
Science, Maths & Technology

The Tay Bridge Disaster: Context

Updated Wednesday 9th May 2007

The Tay Bridge disaster was a product of its time - how did the race to build railways start a journey that would end in tragedy?

Artist's impression of the Tay Bridge disaster Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Dundee Central Library

When did the Railway Age take off?

The Railway Age started with attempts to make a steam engine small enough to be fitted to a wagon for hauling coal at collieries, the wheels moving on a wooden or iron rail for guidance. Improvements to the drive mechanism led directly to the designing of the ‘Locomotion’ by George Stephenson. The first passenger and goods service for the 27 miles between Stockton and Darlington in County Durham was opened in 1825.

A train crossing the Tay Bridge Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission This was followed in 1830 with a line between Manchester and Liverpool, but the opening saw the first railway fatality: a local MP, Mr Huskisson, who was run down by the locomotive ‘Rocket’.

Both railways were an immediate success, allowing raw materials and manufactures to be transported much faster than by canal. Their popularity with the public was great, both for leisure and work. The railway network expanded fast, although the greatest period of expansion occurred a little later, when railway mania took hold in the 1840s.

How did the building of the Tay and Firth bridges come about?

map of the area Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Two great estuaries lie north of Edinburgh: the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Tay.

The Firth of Forth begins at the ancient town of Stirling and runs 50 miles to the east, where it emerges into the North Sea. Edinburgh is situated on the southern bank at the mouth of the estuary, 30 miles east of Stirling. Eleven miles west of Edinburgh, at Queensferry, the firth narrows down to about a mile in width, but the water is still between 40 and 60 feet deep depending on the tide.

The Firth of Tay lies about 25 miles to the north of the Forth: it begins at Perth and runs east for about 25 miles until it too meets the sea. At this point, near Dundee, the Tay is 1.5 miles wide and is up to 80 feet deep.

The two Firths have always been a major barrier to communications from and to Edinburgh. A passenger who wanted to go from Edinburgh to Dundee and perhaps on to Aberdeen, had to travel the long way round through Stirling and Perth, adding about 60 miles to their journey.

Alternatively, the passenger had to endure two ferry crossings, across the Forth from Granton to Burntisland and then across the Tay from Tayport to Broughty Ferry. The fastest boat train of the day left Waverley station at Edinburgh at 6.25 a.m. and was timed to arrive at Dundee at 9.37 a.m., a journey time of 3 hours 12 minutes for a distance of only 46 miles - at an average speed of only 14 mph! In bad weather, the ferries might not run at all; if they did the hapless passengers would probably arrive cold and sea-sick.

Who came up with the idea of constructing a bridge over the Tay?

the railway line leading up to the Tay Bridge Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission In 1849, the Edinburgh and Northern Railway, who operated the Edinburgh to Aberdeen route, appointed a civil engineer, Thomas Bouch, to be their manager. Twenty-six years old at the time, he immediately set about improving the ferry services that made up part of the route and by 1850 had built what was the world’s first roll-on, roll-off train ferry. Bouch realised, however, that this was only a stop-gap measure: the real answer to the problem was to build railway bridges over the Forth and Tay estuaries.

In 1854, the E&N Railway was taken over by the rapidly expanding North British Railway. Bouch put his proposal for a pair of bridges to the directors of the NBR but they dismissed it as “the most insane idea ever to be propounded”. However, in the long run the case for the bridges was overwhelming and eventually, on 15th July 1870, a Bill was passed by Parliament which authorised the construction of a bridge over the Tay. Bouch, by then an independent consultant, was appointed engineer to the new bridge.

The construction of the bridge was, at the time, the largest single engineering project in Britain, the Tay estuary being about 2 miles wide and the bridge the longest single construction anywhere in the world.

What events led up to the disaster?

tickets for the Tay Bridge train Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission The morning of Sunday December 28th 1879 was quiet. When Captain Wright took his ferry boat, the ‘Dundee’, across the Tay firth at 1.15 p.m., he noted that the weather was good and the water was calm. The 4.15 p.m. crossing was just as uneventful but the Captain noted that the wind had freshened.

By 5.15 p.m. a gale was moving in from the west and the river, in the words of the Captain “was getting up very fast”. The local shuttle train left Newport at 5.50 p.m. and arrived at Dundee station shortly after 6 p.m.. The passengers had had a worrying crossing. Their carriages had been buffeted by the growing force of the storm and lines of sparks had flown from the wheel flanges under the sideways force of the wind.

The mail train from Edinburgh had left Burntisland at 5.20 p.m. and by the time that the local had arrived in Dundee, the mail had reached Thornton Junction, 27 miles south of the bridge. The last station was St Fort, which lay in a small depression south of the bridge. The station staff collected the tickets of the passengers who were going on to Dundee. In addition to three men on the footplate of the locomotive, there were 72 passengers.

By 7.13 p.m., the train had reached the signal station at Wormit. The driver slowed the locomotive down to walking pace so as to check with the signalman that the bridge was clear. Then he opened up the regulator, and took the train out onto the bridge and into the teeth of the westerly gale. The signalman returned to the shelter of his cabin, and sent the ‘train entering section’ signal to his opposite number in the signal box at Dundee.

The train receded into the darkness and the light of the three red tail lamps grew dimmer. Sparks flew from the wheels and merged into a continuous sheet that was dragged to the lee of the bridge parapet. Eyewitnesses would later recall at the Board of Trade Inquiry, that they saw a bright glow of light from the direction of the train just after it must have passed into the High Girders section and then all went dark. The train was timed to pass the Dundee signal box at 7.19 p.m.

When it failed to arrive, the signalman tried to telegraph the Wormit box but to no avail. The obvious conclusion was that the telegraph lines had been severed where they passed over the bridge. James Roberts, the locomotive foreman at the Dundee engine sheds, walked out over the bridge to investigate. Although at times he was forced to crawl on all fours by the force of the gale, he eventually made his way to the end of the low-level girders. Further progress was impossible: the whole length of the High Girders had disappeared into the river taking the train with it. Although steamers went out later that night, no survivors were found.

Who was Thomas Bouch?

Thomas Bouch Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Thomas Bouch was born on 25th February 1822 in Thursby, Cumberland. He was educated at the village school, although his academic interest is said only to have been stirred by a lesson about moving water uphill. Thomas went on to spend three years as a boarder at the Academy School in Carlisle but the death of his father in 1838 led him to take up an apprenticeship with a firm of mechanical engineers based in Liverpool. Thomas quickly found the position unsuitable and returned to Thursby where he started a job as an assistant to George Larmer, a railway surveyor.

In the space of ten years, Bouch worked in a number of positions for several railway companies that were engaged in a period of rapid expansion. Shortly before he turned 27, he was appointed Engineer and Manager for the Edinburgh and Northern Railway, despite his limited managerial experience. It was here that he distinguished himself by introducing roll-on-roll-off ferries. This operation soon attracted other railway engineers’ attention and no doubt gained Bouch a very favourable reputation.

On the back of this success, Bouch left the E&N railway in 1851 and began work as a consultant engineer, having been accepted as an Associate Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1850. In 1853, he married twenty-one-year-old Margaret Nelson. They had three children.

Working on a considerable number of projects, Bouch’s reputation within the railway industry grew. In 1869, a Bill was presented to Parliament for the building of the Tay Bridge. The Bill was passed in July of the following year and the construction process began with Bouch at the helm. However, things did not go to plan. Surveyors had indicated a foundation of bedrock but gravel was discovered instead. As a result, Bouch was forced to redesign his bridge in order to lighten the load on the foundations and the brick piers were replaced with cast iron columns. Despite this setback, the first train crossed the Tay on 26th September 1877, missing the planned completion date by just a matter of weeks.

After the crossing had been inspected and cleared for use in February 1878 by the Board of Trade, the North British Railway was free to open the bridge and did so at an official opening in the May. The Tay Bridge was the longest in the world and cut journey times between Edinburgh and Dundee by an hour. Bouch was awarded the Freedom of the Borough of Dundee. The pinnacle of his career came when Queen Victoria crossed the Tay Bridge in June 1879 and went on to award Bouch a knighthood.

Sir Thomas was making plans for a crossing over the Firth of Forth and had reached the point of laying a foundation stone in September 1878. However, the fateful events of Sunday, 28 December and the subsequent inquiry’s results brought his career crashing to a halt. With the lion’s share of the burden of the accident placed on his shoulders, any hopes he might have had to rebuild the Tay Bridge were dashed.

Bouch was released from the services of the North British Railway in July 1880 and by August his doctor had ordered him to take a period of complete rest. Despite an apparent recovery after two months of illness, Bouch took a turn for the worse, catching a cold which led to his death on 30th October 1880.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?