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Science, Maths & Technology

The Tay Bridge Disaster: The Board of Trade Inquiry

Updated Wednesday 9th May 2007

Details of the Board of Trade Inquiry into the Tay Bridge Disaster, part of the BBC/OU's programme website for Forensic Engineering

Tay Bridge Inquiry report Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: North British Railway / National Archive Scotland The inquiry team, set up by the Board of Trade, held an initial session in Dundee Court House on Saturday, 3rd January 1880.

There were three members:

Mr H Rothery, Chairman
Henry Rothery was a mathematics graduate but trained as a barrister. He had been appointed in 1876 as Wrecks Commissioner. Cases on which he gave judgement included fires at sea on colliers and ways of stowing grain to maximise stability.

Colonel Yolland, Commissioner of Wrecks and Inspector of Railways
Colonel Yolland was a Royal Engineer who also had mathematics training and had worked at the Ordnance Survey in the Tower of London. He had become Chief Railways Inspector in 1877.

Mr W H Barlow, President of the Institute of Civil Engineers
Mr Barlow was a distinguished practising civil engineer.

They were assisted by counsel for the inquiry, the Northern British Railways and other parties involved with construction of the bridge.

In all, they heard 121 witnesses and the final reports were delivered in the remarkably fast time of six months. The magnitude of the disaster and the shock to the railway system may explain the speed of the inquiry but it was also essential to learn the design lessons for future bridges.

What was the conclusion of the Board of Trade inquiry?

the Tay Bridge after the disaster Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission The Board of Trade issued two reports at the end of the inquiry: one authored by the chair, Mr Rothery and the other by the two assessors, Colonel Yolland and Mr Barlow.

They agreed about most of the issues in contention:

  1. There is no evidence to show that there has been any movement or settlement in the foundations of the piers;
  2. The wrought iron was of fair quality;
  3. The cast iron was also fairly good, though sluggish on melting;
  4. The girders were fairly proportioned for the work they had to do;
  5. The iron columns, though sufficient to support the vertical weight of the girders and trains, were owing to the weakness of the cross-bracing and its fastenings, unfit to resist the lateral pressure of the wind;
  6. The imperfections in the work turned out at the Wormit foundry were due in great part to want of proper supervision;
  7. The supervision of the bridge after its completion was unsatisfactory;
  8. If by loosening of the tie bars the columns got out of shape, the mere introduction of packing pieces between the gibs and the cotters would not bring them back to their positions;
  9. Trains were frequently run through the high girder at much higher speeds than at the rate of 25 mph;
  10. The fall of the bridge was probably due to the giving way of the cross-bracing and its fastenings.
  11. The imperfections in the columns might also have contributed to the same result.

(Rothery report)

Rothery went on to look at specific design problems in the bridge, especially the narrow base, the slight inclination of the outer columns and to the omission of spigots at their bases, and to the casting of holes in the lugs and flanges of the 18 inch columns.

He laid the blame for faulty design, construction and maintenance at Bouch’s door. The other two members of the inquiry did not go so far, but felt strongly enough to produce a second joint report on the disaster.

 

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