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Tay Bridge disaster
Tay Bridge disaster

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5.2 Eye-witness testimony

Their first main aim was to question local witnesses, including several who claimed to have seen the fall itself. One especially impressive eye witness was Alexander Maxwell, who lived on Magdalen Green, near the north end of the bridge. He was examined by Mr Trayner, counsel for the enquiry:

942. You are an engineer? – Yes

943. You live with your father, who is an ex-baillie of this town at Magdalen Green, do you not? – I do

944. I believe it is immediately to the north of the bowstring girder? – Yes

945. On Sunday evening, the 28th of December, do you remember that there was a great storm? – Yes

946. Did anything happen to your house or about your house which alarmed you? – Yes, in the first place I noticed the chandeliers of the room shaken; I noticed them move, and about 10 minutes past 7 the chimney cairns came down from the top of the house, about five of them

947. There were some friends at your house that night, I believe? – There were

948. And there was a suggestion made that you should look out and see the bridge, and what effect the gale would have upon it? – Yes

951. You turned down the lights in your house and looked out? – Yes

953. Tell me what you saw? – The first thing that caught my attention was the signal light, a little to the north of the high girders, it was flickering, I thought that the lamp of the signal was on fire. Then almost at that moment, or shortly afterwards, I saw two lights of the engine coming on to the bridge on the south side, and I followed it on closely to the big girders, where I saw a flashing of the lights; the light would be flashes as it were passing the spars.

957. When it got to the high girders tell us what you saw? – At that time I thought I saw the lights shaken, but I suppose it would not be the case. Before it came to the big girders I thought I saw the lights shaken, but when it came to the big girders I saw as it were, flashes passing as it would be the spars of the big girders between me and the train.

958. You saw it coming on, but it was occasionally observed as it came past a high girder or spar? – Yes; then it suddenly disappeared about the third or fourth girder from the south side

959. At the time of its disappearance did you see any fire or light? – Not at the time, but about a second or two seconds afterwards there was a flash about two girders in advance of the train; then after that there was another light at about two girders, all coming towards the north; then there was a third flash. Taking it roughly, it would be two girders from the north side.

960. (The Commissioner): Will you say that over again; about two seconds after you had seen the light disappear what did you see? – There was a flash from about two girders in front of the train.

The witness went on to explain that by two girders, he meant two lengths between piers.

There was another witness who also lived on Magdalen Green. Peter Barron was 56 years old and employed as a carriage inspector on the Caledonian Railway, another Scottish railway company. His house also overlooked the bridge, and he related events as follows during his examination:

2893. On Sunday, the 28th of December, were you at home in the evening? – I was.

2894. Did anything happen to your chimney pots? – Yes, one of the cairns came rolling down.

2895. Did that bring you out of the house? – Yes.

2896. What kind of night was as regards light? – The moon came out occasionally; there were clouds passing.

2897. When the clouds were not obscuring the moon did you see the bridge? – Easily.

2898. At your house are you on the east or west side of the bridge? – I would be about 200 yards on the west side of the bridge.

2899. Can you see its whole length from the place where the curve ceases and the comparatively straight line begins to run across from the north side to the south? – Yes.

2900. The whole length? – Yes.

2901. When you came out on Sunday night to look at what happened to your house did you see the bridge? – I went round when I came out first, and one chimney cairn went. I had some glass at the back side of my house, and I then found it was blown out, and I put a stone locker or two in. I just put them in to keep the glass in. Some splits were coming down round about my ears, and I bolted. Before I went to the house I said I would go and see what the bridge was doing. I knew it was train time. I came straight across Blackness Road, a 20-foot-wide road, and there was a gate belonging to Mr Hunter and two posts, and I took one of them in my arm, and put myself in that position (describing) and I kept my eye on the north end of the bridge not further than that (describing). I was in that position for a second or two, and then I saw, as I thought then, and as I think yet, something about the first or second girder passing into the river, as it appeared to my eye. I looked immediately behind, and then another fell, and I saw a light, as it was just a mere blink.

2902. You saw as you believed then, and believe now, two distinct parts of the bridge fall into the river; on what side? – On the east side.

2903. Those were the parts of the bridge to the south, the beginning of the high part of it? – Exactly.

2904. Did the first part that you saw fall far away immediately from the place where the high part began? – As near as I could guess in my mind it would have been about the first girder or the second girder upon the high girders. I just immediately got nervous at once, and I rubbed my eye and in a second I saw another movement at that time, and I saw a light.

2905. What light was it? – I could not tell.

2906. Do you mean on the bridge? – Yes, on the southernmost part of the high girders, or near it.

2907. Further south than where you saw the pieces of fire? – Decidedly, just a blinking light; just a second.

2908. Was it a white light or a coloured light? – I would not speak upon the light. It was just a blink that I got altogether, just a sort of blink. I cannot speak as to the colour; it was a clear light.

2909. Did you see the light before the girder fell? – No.

2910. The first thing that struck you in reference to this was the fall of one piece of a high girder of the bridge? – Yes.

2911. Then there fell a second bit, and then a light? – No; what I saw first, as I thought then, and think still, was a part of the second girder going off, and then in a second or two I saw another lump going, and just at the time that I saw the southernmost part of the girder, I saw a blink of light, and the blink of light had cleared away. The moon was shining as clear as could be on the river, and I saw the large piers from end to end nearest to the girders.

Both eye-witnesses agreed about the essentials of the disaster, although they differed in the details of exactly what they had seen. The differences are characteristic of eye-witness evidence, but are not necessarily in conflict because of the different viewpoints of the witnesses. In many ways, a reasonably consistent picture of the disaster emerges from their evidence.

Question 8

After making a detailed comparison of the evidence of the two eye witnesses, describe:

  1. the situation of each witness when they saw the bridge failure;

  2. exactly what each witness saw when the girders fell.

Discuss the differences and the common features between the two statements concerning the fall of the girders. To what factors do you attribute any differences? Based on their evidence, what is the most likely sequence of events during the fall?


  1. Both witnesses lived at Magdalen Green in Dundee on the northern bank of the Tay, and were at home on the night of the accident. Maxwell was inside his house when he witnessed the fall of the bridge, while Barron was outside his house, holding onto a post across the Blackness road. Maxwell doesn't mention the state of visibility, but Barron says the moon was shining on the river and he could see the piers plainly.

  2. Both men had been attending to damage caused by the high wind, both suffering loss of chimney pots. Their attention passed to the bridge, Maxwell actually observing the train moving into the high girders. Both are agreed they saw parts of the high girders falling into the river. They also agree the process was sequential over a period of several seconds, with further girders falling. Barron says he saw the first or second girders fall, while Maxwell saw girders ahead of the train falling into the Tay. He also saw several flashes of light, while Barron saw only one. They were standing in different positions, so would have had a different perspective of events on the bridge.

Maxwell says he saw the train travelling on the bridge, judging by the flash effect as the lights of the train passed behind sparsing of the high girders. He thought he saw he saw the lights shake (957), just before they suddenly disappeared at about the third or fourth girder from the south side (958). After about two seconds, he saw a flash about two girders in front of the train after the disappearance, followed by two more flashes travelling up the length of the high girders to the north (959).

Barron said he saw something pass into the river at about the first or second girder. Another fell and he saw a light at about the same time (2901).

Their evidence shows the bridge may have been shaking just before the disaster. Then the girders starting dropping from the piers, probably from the south side and progressing north to engulf the whole structure. They both saw flashes of light, which could represent the energy developed by frictional forces as the girders were dragged from the pier heads in sequence. Most of the girders were only resting on top of the piers.

Maxwell is especially accurate in placing the disappearance of the train at about ‘the third or fourth girder’, the train actually being found between piers 4 and 5. Their evidence shows the bridge collapsed sequentially, pier by pier, probably starting at pier 4 or 5. The other piers collapsed because the high girders were wrenched from their positions on the pier heads.

Further eye-witness testimony, however, showed there were some contradictions in the evidence. The high girders were about half a mile from the north shore at Dundee, it was night and the moon partly obscured by cloud and the storm, at the time of the fall, about 7.15 pm. Some thought the north end fell first, others pointed to first fall at the south.

Testimony was also taken from the station master at Dundee and many local dignitaries, including the provost of the town. As frequent users of the bridge, they expressed concern at the high speed of trains running over the bridge and vibrations set up by the passage of trains. It was variously described as a prancing, bounding or dirling motion – a dirl is Scots dialect for a vibration or a tingling. It was difficult, however, to distinguish vibrations of the train itself from those attributable to the bridge from the evidence of train passengers.