Tay Rail Bridge Disaster

In the midst of a terrible storm, a train travelling over the Tay bridge to Dundee plummeted into the murky waters of the River Tay, taking with it every life on board. The evening of 28th December 1879 and the preceding events will always be remembered in Dundee’s dark history. Men, women and children all perished during the disaster – one of the worst in the city’s extensive history. Fierce winds tore through the infrastructure of the bridge, collapsing it under the weight of the travelling train, and sending both it and it’s passengers to a watery grave. Rescue attempts were made, but the weather was too troublesome for the rescuers, and they were forced to abandon their task until the weather subsided.

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By early 1878, the bridge was certified as usable, initially subject to a maximum speed limit of 25mph, after a Board of Trade inspection spent three days inspecting both its structure and its capacity to transport goods and passenger locomotives. On 1st June, 1878, the bridge was officially opened for passenger transport across the River Tay to the delight of all involved in its production. However, this joy was not to last. Only 6 months after Queen Victoria had travelled over the bridge, the most horrific of incidents occurred. At 7:13pm, a train approached the bridge amidst winds that were afterwards described as bad as a typhoon or a hurricane. Passing the Southern signal cabin, the train gathered speed for its journey across the river. There are no confirmed or official measurements for the wind on the night of the disaster, but it is estimated to have been blowing at roughly 80mph that evening.

After going no more than 200 yards, the infrastructure of the bridge collapsed under the buckling pressure of the wind and the added weight of the train, sending everything tumbling into the dark, freezing waters below. The whole event would have taken seconds to unfold, but the terror of the passengers and crew on board is unimaginable. Records indicate that it is unknown exactly how many were travelling on the train, but estimate that, based on ticket ledgers and confirmed crew, around 75 people could have potentially been on the train that evening. Of this potential 75, there were only 60 known victims, and only 46 bodies were ever reclaimed from the Tay. Although the families of those who were reclaimed must have been devastated, the families of those who were never recovered must have felt a terrible emptiness at never being able to lay their loved ones to rest.

The design and construction of the bridge came under intense scrutiny and disrepute as a result of the ongoing Inquiry into what factors caused the accident that claimed the lives of so many people. The reputation of Sir Thomas Bouch was in tatters as a result of the faulty design of the bridge, whose high and lengthy girders collapsed under the strain of the severe weather and the speed of the travelling train. Complaints had been made to the stationmasters concerning the speed of the trains travelling into Dundee across the bridge, especially where the high girders connected to the bridge proper. These girders were part of the redesign of the bridge, designed by Sir Thomas upon the realisation that the original structure would not be berthed soundly in the bedrock at the bottom of the river. As you can see in the images to the right, there is limited support between the “level” railway and the redesigned upper girders.

As the girders separated from the main bridge, some witnesses reported extreme but brief flashes of light; others comparing the accident to a falling fireball. Conversely, others claimed to have seen no fire or flashes at all, which only added to the overall confusion of what actually happened in the few seconds after the bridge had come apart.

Previous concerns were raised over the stability of the bridge, not only by passengers, but by workmen carrying out their tasks on the structure, who had all experienced shaking and tremors linked to the redesigned high girders; even more so when a train was crossing. Unfortunately, many reports of the fault were unfounded and flecked with incontinuities, so little was done by way of a thorough investigation into the issues until it was far too late. Sir Thomas was blamed for inadequacies in not only the design and construction of the bridge, but also for the way in which inspections and maintenance were carried out. Poor management of the contractors was also placed on Sir Thomas, who could provide little to no evidence or witnesses to disprove the accusations. Shortcuts had been taken throughout the project due to a variety of factors, including time and financing, which all contributed to a flawed design and, ultimately, a bridge that was destined for disaster.

Further findings showed that the pillars supporting the weight of the bridge were not adequately secured, with poor metalwork, uneven masonry and poor choice of materials contributing to the overall ineffectiveness of the bridge over a sustained period of time. If it had not been for the combination of these factors, coupled with the unusually adverse weather, the Tay rail bridge may have lasted for some time, but not indefinitely. Below is a list of the missing and the dead, detailing the order the bodies were recovered and a little detail about each of them.

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image courtesy of Paddy McArtney at Dilkusha photography

The first body recovered from the disaster was that of 54 year old Ann (Annie) Cruickshanks, a single domestic servant living in Edinburgh.  Originally from Kingsbarns, Fife, she was recovered on 29th December 1879 in waters near Newport.  She is believed to have been travelling with 53 year old widow, Mary Easton, whose body was never recovered.

It was not until 5th January 1880 that the second body was recovered.  24 year old David Johnston, a railway guard now living in Edinburgh was found near the Tay (rail) bridge; his death leaving behind a young wife and child.

The following day, to the east of the bridge, local tradesman John Lawson, 25, was recovered.  Described as having reddish, curly hair, and wearing a dark tweed jacket, John joined the train at Ladybank, presumably returning home to see his wife and two children.

At the same time as John Lawson was recovered, searchers also found the body of 22 year old James Leslie, a clerk residing in Baffin Street with his parents.  Records show that he “assisted his parents” and was also listed as “single”, which could lead us to assume that his parents required a level of care and financial assistance that may not have allowed John much personal time to save money in order to settle down himself.

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Slightly further West of the point where John and James were located, another body was found.  William Jack was 23 and a grocer in Dundee, who had joined the train in Dairsie, returning home to Dundee.  He had been visiting his mother, to comfort her in the wake of losing her daughter (his sister) only 2 weeks prior to the disaster.

Later that same afternoon, searchers located James Crighton, 22.  It is not recorded where he boarded the train, but it is known that he had attended his father’s funeral in Stair (Ayrshire).  Notes further indicate that he was considering approaching his employers to ask if he could take his father’s employment in order that he could provide for his mother and his eight siblings.

The final recovery of 6th January 1880 was that of 34 year old Robert Watson, a moulder from Dundee, travelling back home from Cupar.  In the late afternoon, as daylight was in it’s final stages, his body was found “abreast” of the Mars training ship.  Robert was travelling with his two young sons, Robert and David, who were recovered during the course of the search.  Robert’s wife, Mary was left widowed and had lost two of her sons, and still had a 3 year old and a 16 month old to take care of at home.

January 7th 1880 saw another large recovery, thanks to the valiant attempts of brave and determined searchers, who trawled the Tay for hours in desperate attempts to find all the casualties of the horrific disaster.  The first recovery of the day was made early in the morning.

John Marshall, 24, was found in waters to the East of the first broken pillar (closest to what is now Riverside Drive).  He was part of the train crew on board that day, joining the train at Edinburgh and leaving behind a young wife.

Less than 2 hours later, searchers recovered David Watson.  At 18 years old and single, David had already lost his father.  Records do not show a great deal of information relating to him, other than he was registered as a commission agent and was the son of a tobacconist.

41 year old William McDonald was the next recovery.  Of stout build, with fair hair, William was a sawmiller who lived in the city.  He was found not long before noon, with records showing that he was married with 2 children – one of whom, 11 year old David, boarded the train with him at Newburgh.

At the same time as William was located, the body of teacher and registrar David Neish was found.  Having visited relatives in Kirkcaldy, David was travelling home with his 4 year old daughter Isabella.  With distinct “salt and pepper” hair, wearing a tweed suit, tweed overcoat and a dress hat, David died with some of his possessions still on him, such as a chained, silver watch and a brown silk umbrella.  His widow was left to raise their remaining four children.

James Millar, 26, from Dundee, but working in Dysart (near Kirkcaldy) was the 4th body found that day, taking the total recovered after thirteen days, to ten.  A flax dresser, James left behind a wife and child.  It is understood that James worked away from home to support his young family, and visited them at weekends.

Volunteers continued to trawl the area of water in and around the broken pillars and quickly located the body of 18 year old William Threlfell, from Dundee.  Described in the records as having “fair hair, thin face, fair complexion, rather slender make”, Wiliam was a confectioner in the city who had boarded the train at Edinburgh, along with a great deal of the passengers on that fated journey.

It was a few hours after this find that they came across the form of John Sharp, a 35 year old joiner, employed at the time by James Keiller & Sons, was found, again “abreast” the Mars.  He was the sole provider for his mother and father who lived in St Andrews.  He is described as being 5’10”, with a fair complexion and hair, grey eyes and having a small moustache.

Walter Ness was found an hour or so later some distance East of where the Mars was berthed under the bridge.  At 24, he was member of the Dundee Artillery Volunteers, and was buried with full military honours.  Dark featured and well dressed, Walter, originally of Kirkcaldy, joined the train at Ladybank, presumably to visit his mother in the Wellgate area of Dundee.

On 8th January 1880, around 11am, Thomas Davidson was found to the East of one of the destroyed pillars.  At 28 and single, he is described as a farm servant, orginally from Kilconquhar in Fife.  Amongst his possessions, he was found to have a silver watch, as well as silver rings in his ears.

Within an hour or so, the second body of the day was recovered close to another of the broken support pillars.  Archibald Bain, 26, had been visiting his uncle in Cupar with his younger sister, Jessie.  It is mentioned in the record of bodies that his father identified his body, as his mother had already passed away.

The eighteenth passenger to be recovered was 23 year old Alexander (Alec) Robertson, who lived with his brother in Dundee, but had been visiting his father in Abernethy prior to the disaster.  Wearing a Rob Roy tartan scarf, a grey tweed suit and possessing a silver watch, Alexander is described as being a single labourer of “ordinary make”, about 5’1″ tall, and having large whiskers and a round face.  His brother, William, was also travelling with him.

Fair-haired George Johnston, a 25 year old mechanic joined the train at St. Fort (South-East of Wormit) with his fiance Eliza Smart.  He was also found in the proximity of the previous two bodies.  The body of his fiance was never recovered.  George was the final body to be extracted from the river that day.

The last body extracted from the river that day was James Foster Henderson, 22.  A labourer who joined the train at Ladybank, with fair skin and hair, and of “stout build”, it was noted that one of his fingers was deformed (but records do not seem to indicate which one).  He was survived by his father, mother and 7 siblings.

William Peebles was the first discovery of the morning of 9th January 1880.  Leaving behind a wife and 8 children, William had boarded the train after an attendance at a funeral.  Originally from Dundee, William lived and worked in Inverness as a land steward.

11 year old David McDonald was found a few hours after the discovery of William Peebles, close by to where his body had been found.  Both the bodies of William and David are listed as being found “Abreast of Training Ship Mars, in line with 3rd Broken Pier”.  David was the son of William McDonald and was found almost 24 hours after his father.  He is described as small for his age, with dark features and was wearing, amongst other items, a dark tweed suit, a black velvet scarf and a mourning cap.  It is unclear if there had been a recent death in the family that he could have been in mourning over.

The river relinquished the body of Robert Watson (Jnr), 6, on the afternoon of 9th January 1880, not far from the bridge.  The first of Robert Watson’s sons to be discovered after his own body was recovered, is described as being stout, wearing a dark tweed suit, pink wristbands, a tartan scarf, a blue and white shirt and a velvet bonnet.

Divers returned the body of David Cunningham to the shore on 10th January 1880, having found him 500 yards below the third pier.  David also joined the train at St. Fort, and was travelling with his friend and co-lodger Robert Fowlis at the time of the disaster.  Simply depicted as “Stout, 5’9″, No Whiskers”, 21 year old David is listed as being a mason.  Amongst his possessions was a silver watch with a leather chain.

The 25th body to be recovered was that of Elizabeth McFarlane.  The records do not show which date she was recovered from the water, but it can be assumed that she was recovered on either 10th January 1880 or 11th January 1880, as she was the 25th passenger to be found.

Robert Frederick Syme was located mid-morning of the 11th January 1880.  He was a 22 year old clerk, joining the train in Edinburgh.  Found amongst his belongings were 5 £1 notes, sovereigns, a travelling bag and a silver watch.

Robert Fowlis was a 21 year old, clean-shaven mason.  He co-lodged with the aforementioned David Cunningham, and was located around noon on 12th January 1880.  With no father listed, Robert was listed as the primary supporter of his elderly and incapable mother, Ann.

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On 13th January 1880, William Veitch was found to the east of one of the piers.  18 year old William had already lost his mother, and was survived by his father and his two younger sisters, who were not travelling with him from Cupar to Dundee.  Records indicate that William was wearing a lot of new clothes, but we do not know any more than this at this time.

That afternoon, David McBeth, 44, a railway guard from Dundee was found in his guard’s uniform, and was part of the fated crew of the doomed train.  Tall, with dark features, David was unmarried and died leaving his already-widowed mother to grieve alone.

Slightly later that same afternoon, near to the 2nd broken pier, 21 year old railway stoker, George Ness was brought to shore.  Records indicate that he, like so many others, was survived by a young wife and child.

It was not until 16th January 1880 that the body of 9 year old David Livie Watson was found washed up on the beach near Broughty Ferry Castle.  The brother of Robert Watson (Jnr) and the son of Robert Watson, both of whom had been recovered earlier, David was the last member of the family to be returned to land.

From 16th January 1880, recoveries were sporadic.  Sometimes days, if not weeks would pass without any further findings.  It was not until 23rd January 1880 that the next body was found.  John Scott was making a surprise visit to Dundee to visit relatives after he had lost his job with Halcyon as a seaman.  A diver recovered the 30 year old’s body early that afternoon, and reports show that he was missing a number of teeth.  Whether or not this was a result of the disaster is unclear.

Isabella Neish, daughter of David Neish, was recovered on 27th January 1880 at Wormit Bay, 20 days after her father’s body was found.  She was 4.

Over a week later, on 6th February 1880, London resident James Murdoch, 21, was located by a diver south of the 1st pier.  It is believed he was making the journey to visit his family, who lived in Dundee.

The following day, 7th February 1880, the first of two bodies to be found that day was recovered close to shore at Newport Pier.  39 year old William Henry Beynon was born in Wales, but his reasons for travelling to Dundee are unclear.  His father and mother were both recorded as deceased, and he was noted as married and living in Gloucester, where he worked as a photographer.

The next person to be found later that day was Peter Salmond.  Having been brought to shore by the tide near Monifieth, Peter, 43, was married and worked as a blacksmith.  He lived in Dundee with his wife, but there is no record of them having any children.

9 days later, on 16th February 1880, the body of 43 year old George McIntosh was found on the shores of the beach at Eathiehaven (now known as Lunan Bay).  A Dundee resident, George was survived by his wife, who was not travelling with him.  Records show that he was fair-haired, and was wearing (amongst other things), a tweed checked suit, a tweed shirt and stockings of “Grey and Scarlet”.

Oil and colour merchant, David Jobson, 39, was next to be discovered by searchers, approximately 400 yards from the Fife shoreline, near Newport on 17th February 1880.  Records show that his parents were also deceased and he was survived by a wife, Mary, but no reported children.

A diver located the body of Jessie Bain in the afternoon of 18th February 1880, over one month after her brother’s body had been recovered.  As with her brother Archibald, it was her father who had to come once again to identify her body, as her mother was already deceased.  She is described as being of “stout make” and had “brown or fair hair”.

On the morning of 1st March 1880, almost 2 weeks after the last discovery, the on-duty engine driver of the ill-fated locomotive, David Mitchell, 37, was spotted on a sandbank between Tayport and Broughty Ferry.  WIth his passing, his wife was left to raise their 5 young children aged between 8 years and 13 months.

Far East of Tayport, George Taylor’s body was pulled from the river on 11th March 1880.  25 year old George was a stonemason and lived in Dundee, helping to support his widowed mother.  He was travelling with Elizabeth Nicoll, a married woman, but it is not clear what their relationship was.  Her body was never recovered.

Near to the Buddon Ness lighthouse, by Carnoustie, Robert Culross was the next person to be located on 13th March 1880.  Records are not clear whether he had been brought to shore by the tide, or whether he was found in the waters by the lighthouse, but he is believed to be a carpenter, residing in Tayport.  He was identified by Captain Edwards, who is presumed to be a friend of his deceased father, Robert, who was a seaman.

15 year old James Peebles was travelling from his parent’s home in St Fort (South-East of Wormit).  The reason for his journey over the rail bridge is unknown, as he is noted as living in Newport, where he worked as an apprentice grocer.  His body was discovered at Tayport Harbour in the early hours of 11th April 1880, almost one month after Robert Culross was found.

Later that morning, an unsettling discovery was made by local fisherman hauling in salmon nets.  Thomas Ross Annan, 20, orginally from Newburgh, was an iron-turner employed at Wallace Works.  He was found caught in the netting and was pulled to shore, before being identified by his Uncle.

On 14th April 1880, the Captain of Abertay Lightship spotted the floating body of Margaret Kinnear, 17, close to his vessel.  Described as having blue eyes and sharpened features, Margaret was also disclosed as wearing a striped petticoat, dark green dress and other black overgarments, trimmed with feathers and furs.  She worked as a domestic servant for Robert Lee, who later confirmed her identity.

Joseph Low Anderson was recovered close to Caithness Coast on 23rd April 1880.  Being this far from the site of the disaster, it is likely that his body was found by a passer-by or perhaps a member of a ship’s crew, but there is no record of who notified the authorities.  Joseph is described as being 21, of fair features, with a pimpled neck, and was employed as a compositor (he set up text frames for printers).

The final body to be recovered from the River was that of 21 year old William Robertson.  Strangely, he was found close to the Mars Training Ship on the evening of 27th April 1880, almost 4 months to the day since the disaster.  A labourer from Abernethy, he lived with Mr and Mrs Bain in Dundee, whilst helping to support his father.  Mrs Bain identified his body in the absence of a family member.

The following people were passengers on the train on the night of the disaster whose bodies were unfortunately never recovered from the waters:

Eliza Smart, 22, was travelling with her fiance, George Johnston (recovered on 8th January 1880).  She worked as a table maid in Dundee, but was herself born in Kingsbarn, Fife.  It is noted that one of her legs were smaller than the other, and was bandaged at the time.

David Scott, 26, was a goodsguard from Dundee, and joined the train at St Fort, presumably returning home from work or visiting relatives.  No spouse or dependants were listed.

Elizabeth Hendry Brown, 14, was a tobacco spinner in Dundee and was travelling on the train with her grandmother from Leuchars.

Elizabeth Mann, 62, is the grandmother of Elizabeth Hendry Brown, and was a widow, dressed in black clothes and wearing a crepe bonnet.

Euphemia Cheape was a 51 year old domestic servant from Dundee, travelling from St Fort.  Her passing left behind six adult children, and her husband,James.

21 year old Annie Spence worked as a weaver in the city, and resided in Dundee with Mrs Whitelaw (relationship unknown), who reported her missing soon after the disaster.

Aberdonian Mary Marion Montgomerie Easton, 53, was the travelling companion of Ann (Annie) Cruickshanks, the first person to be recovered after the disaster.  Listed as the widow of Reverend James Cruickshanks Easton, it can be assumed that she was a relative, by marriage, of Ann Cruickshanks.  She was described as having a large forehead, a small mouth and a turned up nose.

David Graham was a teacher in Stirling.  David, 37, boarded the train at Edinburgh, and has no clear links to Dundee, but was indentified by Dundonian James Ferguson.  Records do not indicate what the relationship between the two was.

Elizabeth Nicoll, 24, was travelling with George Taylor at the time of the tragedy, whose body was recovered on 11th March 1880.  Elizabeth is listed as married to David Nicoll, but it is not clear why she was travelling from Newburgh with Mr Taylor.

Wiliam Nelson, a 31 year old from Gateshead, Tyne and Wear was also amongst the list of missing.  He worked a machine fitter and was married to an ill woman, and had no children.  William was reported missing by his relative, George Nelson.

John Hamilton, 32, was a grocer from Dundee.  He left behind a wife and 3 children.  He joined the train at Leuchars and is presumed to have been returning home after visiting his sister in Guardbridge, Fife.

Donald Murray, 49, was a mail guard, working on-duty on the night the bridge fell.  He was wearing his standard uniform and left behind his second wife, Eliza, and two young children, as well as two adult children, from his first marriage to Mary Bell.

Elizabeth Milne was a 21 year old dressmaker from Newburgh, Fife.  It is not known where she boarded the train, or why.

7 thoughts on “Tay Rail Bridge Disaster

  • June 1, 2015 at 1:59 pm
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    Very interesting and informative article. Do you know in which cemetery any of the victims were laid to rest. I have looked in the Howff but not seen any of the named people.

    Reply
  • October 31, 2015 at 9:26 am
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    Hi I’m the great great niece of Anne Cruickshank and great niece of Elisa Smart, both victims of the Taybridge disaster. I was brought up with tales of this tragedy and the people mentioned though never met became well known to me. I have just finished reading Robin Lumley book re this subject. In
    it he has branded Anne Cruickshanks a jewel thief. I wondered if you had ever heard of these rumours. I realise this man’s work is partly fiction but I can’t understand how someone’s character can be annihilated without the least bit of proof. I have tried getting in touch with Robin Lumley, to ask for evidence of my Aunts crime but failed. I wonder is you could shed some light on this subject

    Thank you
    Lesley Mclaughlin

    Reply
    • October 31, 2015 at 10:17 am
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      Hi Lesley thanks for your comment. It’s not a rumour we’ve heard, apart from in that book so it could well be fiction, but we’ll ask around and dig into it while doing research and let you know if we find any proof. I’m sure if Anne Cruickshank was a jewel thief there will be some evidence, some article in the newspapers around that time. If we find out anything we’ll be in touch.

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    • December 28, 2015 at 8:21 am
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      I know there was some research done by Tay Valley Family History Society in Dindee and a book. They may have more information.

      Reply
  • January 24, 2016 at 6:51 pm
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    Have weirdly always been drawn and terrified to this story, on looking through the names I was drawn to Eliza smart. On reading a little about her it was said that she had one leg shorter than the other as do I. Brought chills to my body!!

    Reply

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