The Tay Bridge Disaster
Revisiting the most catastrophic structural failure in Britain’s history.
In 1879 the Tay Bridge was the longest bridge in the world, spanning two miles across the Tay estuary in southeastern Scotland. On the evening of December 28, 1879, the central part of the span—the so-called high girders—suddenly collapsed, leaving a gap of well over a half-mile. Most disturbing was that the two-year-old bridge collapsed while an express passenger train from Edinburgh was making its way across. The resulting accident claimed the lives of 75 victims, making it the most catastrophic structural failure in Britain’s history.
More than 125 years later the cause of the disaster remains in doubt. In my recent book, “Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay” (Tempus Publishing), I attempt to put an end to the uncertainty. By reexamining the wealth of surviving evidence—in particular the photographic archive and the records from the formal accident investigation of 1880—I reassess the various theories of how and why the bridge came down.
So what happened on that fateful night? A strong gale was blowing, the sky partly cloudy, and a full moon illuminated the landscape. A local train traversed the bridge at a quarter past six and the journey across had been noticeably difficult. Sparks flew from the wheels as the wind tilted the carriages against the guardrail—rails that were designed to prevent toppling in just such circumstances. Passengers later emphasized the violent shaking of the carriages.
At about 7:13 pm, an express train drawn by a much larger and heavier locomotive was seen by witnesses in Dundee passing over the southern part of the bridge, again with some difficulty and with sparks flying from the wheels. An especially severe gust of wind was felt on land just as the train was passing through the high girders at about 7:20 pm, and several observers saw what appeared to be flashes of light coming from the metalwork. The towers in the high girders collapsed progressively and the train plunged into the water below.
Rescuers arrived on the scene by boat at first light the next morning, but found no survivors or bodies. What they did find was remarkable. The high girders were resting on the estuary bed, partly exposed at low tide and remarkably intact. Divers found the train resting between the fourth and fifth piers, also having suffered little damage. In fact, the locomotive would later be restored to a long and working life.
In the aftermath, designer Sir Thomas Bouch alleged that the wind blew the train from the track into the bridge, and that the shock caused the lugs on one of the towers to break, leading to the collapse. However, Bouch’s analysis failed to explain why all twelve towers collapsed and not just the one nearest the point on the high girders that the train allegedly hit.