William Topaz McGonagall and the Disaster over Tay: What Happened in that Life and on that Day


I.

There was a mist over Scotland and there was a moon in the sky. But opinions differ as to which made 75 people die. The bridge was long, the longest of its day. It spanned two miles from Dundee to Wormit across the Firth of Tay. 

In 1871 the North British Railway Act received the Royal Assent. Government funds were lavishly spent. Within the year the Tay Bridge’s foundation stone was laid. However, to the depth of the central waters, little attention was paid. The bedrocks descended too deeply to support the originally planned piers. As a result, project completion was postponed seven years.

The architect was Thomas Bouch, of English descent. He revised his plans to great extent. The piers were set deeper and spaced more widely apart. The superstructure girder spans were thus longer than envisioned at the project’s start. But Bouch pressed on, getting his revisions approved by the Board of Trade. And so the first fatal error was made.

 

 

II.

William Topaz McGonagall was the town of Dundee’s most ardent supporter. But his time there was not without turmoil, often spent flirting with Edinburgh’s border. His father, quietly Irish, was an heirloom weaver. McGonagall soon caught his father’s occupational fever. The job was short-lived, as Scotland traded in its craftsmen for the Industrial Revolution. The transition was only the businessman’s solution. 

McGonagall, tasked with feeding a wife and seven children, still longed to weave. In the year of 1877, a revelation from within he received. He reported a “strange kind of feeling” that lasted precisely five minutes long. He knew then and there that to be anything but a poet would be existentially wrong. On the spot he sat down and wrote his foundational poetic feat, “An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan,” an ordained pastor and poet in Dundee. The first of over 200 obscure works by McGonagall it would be. 

For one poem in particular, “Tay Bridge Disaster,” McGonagall is known. Its opening verse shall be presently shown.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!

Alas! I am very sorry to say

That ninety lives have been taken away

On the last Sabbath day of 1879,

Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

 

III.

The last Sabbath day of 1879 was December 28. Many onlookers that evening reported forewarnings of the bridge’s impending fate. At a quarter past six a northbound train crossed the bridge, sending sparks in the air as the wheels grated against the railing. But few suspected the bridge would soon be failing. To be sure, there had been worries of structural flaws. Many passengers experienced unstable transport, though of unknown cause. 

But Bouch was the most respected architect of his day. If he spoke with confidence then there was nothing left to say. Indeed, immediately following the completion of the bridge, Bouch was knighted by the British crown. Queen Victoria ensured he was of great renown. So when the next train passed through Dundee on the last Sabbath day of 1879, none feared the worst. Not even Bouch, who in structural integrity was so well-versed. 

 

IV.

McGonagall declared 90 lives had been lost that night. In fact, the train had carried only 75 passengers, but he used poetic license, as well he might. And there was no doubting the burgeoning poet’s genuine dismay. Only one year prior to his masterpiece, he had penned an ode to the bridge titled “The Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay.” To McGonagall, the bridge was the pride of Dundee. He rhymed with this much in mind in his poetry. 

To the rest of the town, McGonagall was a landmark in his own regard. His talents extended beyond that of a bard. Before his five-minute poetic revelation struck, McGonagall toiled in the works of Shakespeare. And so a theatrical homage he determined to engineer. Rehearsing “Macbeth” with fervor, he auditioned for the title role at the local theatre space. The producer offered to give him the role if McGonagall paid “a large sum,” a proposition the newly minted actor chose to embrace. On opening night, the theatre filled with friends of McGonagall who were prepared to witness a train wreck. McGonagall made the performance worth his paycheck. Upon the utterance of his first line, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” the crowd erupted into a standing ovation. With welcomed interruption he proceeded in his oration. In the final scene, sensing that the actor playing Macduff was jealous of his reception, McGonagall refused to die. The sword fight lasted for many minutes as MacDuff’s would-be lethal blows all seemed to go awry. At last, the actor burst into a rage and cried out, “Fool! Why don’t you fall?” It simply took a certain strand of Macbeth to have such gall.

But there would be darker days ahead. Days when he would memorialize the dead.

 

’Twas about seven o’clock at night,

And the wind it blew with all its might,

And the rain came pouring down,

And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,

And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-

“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

 

V.

The weather was unkind on that last Sabbath day. A westerly gale chose to blow across the Tay. Winds blew often and winds blew strong. But that day, the wind blew particularly long. Joints in the bracing bars protecting the rail chattered. Stress on the bolt holes led to cracks and fatigue from being endlessly battered. Many times the rail had supported trains upwards of a hundred tons, filled with coal and stone. But though the structural piers when blown by wind would sway, the continued loosening of the joints went unknown. The six o’clock train, destabilized by both wind and loosened joints, caused the rail’s safety tie bars to break. But in the dark of night there was no damage to visually intake. 

 

VI.

McGonagall’s rise was swift. He knew he needed to share his gift. He quickly determined the obvious path to the top of the poetic scene. And so he set out to impress the Queen. From Dundee to Balmoral, 60 miles he walked. Despite walking straight into a thunderstorm and then a mountain, he never balked. Soaked and starving, “I am the Queen’s Poet,” he told the palace guard, and for a response proceeded to wait. “Alfred, Lord Tennyson is the Queen’s Poet,” the guard said, irate. Poet laureate he was not meant to be. He turned around and walked back to Dundee.

 

When the train left Edinburgh

The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,

But Boreas blew a terrific gale,

Which made their hearts for to quail,

And many of the passengers with fear did say-

“I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,

Boreas he did loud and angry bray,

And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay

On the last Sabbath day of 1879,

Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

 

VII.

Boreas blew winds at an estimated force of 10 or 11 on the Beaufort scale. For comparison, 12 is a hurricane and nine a strong gale. With the already weakened joints, a slight misalignment in the tracks would cause increasingly severe wind-induced oscillation. Defective cast iron lugs created a situation prone to devastation. Observers marveled at the sight off of Dundee’s coast. The bridge’s high girders wobbled the most.

 

VIII.

McGonagall lived in a world unlike today’s, in that it was in a different century. It was equally easy for a poet to wind up in debtor’s penitentiary. Making a living on poetry was no simple task. Few would ask to buy his works, even those he would ask. He still took to the streets daily, selling copies of his poems to passerby. He resolved to rake in pennies or at least try. And try he did, with notable success. Not in selling his poems, but in getting friends to bail him out in times of distress. It was with said friends’ donations he published “Poetic Gems” in 1890, his first collection. Critics hailed it as a beacon of imperfection. 

The book brought him great publicity. Dundee viewed him as a unique voice with unparalleled authenticity. Soon he performed his poems nightly in taverns and bars. The gigs were not without harm, and he came away with many battle scars. He was often at odds with his audience, due to his staunch opinion that none should drink. Not highly of this opinion did the bar patrons think. McGonagall’s view on publicans was grim. As he often pointed out, a publican was the first person to throw a plate of peas at him. 

 

So the train sped on with all its might,

And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,

And the passengers’ hearts felt light,

Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,

With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,

And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,

Until it was about midway,

Then the central girders with a crash gave way,

And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!

The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,

Because ninety lives had been taken away,

On the last Sabbath day of 1879,

Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

 

IX.

At 7:13 in the evening eyewitnesses saw the train reach the south end of the bridge with unease. Sparks flew as the cars shook in the unusual breeze. Seven minutes later, a markedly forceful gale on shore was felt. In the train, each passenger was decades away from being offered a seatbelt. The train wobbled and wobbled, then wobbled too much. Off the tracks went the train at the Storm Fiend’s touch. The central high girders collapsed one by one. Into the Tay went the train, and 75 lives were done. 

 

X.

McGonagall was soon in financial straights once more. Maintaining a standard of living was quite the chore. So he took to the circus, as any performer would do. And at him, spoiled foods the audience threw. But McGonagall put up with the chaos, returning home each night with 15 shillings for pay. There was profit yet to be had from the tale of the Bridge of Tay. 

Until, at least, the circus became so popular and crazed that Dundee officials decided to shut it down. McGonagall promptly put on his poetic frown. But his poems in protest did not shake the law. His relations with the city would never quite thaw. He became mocked in public and hassled in streets. Few cared to buy his poem sheets. By 1893, he threatened that if treated so poorly, he would leave Dundee. It became a town joke that he would surely stay another year once he realized “Dundee” rhymed with “1893.”

For one reason or another, McGonagall left in 1894. Dundee saw little of their poetic pride anymore. 

 

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known

The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,

And the cry rang out all o’er the town,

Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,

And a passenger train from Edinburgh,

Which fill’d all the people’s hearts with sorrow,

And made them for to turn pale,

Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell 

the tale

How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath 

day of 1879,

Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

 

XI. 

The fallout fell quickly. Blame was layered on the architect Bouch damningly thickly. The Tay was poorly built, the press declared. To think not a single life had been spared. Vehemently Bouch did protest. Had it not been for the wind, he claimed, those 75 lives in peace would not rest. Surely the train had been blown off its track. And this was the train that broke the camel’s back. The Court of Inquiry did not agree. Eye to eye the Court and Bouch could not see. The Court announced the bridge “badly designed, badly constructed and badly maintained.” In the public’s opinion, Bouch’s fault was ingrained. A bridge he was building at Montrose was promptly demolished. His reputation could never again be polished. He grew sick and weary in his public flogging’s stead. Within months he was dead.

 

XII.

McGonagall, meanwhile, at last received the royal treatment he desired. According to a letter surreptitiously delivered one otherwise uneventful day, by King Thibaw of Burma his poems were admired. As the letter declared, McGonagall had been knighted. Now known as “Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the White Elephant, Burma,” all past wrongs had been righted. Pleased with his legacy, there was little left for the Knight of the White Elephant to do. And so McGonagall died without a penny to his name in 1902. 

Today he is known popularly as the worst poet of all time. Reasons cited are his total ignorance of meter, his obscure wandering content, his misaligned metaphors, his abrupt moralistic endings and (perhaps) his simpleton rhyme. But some are suspicious of this master of poor verse. They think the bad bard could have been much worse. Some believe his works and public shows were in fact brilliant displays of early performance art. Much like the cause of the felling of the Tay Bridge, we may never know the degree to which he was smart. 

But there is no need to quarrel over problems like those. There is only the problem of more of his prose.

 

It must have been an awful sight,

To witness in the dusky moonlight,

While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,

Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,

Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,

I must now conclude my lay

By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,

That your central girders would not have given way,

At least many sensible men do say,

Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,

At least many sensible men confesses,

For the stronger we our houses do build,

The less chance we have of being killed.