Tuesday, December 28, 2004

125 Years Ago

One of the pleasures of a holiday away is the time to read, and despite a return trip to Old Trafford I found time to get through most of Denis Healey's 'The Time Of My Life' and all of John Prebble's 'The High Girders'.

I'd read Prebble's Scots history primer The Lion In The North, and The Highland Clearances, but had no idea he'd been writing so long - The High Girders was published in 1956, and it's about the collapse of this bridge. Which inspired the Bard of Dundee to pen this - started the day after the disaster, when the news became public in Dundee, and finished the following day.

The bridge collapsed at about 7.20 pm, one hundred and twenty five years ago today.

"On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time."

Prebble's book describes the storm that night, when people could not stand up out of doors, the retired admiral in his house overlooking the bridge, fearful for it, reading his storm books and watching the barometer, the young people sitting in the dark with the curtains open to watch the train cross the bridge and the dawning realisation that it has disappeared half way across.

For me the hero of that night is the locomotive superintendent, Roberts, at the Dundee end of the bridge. The train has not arrived, although he knows it went onto the bridge. Contact has been lost with the box at the far end of the bridge. Realising that something is very wrong, he and the stationmaster set out on their hands and knees, in darkness and a force 10 gale, across a two mile bridge to find out what has happened. One turns back, but Roberts crawls on alone in the dark, feeling his way, until his arms touch space and he finds the thousand yard gap where the bridge had been.

The bridge's designer, Thomas Bouch, was blamed for the collapse by the public enquiry, and died of a broken heart within a year, although there is still debate as to the exact cause of the disaster. Bouch had been due to design the proposed Forth Bridge but was hastily replaced.

The remaining girders were reused when the new Tay Bridge was constructed. The remains of the old bridge can be seen today alongside the new one. The railway engine was also salvaged and worked on land for another thirty years, much loved by her crews and affectionately knon as 'The Diver'.

If you're in the land o'cakes, there's currently a commemorative exhibition in Dundee.

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