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The Tay Bridge Disaster And The World’s Worst Poem

On the night of 28 December 1879, a violent storm lashed across Scotland collapsing an iron bridge that straddled the Firth of Tay and plunged a train into the river killing all on board. It remains one of the worst railway disaster in Britain’s history. This great tragedy is remembered largely due to the work of a terribly bad Scottish poet who has achieved much fame throughout the last century as the “worst poet” in history. William Topaz McGonagall’s poetry was so bad that he was pelted with rotten eggs and fish and the authorities banned his performances in public. His most famous piece, entitled “The Tay Bridge Disaster” has been hailed as the worst example of poetry in English literature.

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Illustration of the Tay Bridge disaster.

The Disaster

The Firth of Tay is a long and narrow coastal inlet on Scotland’s east coast. A railway bridge was built over this estuary of the River Tay between 1871 and 1878 to reduce travel time to and from the city of Dundee. The Tay bridge was nearly two miles long, and at the time was the longest bridge in the world. It was designed by a British railway engineer named Thomas Bouch, who built many notable railway lines, bridges and viaducts across the British isles, but is best known for the disastrous role he played in the destruction of the Tay Bridge.

On the evening of 28 December 1879, a fierce storm with wind blowing at 70-80 miles per hour struck the bridge at nearly right angles. Unfortunately, the bridge was designed without making adequate allowance for wind load, as a result of which the central section collapsed taking with it a train that was travelling from Wormit to Dundee. All 70 people on board perished in the cold waters of River Tay.

The incident sent a shockwave through the Victorian engineering profession and the general public. The bridge had been open for less than a year and half. An inquiry was held and the bridge’s designer, Thomas Bouch, was found guilty of bad design.

His reputation ruined, Bouch’s health began to decline from guilt and shame. He died on 30 October 1880, a few months after the public inquiry into the disaster was over.

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The Tay Bridge after it collapsed. Photo credit: National Library of Scotland

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Photo credit: National Library of Scotland

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Fallen girders of the collapsed first Tay Bridge, apparently drawn up on the shore to await salvage. Photo credit: National Library of Scotland

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A failed iron rivet from the original Tay bridge. Photo credit: Roger Marks/Flickr

The Poem

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William Topaz McGonagall was born in Edinburgh in 1825 or 1830. His father was a handloom weaver, and McGonagall learned the same trade, which he practiced earnestly for many years. Despite the industrial revolution slowly making weavers obsolete, McGonagall appeared to prosper, as there was still need for skilled workers to perform complex tasks.

Before McGonagall found his calling as a poet, he displayed keenness in performance art. He appeared on stage many times playing various roles from Shakespeare's plays, even if that meant paying for the privilege. His first public appearance, where he played the title role in Macbeth, was nearly a disaster:

The theatre was filled with his friends and fellow workers, anxious to see what they expected to be an amusing disaster. The play should have ended with Macbeth's death, but McGonagall believed the actor playing Macduff was trying to upstage him, and refused to die.

In 1877, McGonagall discovered he wanted to be a poet. The very first poem he wrote had all the characteristic styles that would define his career spanning 25 years. The poem entitled, “An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan” began:

All hail to the Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
He is the greatest preacher I did ever hear or see.
He is a man of genius bright,
And in him his congregation does delight,
Because they find him to be honest and plain,
Affable in temper, and seldom known to complain.

McGonagall began travelling and performing across Scotland, reciting his poems in pubs, theatres and public houses. The public was both entertained and appalled at the same time. They would often cheer him, perhaps recognizing that McGonagall was “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius”. Throughout his life McGonagall seemed oblivious to the general opinion of his poems, even when his audience were pelting him with eggs and vegetables. Ironically, it was persistence and the major lack of talent through which he achieved fame.

McGonagall wrote over two hundred awful poems. His best known work is “The Tay Bridge Disaster”, which The Guardian describes as “being deaf to poetic metaphor and employing inappropriate rhythms that resulted in unintentionally amusing poetry.”

Here is the entire poem:

The Tay Bridge Disaster

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.

’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.”

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.

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.

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 peoples 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.

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.

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The present Tay Bridge, showing stumps of the original bridge's piers poking above the Tay. Photo credit: nz_willowherb/Flickr

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Photo credit: Neil Williamson/Flickr

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