Tay Bridge Disaster memorials will be dedicated to the 59 ‘known’ victims

Since that Tay Bridge Disaster of December 28 1879, there have been many diverse claims as to the final death toll.

The most popular figure is 75, promoted not only within the public and newsworthy arena but also by some of the authors of books on the tragedy, most notably John Prebble in The High Girders.

At the present, there are museums throughout Scotland which display literature to support the claim.

But when memorials to the disaster are finally erected at Wormit and Dundee later this year, they will bear the statement “Those known to have died”, then list 59 names only.

With planning permission granted this week for the Dundee memorial and conditional approval given by Fife Council for the one at Wormit, the secretary of the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster Memorial Trust, Ian Nimmo White explained the reasons for this.

He said: “It has been the case since statutory registers began in this country in 1855 that when you die, your death is registered in the district where you die, not where you live.

“After the disaster in 1879, all the deaths of the known victims were registered in the district of St Mary’s, Dundee, which embraced the then Tay rail bridge and that part of the Tay around it.Photo gallery: the 1879 Tay Bridge Disaster“Those certificates, 59 in all, are lodged in New Register House to this day.

“In the aftermath of the tragedy, doctors could not be certain about the means of death of each individual for example, had they died due to injuries sustained by the fall of the train and bridge? Was it from hypothermia? Or was it by drowning?

“Eventually, once the authorities felt they had discovered all the bodies they were going to discover, and were certain of the identities of those bodies they had not been able to find, the registrar at St Mary’s recorded all 59 as having died from ‘Drowning as a result of the fall of a passenger train and portion of the Tay rail bridge’.

“In the 134 years since the tragedy, nobody has proved beyond doubt that there was a 60th victim, far less a 75th.”

Mr Nimmo White said proposals for the memorials are on track and enough funds are in place to make this happen. But donations are still welcome for extras such as seating.

The estimated cost of the memorial project is around £32,000 (£20,000 for the cutting and shaping of the granite and £12,000 for the foundation work).

Mr Nimmo White said it had yet to be decided which quote to accept for the foundations work, but he anticipated building work would start “well into November”, with the trust still working towards a planned ceremony on December 28, the 134th anniversary of the Tay Bridge disaster.

Any individuals or organisations still wishing to donate to the campaign should make a cheque out to “Tay Rail Bridge Disaster Memorial Trust” and send to Ian Rae, Treasurer of TRBDMT, 11 Wilmington Drive, Glenrothes, Fife, KY7 6US.

One man who has made it his mission to ensure that the victims of the Tay Bridge Disaster are never forgotten is Professor David Swinfen.

The former vice-principal of Dundee University and author of a book on the disaster is leading the campaign to have memorials erected at either side of the Tay.

Historian Mr Swinfen, 75, recently became chairman of the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster Memorial Trust, and has been helping to breathe new life into the drive to raise cash for a permanent tribute in Dundee and Fife to those who died that fateful night.

He said: “It is great pity that this hasn’t been done before now. It is more than 130 years since the disaster took place and we still have no memorial.

“We want to create something sizeable, noticeable and tangible. My role with the trust is to make this happen.”

It was about 7.15pm on the evening of Sunday, December 28 1879, when part of the original Tay Bridge plunged into the water, taking with it a train from Burntisland, its crew and passengers. None survived.

The tragedy occurred only 14 months after the bridge, commissioned by the North British Railway Company, had opened.

Less than a year later, its designer Sir Thomas Bouch died.

The structure’s height and width immediately attracted much criticism.

An investigation after the collapse blamed the bridge’s design, construction and maintenance, with the finger pointed squarely at Bouch.

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