1 July 2023 Susannah

William ‘Topaz’ McGonagall & The Tay Bridge Disaster

The Tay Bridge Disaster 28 December 1879

I try each month to give you a beautifully written and moving poem to enjoy. But this month, I’m going to give you a bad poem, written by the man who is generally acclaimed as the world’s best worst poet, William ‘Topaz’ McGonagall.

McGonagall was of Irish descent and was born in 1825. He wrote about 200 poems and was utterly deaf to any criticisms of his work. Wishing to have Queen Victoria as his sponsor, he walked to Balmoral in the hopes of persuading her in person, after his letter had failed to do the trick. He was turned away from the door.

McGonagall was often pelted with veges as he declaimed his poems, but nothing deterred him. He was deaf to poetic metaphor, unable to scan correctly, has many ‘off’ rhymes, and is funny without intending to be.

Today there is a McGonagall Appreciation Society celebrating his awfulness (evidently, when they hold dinners, they go through the menu backwards, thus starting with coffee and dessert), and there’s a McGonagall Walk near the Tay bridge, which is the subject of his most famous poem. He was a great influence on Spike Milligan and Billy Connolly, his name was taken up by J.K. Rowling for one of her characters, there have been musicals, plays and movies that reference him, and streets and squares have been named after him.

His most famous poem is The Tay Bridge Disaster about an actual disaster in which a storm caused the collapse of a railway bridge just as the train was passing over it in 1879.

The Tay Bridge Disaster by William McGonagall

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.

You can listen to the poem here:

McGonagall had already written a poem about the silvery Tay before this one, and when a new bridge was built, he felt inspired to write An Address to the New Tay Bridge, including the lines:

“Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array,
And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.”

Did you enjoy this poem? Or should I say, find it really bad? Let me know by leaving a comment.

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Featured image- The Tay Bridge Disaster 28 December 1879 by Unknown author, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32400825
Body image- William McGonagall, by Parisian Photo Co, Edinburgh, early 1900s. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12375520

Comments (20)

  1. Thanks for sharing this fascinating piece, Susannah! It’s interesting to learn about William McGonagall and his unique place in literary history. His poem about the Tay Bridge Disaster, while not the best, certainly captures a moment in time with its own charm.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Glad you enjoyed the poem and the information. This is my favourite amongst his poems.

  2. Helen Gentle

    Fabulous rendition of this famous poem. His rolling Rs enhance it enormously!

  3. Thank you, Susannah..what fun. I especially liked the the instruction for architects! How clever of you to give us such diversity. I always turn to the poem first, but didn’t expect this gem.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I really love the fact that the poems I include are the most popular part of my monthly newsletter.
      Yes, McGonagall’s poems is great fun – odd, considering the topic!

  4. David

    Everyone mentions J K Rowling, but they seem not to have noticed that Terry Pratchett’s wee free men have a hereditary poet officially known as the Gonagle.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh that’s delightful, and I didn’t know. Thanks for telling me.

  5. Janet

    Loved Silv’ry Tay and o’er the town. Those apostrophes – how poetic.

    Loved that he loved these lines so much with their unrhymed rhyme that he used them often as a refrain:

    On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
    Which will be remember’d for a very long time. (With a bonus apostrophe).

    I know very little about poetry. In a college class one day, the teacher had assigned four poems and they were in sequence except one was left out of the sequence in the assignment. So we read say, poems 2, 3, 4, and 6.

    I asked why we weren’t assigned 5. The professor said, “Let’s read it.” So we did and it was about Dora kneeling by her brother’s grave. The teacher asked why she skipped that one. I had no idea. It was sad that Dora’s brother was dead.

    So the teacher asked, “But is the poem getting to you because of the imagery, the use of metaphor or sound or because of the story?” I said the story. She answered. “That is the difference between art and everything else.

    I learned something!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That’s a nice lesson to learn.
      Any yes one can feel McGonagall’s pride in the refrain, so he just kept using it.

  6. John

    I took a train across the Bridge of Tay on Wednesday, but I was en route towards Edinburgh rather than from it. One can still see the stone supports for the bridge that collapsed next to the newer one. Reference to Dundee as “bonnie” was optimistic for the time.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree. It’s not an especially lovely city now, but in his time it must have been dirty and crowded. Interesting that you’ve been over the bridge recently.

      • John

        Dundee is far better than it was 10 years ago: the new V&A is well worth it, with a complete Mackintosh interior as best I recall; and the whole harbourfront has been redeveloped. If you have not seen it recently, I recommend a look. In the 19th century, it was flax capital of the world, so would have been particularly noisy and filthy, with low life expectancy even by Scottish standards. Glasgow had 32 years of age at the time.

        • Susannah Fullerton

          I called in to Dundee recently to look around Scott’s ship Discovery, which was fascainting, but otherwise have seen little of it. Yes, with the flax industry it must have been a filthy place in the 19thC.

  7. Maria

    Goodness, what a dreadful poem! On the positive side, learned about the disaster, which I wasn’t familiar with, and the poem caused me to think about the differences between good and bad poetry. The poem seems to lack empathy or genuine warmth. I’m grateful for the many wonderful poems you’ve shared in your newsletter.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, the poet gets it wrong everywhere – choice of topic, empathy, rhyme etc. But in a gruesome sort of way, it is funny. I find McGonagall fascainting – he was so impervious to any criticism of his verse.

      • Irene

        I enjoyed the reading of the poem. The reading of the poem was so well performed that I did not feel the need to be adversely critical.

        • Susannah Fullerton

          Perhaps it needs to be read from the page for its awfulness to be fully appreciated?

    • Jacqueline Marchant

      That is a truly awful poem…. I tried to read a rhyme into it but to no avail…. Why he is remembered I do not know…perhaps more appropriately easily forgotten would be a better appellation….

      • Susannah Fullerton

        He’s so awful without realising it that he is actually funny. There are thousands of his fans around the world and he has been influential – Spike Milligan adored him. I love his imperviousness to criticism and his ghastliness with rhyme.

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