Glenrothes man’s doubts over rail bridge disaster deaths

Ian Nimmo White at the disaster memorial
Ian Nimmo White at the disaster memorial

A Glenrothes man who has been at the heart of making sure victims of the Tay Rail Bridge disaster were properly remembered, says he is almost certain the 1879 tragedy did not result in 75 deaths.

Ian Nimmo White became involved raising funds to build memorials on both sides of the Tay after discovering the unmarked grave of train driver David Mitchell from Leslie.

Since becoming a member of the Tay Bridge Disaster Memorial Trust (TBDMT) Ian has dedicated a great deal of his time to researching the disaster and now says he is confiident the death toll was lower than some have said.

He said: “I have always believed that 75 was crazy. It was based on the notion that, beyond the 46 bodies recovered and the 13 unrecovered but proven to have been on the train, there were a further 16 unrecovered bodies.

“However, the theory falls apart when those who believe this are asked to come up with names - they can’t.”

He added: “The disaster was during the Christmas holiday period and the passengers accounted for were heading back to family in Dundee, having been either visiting other family in southern parts or doing shopping. Whether recovered or unrecovered, they were known to have been on the train

“It is nigh impossible for a further 16 bodies to have been not only unrecovered, but also not been reported missing. This would have amounted to 20 per cent of the fatalities being unclaimed by relatives.”

Ian said the tickets collected by the stationmaster at St Fort, the last stop in Fife before the fateful bridge crossing, may have led to confusion about the number of people aboard. These tickets, in additon to the train crew,who did not have tickets, may have added to the confusion.

Ian said the first major newspaper report on the disaster, published by the Courier and Argus on December 30, 1879 - 36 hours after the tragedy - also said 75 people had perished.

“The report was said to be based on the examination of the tickets taken from the passengers at St Fort station 15 minutes before they and their crew perished. But modern day scrutiny of the calculation reveals simple errors caused by the duplication or repitition of tickets , and mistakes concerning passenger embarkation points.

“Of course, it was an early report in the midst of confusion and panic so quite understandable.”

Ian also said much of the blame lies with the official enquiry which did not keep the 55 tickets for futher investigation but returned them to the stationmaster at St Fort. Following his death the tickets went to his family in New Zealand and it was only recently that they resurfaced as the collage.

Ian added: “The collage throws up new knowledge every time I examine it and I am as certain as I can be that 75 people did not die that night. The memorials in Wormit and Dundee feature the names of the 59 known to have died and I am confident we’ve got that right.”