Monday, 24 October 2016

William Marshal and the immediate aftermath of The Death of King John By Elizabeth Chadwick

Newark Castle today
On the dark and stormy night of October 18th 1216, King John died at Newark Castle, a couple of months short of his 50th birthday.

His reign had been a troubled one for the country and seldom politically joyous. On his watch the vast swathes of land that had been ruled by his father and his brother Richard, and that  constituted the 'Angevin Empire' had mostly been lost to the French.  John had quarreled with the Church and his barons, alienating both so badly that at one point he was under threat of excommunication from the former and facing an overthrow by the latter. By the time he died John had managed to mend fences with the clergy and put himself and the realm under papal protection, but his situation with the barons was still extremely precarious and the previous year had seen John forced to put his seal to the Magna Carta, a charter of demands and curbs, which he regarded as flagrant infringement on many of his royal prerogatives, and which he rejected the moment he left the table. When he died, England was in a state of civil war. The rebellious barons had invited Louis, son of the French king Philippe, to come to their aid and become King of England.  John died in the middle of a war to hold onto his throne, bring his rebel barons to heel and oust Louis from the country.

His heir was his nine-year-old son Henry, and given the situation at the time of his father's death, there was no guarantee that the child would grow up to claim his inheritance. However, he did have some staunch supporters on his side including the great magnate William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke who was about 70 years old when John died.  William had risen from the moderate nobility to great heights by dint of his strong military abilities as both a fighter and a commander, his can-do, amiable but ambitious personality, and his ethos of absolute loyalty to whoever he served.  Consistently rewarded by his Angevin masters, William was liked and respected by the majority of the English barons whatever their faction, and had useful diplomatic ties at most of the courts in Europe, as well as the ear of the Templars, whose ranks he was to join on his deathbed.

William Marshal's tomb effigy at the Temple Church, London.
William Marshall had had his own difficulties with King John during the reign even to the point of having his two sons taken hostage by John who suspected William of plotting behind his back. William, however, had weathered the King's paranoia, caused in part by  some moments of questionable judgement from William himself. Nevertheless, the bonds held and during the crises that swamped John in the latter part of his reign, William came to his rescue and remained staunch. William possessed the advantage of having friends and connections on both sides of the divide. He had close relatives in the rebel camp - his son-in-law Hugh Bigod for example and his own son William. but he also had good working relationships with the barons still backing John as well as the important members of the clergy including Stephen Langton Archbishop of Canterbury.

William was not at King John's death bed in Newark; he was in Gloucester, keeping an eye on the Welsh Marches, but his nephew John Marshal was attending at the King's bedside and William was quickly apprised of the King's final illness by a swift messenger.  William immediately set out from Gloucester and rode to meet the King's body which was being borne the 100 or so miles from Newark to be buried at Worcester as per the instructions in John's will.
William is known to have sent to a royal storehouse to obtain palls to cover the bier and the tomb, thus helping to make the King's burial a regal and dignified occasion despite the difficulties of civil war.  Around this time he also sent a household knight of King John's called Thomas of Sandford, (his younger brother Hugh was one of the Marshal's inner core of knights)  to Devizes to fetch John's 9 year old heir, Henry, who was in the castle there with his mother, Isabelle of Angouleme.

tomb of King John, Worcester Cathedral
Once King John had been interred in Worcester Cathedral between the tombs of Saint Wulfstan and saint Oswald following 'a magnificent funeral service', the mourners, including William Marshal and the papal legate Gualo Bicchieri, returned to Gloucester some thirty miles away, there to decide what to do with a country at civil war and cast adrift.  William Marshal, together with other barons and churchmen had been appointedan arbiters and administrator of John's will.

A meeting was held at Gloucester on October 27th, eleven days after the King's death. The Earl of Chester was summoned to it, since he had not been present at the funeral and was reckoned one of the most important men of the realm and a firm supporter of the former king. The barons who had remained loyal to John were also summoned to Gloucester.

William Marshal then set out straight away to join up with the party bringing John's son to Gloucester and met him not far from Malmesbury.  William greeted the young lad and according to William Marshal's biography, the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal (which should be read with caution but in its broad brush strokes is true), swore his oath of loyalty to the child, who placed himself in his care.

The young soon to be king was brought to Gloucester and a debate was held whether to hold back the coronation until the Earl of Chester arrived or perform it there and then.  The decision was taken to crown young Henry immediately because the sooner he was anointed, the less chance and validation the opposition would have for filling the empty throne with their own candidate the Dauphin Louis of France whom they had already unofficially appointed as their sovereign.

Gualo Bicchieri. papal legate crowns
 the 9 year old Henry III. Matthew Paris
The boy was duly prepared for his coronation and William Marshal dubbed him a knight, which was deemed an essential part of the ritual.  Young Henry was 'dressed in his child-size robes of state; he was a fine little knight.'  The barons there bore him into the abbey of St Peter where he was anointed and crowned by the Papal Legate.  Supposedly much of the royal regalia had been lost during the crossing of the Wellstream Estuary shortly before King John's death when the baggage train had foundered. How true this actually is, is open to conjecture, but whatever the reason, supposedly the boy had to be dressed from what his mother had to hand, including a golden coronet of her own rather than anything that had belonged to King John.
Following the coronation, the new King Henry III was borne from the abbey and taken to a room to be divested of his coronation robes which were 'very heavy' and somewhat lighter robes were found for him to wear.

As the men were sitting down to the coronation feast, serious news arrived that Goodrich Castle was under siege from the Welsh. William Marshal sent soldiers and crossbow men to deal with the matter, but it enhanced everyone's feelings of insecurity and it was decided that rather than wait for the Earl of Chester to arrive, a leader needed to be chosen to rule the country as Regent for the young King right now. The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, which as aforementioned, puts its hero, William Marshal in a very positive light, says that everyone immediately turned to William and asked him to take responsibility. It may not have been as immediate as that and William may have been more eager for the job than the Histoire makes out but the fact remains that someone had to take a leadership role and William Marshal was the man best suited. 
The Histoire gives us a very moving and detailed account of that decision and its aftermath. William at first refused the job because he said he was too old. However, he retired to deliberate with his men about what he should do because he acknowledged that 'it is is a difficult task to carry out the role of Governor.' His men advised him to take the job. 'People say that a man who does not finish what he set out to achieve has reached only the point where his efforts are totally in vain, and that he has wasted his time. Do it, for God will assist you and much honour will accrue to you.'   However, one of his closest companions , John D'Earley, was concerned for the state of the Marshal's health because he was ageing, and the new young King  had very few resources to fight his enemies. He believed that the pain and trouble involved would take a heavy toll on his lord.

The Marshal decided to wait until the morning and ponder the details overnight. In the meantime the Earl of Chester arrived and the candidacy for the role of Regent was contested between these two men. Discussions between the nobles ensued and it became clear that William Marshall was the man that the majority desired to follow. Although the Earl of Chester was later to protest to the Pope about this ( a fact not mentioned in the Histoire for obvious reasons). The Pope turned down the Earl of Chester's protest, saying that 'power prefers no partner.'

Although William Marshal was elected Regent, the Histoire tells us that he was still a little concerned about what he had taken on - and had apparently only done so when granted remission for his sins.  Finally persuaded, he retired to a private chamber and there called his men together again and voiced his doubts. He said to them:

'Give me your help and advice, for, by the faith I owe you,I have embarked upon the open sea, where no man, wherever he sails or wherever he sounds the depths, can find a bottom or shore,and from which it is a miracle if he reaches port and a safe haven. But may God, if it please him, sustain me! I have been entrusted with this task, which is already close to coming to grief, as you know and sense. And the child has no wealth, which is very damaging and a source of grief to me, and I am myself an old man.' Then his heart became full to overflowing and his eyes began to fill with tears. Tears streamed down his face, and those present there, who loved him and were entirely devoted to him, began to weep out of pity for him. And he, after looking up, said 'Have you no more to say than this?'

His men rallied round after this and assured him  that whatever happened, great honour would come to him from the task he had taken on. William did the equivalent of bracing his shoulders, taking a stiff drink, and wiping his eyes, left the room to get on with the job of ruling England, reuniting its people,dealing with the French and repairing the economy so that at least it worked after a fashion. By re-issuing a revised version of Magna Carta which was to enter the statute books for posterity he also laid the groundwork for the nation to go forward.

Come the moment, come the man.  I quite often ask myself these days 'What would William Marshall do?'  or 'Where is William Marshal when you need him?'

Select Sources:
Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal vols II and III Edited by A.J. Holden with English translation by S. Gregory and historical notes by D.Crouch.  Quotes in Italics are from the Histoire in Translation.

William Marshal 3rd Edition by David Crouch

King John: Treachery and Tyranny And the Road to Magna Carta by Marc Morris

The Minority of Henry III by David Carpenter

Elizabeth Chadwick is currently writing a novel titled TEMPLAR SILKS about William Marshal's missing years on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 1183 and 1186.  Her latest novels pictured below cover the life story of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

A Chest full of Treasures by Elizabeth Laird

Miss Winslow was a well-to-do farmer's daughter in Oxfordshire, and this chest contained the trousseau she took into her marriage in around 1810. Remarkably, many items still remain: lawn caps, lengths of exquisite lace, a deep-fringed silk shawl, net mittens. They've been joined by later arrivals: baby vests, strips of embroidery brought back from China by an adventurous family member, a black taffeta apron with fancy tassels. All these items were carefully hoarded by Cassandra Winslow's daughters and granddaughters down the generation. I inherited the chest and its trove of contents from my mother-in-law, who had loved to look through it. It impressed me mightily, and I will always treasure it.

We are all, of course, made up of multiple strands of inheritance. And the more we travel around the globe, mixing and marrying all over the place, the more diverse our family histories become.

To my husband's family, Cassandra Winslow's chest meant femininity, domesticity and elegance. But it was originally a military chest, made for an officer in the army or navy, as the label still pasted into it shows. Whenever I look at it, I think of a very different thread of family story.

My grandmother's grandfather was a poor farm boy in Ulster, so unhappy in his foster home that at the age of nine he ran away. He was quickly pressed into the navy, where he became a powder monkey, one of that band of urchins whose job it was, when a battle was underway, to carry cartridges of gunpowder up from the magazine in the bowels of the ship to the sweating gunners on the gun decks, a job fraught with danger. His name was John Allan.

John Allan's adventures in the navy, the battles in which he fought, the thrilling rescue of the army at Corunna, his years as a French prisoner of war, his eventual emigration to New Zealand with his sturdy sons, and their new lives as pioneer farmers, were the stuff of legend to me as a child. There's only one thing to do with material as rich as that, and that's to turn it into fiction, and so I wrote Arcadia, the hardback cover of which featured a picture of my old linen chest, with the contents artistically draped over the edges. The novel is now sadly long out of print, but has, like so many other books, a shadowy afterlife thanks to and other such websites.

Why did I never write another historical novel for adults? I'm not sure. I tried, but somehow the siren call of young fiction drew me back. Old John Allan and his thrilling naval adventures were also the inspiration for Secrets of the Fearless, my first historical novel for children. Others followed: Crusade, The Witching Hour and The Prince Who Walked with Lions.

There's something especially heart-warming about history seen through the perspective of one's own ancestors' experiences. One feels a close connection, a blood tie, that makes the history come alive, and that feeling, one hopes, flows through the pen on to the paper and into the imagination of the reader. I am delighted that researching one's ancestors has now become such a popular activity in the UK. The many online archives make discoveries easy, and help people to connect with our history in a way that can only enhance their lives – and the culture of our whole nation.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

"Don't Buy a Single Vote More than Necessary": American Elections from Bad to Worse by Catherine Hokin

2016 has been, to put it mildly, something of a year for politics. In the midst of all the madness, surely the nadir has to be the current US presidential election. Wherever you stand, the campaigning has hardly been an edifying spectacle: I have been burying myself in the deliciously imagined West Wing contest between Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits as an antidote to the bile.

 JFK and Joe Kennedy
This is not the place, no matter how tempting, for a commentary on the candidates. Instead I have been having a delve into previous contests to see just how low previous bars have been set. The quote used in the heading is from 1960 and the Kennedy Nixon election, JFK's actual words being: "don't buy a single vote more than necessary, I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide".  It sounds like an admission of dirty-dealing, it was in fact a spoof. Joe Kennedy, JFK's father, was a prime-mover behind his son's political successes (and possibly ambitions) and played a central role in the the election campaign, which was dogged by rumours of 'fixing'. JFK dealt with the issue by spinning it, reading this out as a supposed message from Joe on the eve of the election. The result we all know; the rumours of bribery and corruption within the Kennedy campaign, and mob involvement through Sam Giancana's Chicago crime syndicate, continue.

 'Hanging Chad'
The question of who voted for who (and who made them do it) has bedevilled a huge number of US elections. One of the most hostile, impenetrable and still disputed elections was in 1876. Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote (by 250,000) and the electoral college but the Republicans simply refused to accept the result. Commissions were set up, officials were replaced, counts were challenged and both sides out-bribed the other until the result was over-turned and Republican Rutherford Hayes, who had previously conceded, was elected the winner. Here’s hoping Trump can't read the more complex history books. A more recent controversy was the 'hanging chad' debacle which muddied the 2000 election between George Bush and Al Gore, leading to a recount of the Florida ballot and a month's delay before the result could be called. The hanging chad was a small piece of paper caught in badly-punched ballot papers which meant the voting machines couldn't read them accurately. The problem came to light in Palm Beach where voters thought they were punching for Gore but were actually voting for the seriously odd Reform Party led by Christian fundamentalist and Holocaust-denier Pat Buchanan. Given the majority of voters in the area were elderly, Jewish and Holocaust survivors something didn't quite ring true. The joys of technology - suddenly the stubby pencils hanging on bits of string in UK polling booths look rather more appealing.

Disputing the vote after the event is one thing - as we all know, most of the fun happens in the run up to polling day and personal attacks are, as ever, the meat and drink of dirty campaigning. Things went pretty well in the first two elections when George Washington was elected with 100% of the vote but it didn't take long for standards to slip. By the third run out to the polls in 1796 when Federalist John Adams beat Democratic-Republican (yes you read that right) Thomas Jefferson, things had got nasty. Jefferson's supporters accused Adams of being a hermaphrodite and Adams' side cast aspersions on Jefferson's racial background. Adams won but Jefferson became Vice-President and the two men spent the next 4 years openly loathing each other. For those readers blanching at the thought of a Clinton-Trump double act, that kind of cross-party crazy can't happen anymore, except in the West Wing where it is, of course, a good thing.

 Gary Hart on ''The Monkey Business'
Sex scandals will always be the first running place of party spin-doctors and more than one candidate has fallen foul of changing moralities. Alleged illegitimate children (Grover Cleveland), bigamy (Andrew Jackson), infidelity...too many to list. Although Bill is the easy target, my favourite in the 'how not to have an affair in the public eye' has to be Gary Hart, the 1987 Democratic hopeful. As rumours of his extra-marital activities began to circulate, Hart took on the press in an ill-founded JFK-style challenge with the following words: "Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anyone wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'll be very bored." I'm pretty sure catching a presidential hopeful on a yacht called 'The Monkey Business' cuddling a glamorous blonde wasn't the Miami Herald's definition of bored: poor old Gary was neatly hoist by his own petard.

If some of the campaigns leave a bad taste, so do some of the winners. Polls are subjective things: Bill Clinton and JFK, for example, don't always fare well when judged on strength of government/economic achievement surveys but are always high in the popularity stakes. Polls can also act as a spotlight on the issues which bruise a country: some of the presidents who are regularly in the bottom five of the popularity rankings are men like James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore who are associated with the worst days of slavery and the horrors of the Civil War. Richard Nixon's legacy will never outrun the Watergate scandal and George Bush will always be associated with the chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan and his inability to talk coherently about that, or anything else. And, we all have our own bete-noires - I bet I wasn't the only politically-earnest student with this romantic poster adorning my university breeze-blocked wall. Interestingly my American husband never saw it until he came over here.

Whatever happens in November, the only thing we can be sure of is that there will be fury and challenges and it's all going to get a lot worse before it gets better - that probably applies to after the campaign as much as before. As Abraham Lincoln once said: "Elections belong to the people. It's their decision. If they decide to turn their backs on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters." It's a good quote and still very relevant, I just wish Woody Allen didn't seem to have it nailed rather better:

"We stand today at a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction. Let us hope we have the wisdom to make the right choice."

Good luck USA!

Friday, 21 October 2016

When Good King Arthur Ruled this land... by Imogen Robertson

It’s strange the things that bubble up in your mind when you definitely should be doing something else. Today I was clearing the washing up and thought I was thinking about the current work in progress, but husband came in and asked what I was singing. I hadn’t realised I was singing, but once I’d managed to sync my mind cogs a bit, I realised I’d been giving a pretty enthusiastic rendering of ‘When Good King Arthur ruled this land…’ 

It’s a pleasantly macabre  and Halloweenish type folk song which my mother taught me, and it has a pleasing call and answer form which made it fun to sing together. The version we know and have been singing in my family is recorded as ‘A Dorsetshire Ballad’, in the Oxford Song Book, Collected and arranged by Percy C. Buck in 1921. You can see it on I hadn’t consciously thought about it in years, so I asked Mum where she had learned it, and apparently her mother taught it to her. Before that, in our family at least, it disappears into the mists of ages. 

I found it rather disturbing when I was a child. The song tells of three servants (or sons of rogues, or sons of yore - apparently bowdlerised from sons of whores), who King Arthur exiles for not singing. They are thieves and come to sticky ends. The miller is drowned in his pond, the weaver is hanged in his loom (or yarn), and the Devil makes off with the little tailor boy. I vividly remember imagining the devil heading back to hell with the boy, still clutching onto his stolen cloth.

So I went searching for it down the internet sink-hole. 

A very similar version, though the tune is different, was first published in Nursery Rhymes and Country Songs by M H Manson in 1877 and she collected it from her mother’s family, the Mitfords of Mitford in Northumberland I wish I could find out more about Miss M. H. Manson by the way. If anyone has any clues, let me know. 

The song makes an earlier appearance in Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree of 1872:

Shiner grasped the candlestick more firmly, and, lest doing this in silence should not imply to Dick with sufficient force that he was quite at home and cool, he sang invincibly—

“‘King Arthur he had three sons.’”

“Father here?” said Dick.

“Indoors, I think,” said Fancy, looking pleasantly at him.

Dick surveyed the scene, and did not seem inclined to hurry off just at that moment.  Shiner went on singing—

“‘The miller was drown’d in his pond,
   The weaver was hung in his yarn,
And the d--- ran away with the little tail-or,
   With the broadcloth under his arm.’”

“That’s a terrible crippled rhyme, if that’s your rhyme!” said Dick, with a grain of superciliousness in his tone.

“It’s no use your complaining to me about the rhyme!” said Mr. Shiner.  “You must go to the man that made it.”

Well, Mr Shiner, I would if I could.

The image at the top of the page comes from the Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libray and was published Dec. 12, 1804, by Laurie & Whittle, 53, Fleet Street, London

An earlier version still of the song appears as an Old Glee with Old Worlds in The Battle of Hexham, a play by George Colman the Younger, written in 1789. It’s very different, but the form and themes are close enough for us to call them cousins.

_When Arthur first, in court, began_
    _To wear long hanging-sleeves,_
  _He entertain'd three serving-men,_
    _And all of them were thieves._

  _The first he was an Irishman,_
    _The second was a Scot,_
  _The third he was a Welshman,_
    _And all were knaves, I wot._

  _The Irishman, he loved Usquebaugh,_
    _The Scot loved ale, called blue-cap;_
  _The Welshman he loved toasted cheese,_
    _And made his mouth like a mouse-trap._

  _Usquebaugh burnt the Irishman,_
    _The Scot was drown'd in ale;_
  _The Welshman had like t' have been choak'd with a mouse,_
    _But he pull'd her out by the tail._

King Arthur - detail from
 "Christian Heroes Tapestry" dated c. 1385

In Folk Songs of the Catskills by Norman Cazden, Herbert Haufrecht and Norman Studer, the editors suggest that the song Falstaff sings in Henry IV Part II is part of the same tradition: 

[Singing] 'When Arthur first in court,'
--Empty the jordan.

[Exit First Drawer]

--'And was a worthy king.' How now, Mistress Doll!

There’s a suggestion that it grew out of a satire of a ballad by Thomas Deloney (c. 1543 – April 1600) called The Noble Acts of Arthur of the round Table.

When Arthur first in court began,
and was approved King:
By force of armes great victories wan,
and conquest home did bring.

There’s an American version too (by the way, did you know the American National Anthem is an 18th Century English drinking song?) Anyway, this one begins: 

In good Old Colony times 
When we were under the king
Three roguish chaps fell into mishaps, 
Because they could not sing.

Now this version was quoted by Bismarck in February 1888 in his final major speech to the Reichstag which warned against European war. Here is a picture of him leaving the Reichstag after making it.

So there you have it. Falstaff, Hardy, the Mitfords, washing-up, my mother and Bismarck all in one single post. Now what was I supposed to be thinking about again?

A Bibliography of Modern Arthuriana (1500-2000) by Ann F. Howey, Stephen Ray Reimer was a very helpful guide.

As was the thread on  
The image of Bismarck comes from

And there’s a good account of the song in The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs edited by Steve Roud and Julia Bishop

Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Fall of the Tay Bridge - An Unnecessary Disaster: by Ann Swinfen

On the afternoon of Sunday the 28th December 1879 a passenger train belonging to the North British Railway Company set off from Waverley station in Edinburgh, bound for Granton, on the south bank of the Firth of Forth. From there the passengers embarked on a ferry across the estuary to Burntisland, where a second train, known as ‘the Edinburgh’ was waiting to carry them across Fife towards the city of Dundee, situated on the north bank of the River Tay. Here there was no need for a ferry – only a little over a year before, the river had successfully been bridged for rail traffic. A great storm was hurtling down the valley of the Tay. When the train pulled into St Fort station - the last stop before the bridge - the passengers no doubt were looking forward to getting home at last on the other side of the river. But part way across the bridge the ‘high girders’ over the navigation span collapsed into the raging waters below, taking with them the train, its passengers and its crew.  There were no survivors.
The bridge after the collapse

The Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879 is well known to the people of Tayside and Fife. Children in primary schools learn about it; over the years there have been various articles about it in the local press; several books have been written about it; and on the 134th anniversary of the Disaster, on the 28th December 2013, substantial granite memorials were erected to the victims at moving ceremonies on both sides of the TayOne might be forgiven for imagining that the last word had been written on the subject, and that there is no more left to say.

And yet there are two highly important – indeed central – aspects of the story about which there is still a vigorous debate and, as yet, no firm consensus. These are the cause or causes of the collapse, and the true number of the victims lost.

The directors nervously cross the bridge before it opens

At the time of the disaster, the bridge had been standing for barely eighteen months. The longest bridge in the world at the time of its constructions, it was hailed as an engineering triumph. Famous visitors from all over the world came to marvel at its size and splendour, including the Emperor of Brazil, Prince Leopold of the Belgians, and former President of the United States,Ulysses S. Grant. Even Queen Victoria herself ventured out of her self-imposed seclusion to ride across the bridge and attend a civic reception in Dundee. At the grand opening, the Piper of Dundee played and poems in its honour were read.
The opening of the bridge

In the following year, when the bridge fell, how many perished? It has long been accepted that all the passengers and crew without exception were killed, as the train plummeted into the river from a height of nearly 90 feet. What is not so clear is just how many passengers there were on the train at the time. Most commentaries on the disaster in recent years have opted for a figure of around 75, and there is good evidence for this number. For one thing it was the figure accepted by the Court of Inquiry set up immediately after the collapse. The Court in its turn based its conclusion on the evidence of station staff at St Fort station, where, for whatever reason, it was the normal practice for the tickets for passengers travelling to Dundee to be collected. These officials reported that they had collected 56 tickets, to which should be added passengers with season tickets, those travelling beyond Dundee and the members of the crew – a total of between 72 and 75.

Yet there was another source of evidence, arguably more robust. All deaths associated with the bridge were registered with the Parish of St Mary’s in Dundee, and the death certificates ultimately lodged in the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. These certificates number only 59 – exactly the same names and number as were recorded in the police list in the archives of the police in Dundee. Of these 59, 47 were male, and 12 female. In the event, only 46 bodies were ever recovered. Moreover, from time to time the local press published the names of victims, and the latest of these, on 1st January 1880, included only 56 names

In other words, the only incontrovertible evidence for the number of victims supports the conclusion that there were 59, rather than 75. Of course it is still possible that there were more, who in one way or another escaped scrutiny, but it seems highly improbable. The great majority of the known passengers were local – typically travelling back to their work in Dundee after visiting families in Fife. It is a reasonable assumption that the same would have been true of any other passengers not recorded in the list of death certificates. Could it be that some 16 people were also lost without family, friends, or employers ever noticing? While there may have been more than 59 victims, if there were, we do not know their names or how many there were. This is why the Memorials raised to the victims in 2013 firmly state that ’fifty-nine victims, men women and children, are known to have died’ in the catastrophe.
Memorials on the Fife bank of the Tay

Then, what about the other key question – the cause or causes of the collapse?
To understand that we need to know something of the history of the bridge and its construction. The rail bridge over the Tay was the first stage of an ambitious plan on the part of the North British Railway company to out do their great rival, the Caledonian, by replacing passenger ferries across the Forth and Tay rivers with two great bridges, able to carry rail traffic without interruption between Edinburgh and Aberdeen

The Company engaged Thomas Bouch, an experienced railway engineer, to carry this out. Bouch’s original intention was to carry the railway line on a single line bridge supported for almost all of its length on tall brick columns. Unfortunately it became only too clear in the course of construction that the river bed, believed to be solid rock for most of its width, was only partly so – much of it was in fact composed of conglomerate under a thick layer of mud.

This realisation caused a rapid rethink, and Bouch came up with an alternative to support the remainder of the bridge with towers made from cast iron columns bound together with wrought iron tie bars. These tie bars in turn were attached to the columns by nuts and bolts which passed through holes in lugs, cast integral with the columns. It is generally accepted that it was these cast iron lugs which fractured, rendering the towers unstable, and initiating a progressive collapse of the structure, taking with it the train.
Joints with Lugs
It is here that the consensus breaks down. Broadly there are two schools of thought about the causes of the collapse – either the train brought down the bridge, or the bridge brought down the train.

In the first of these two camps we find Bouch himself. He was firmly of the opinion that what had brought down the train was the accident of a second class carriage coming off the rails, catching on one of the side girders, and ripping the whole structure apart. Some colour was given to this explanation by the fact that there was a known distortion at one point in the rails, caused it has been claimed by an accident in the course of construction when two of the ‘high girders’ were blown off their supports into the river. One of these was repaired and reused, leading to a ‘kink in the rail’ which could have unsettled a carriage as it passed over it. Bouch pointed to certain scrape marks on one of the side girders, which could have been made by contact with a carriage.
Girder No.4
Against that there was the fact that the marks were too high up to be reached by a toppling carriage. Dugald Drummond, chief engineer for the North British, for his part was convinced from the state of the rolling stock, that all its components had remained on the track as it fell.

A recent and intriguing contribution to the debate has been the claim that the lugs failed due to metal fatigue, induced by the passage of trains over the bridge since its inception. But this explanation has not found favour with experts in the field, who have concluded that the operational life of the bridge was far too short for metal fatigue to have set in.

So what are we left with? If the bridge itself was the cause of the demise of the train, how did that come about?

Here we need to return to the conclusions of the Court of Inquiry, which amongst other things focused on the design of the bridge, with particular reference to the question of wind pressure, and the design of the lugs, crucial to the failure of the whole construction. Bouch came in for particular criticism for his failure to make sufficient allowance for the pressure of wind against the fabric of the bridge, although it was clear that even officials at the Board of Trade, including the Inspector of the bridge, Major General Hutchinson, were not accustomed to make any such allowance for lattice girders of the length and type involved. Nevertheless it is the firm opinion of modern experts that one of the key causes of the collapse was the extreme pressure of wind on the fateful night.

The second major factor was the design and method of manufacture of the lugs to which the tie bars had been bolted. The most obvious problem was that, in the process of casting, the holes in the lugs, which were to take the connecting bolts, ended up being conical in shape instead of truly cylindrical. This had the effect of concentrating all the stress of the connection on a narrow ring of metal. On top of that, as a cost cutting measure, Bouch had specified bolts which were one eighth of an inch smaller that they should have been. 
Belah Viaduct

Again, if only Bouch had chosen to use the kind of wrought iron ring clamps he had used on the Belah Viaduct in the North of England, instead of the fragile lugs, the disaster might well never have happened at all. Why didn’t he? Because they were too expensive.
Belah Wrought Iron Clamps
Various other contributory factors have been cited as explanations of the fall. The great height of the bridge above the high water level, which arguably made it less stable, was due to fears of the authorities in Perth, up river from the bridge, that their seaward trade might be affected. That it was a narrow single line bridge at all was down to the directors of the North British – again a matter of cost. That Henry Noble, charged with the maintenance of the bridge after it came into operation, had tried to cure ‘chattering’ in the bridge components as economically as possible by hammering wedges of iron into them, may well have forced the bridge out of true.

But in the end one comes down to the simple facts.  The bridge collapsed in a fierce and unremitting gale for two fundamental reasons – the lack of a sufficient allowance for wind pressure in the design, and the fatal decision to rely on the cast iron lugs to hold the towers together, instead of the Belah clamps. Not surprisingly, Bouch, as the designer of the bridge, was devastated by the collapse of the bridge, the tragic loss of life, and the ruin of his professional reputation. He survived the fall of the bridge by less than a year.

The Tay Bridge Disaster was an engineering catastrophe, but above all it was a human tragedy. Most of the victims were young, 10 of them 18 or under, the youngest only 5. But consider the remarkable escape of six year old William Brown. William lived in Dundee with his widowed mother, one brother and two sisters. In late December, 1879, he was looking forward to travelling to Leuchars in Fife with his grandmother and his elder sister to visit his uncle Charles. But he had been very naughty – the exact nature of his crime is not revealed – he was given a severe beating by his mother, and forbidden to go on the visit. That was the last he saw of sister Elisabeth and their grandmother.
Memorials on the Dundee bank of the Tay. The new bridge in the background.

Published 20 October 2016, the new and updated edition The Fall of the Tay Bridge, by David Swinfen:

Ann Swinfen

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Snapshot From the Writing Life by Katherine Webb

A somewhat more personal blog than normal from me this month as I find myself in that slightly bewildered, exhausted/exhilarated state that comes about when the second (and hopefully final) draft of a book has been handed in. Mostly, there's a tremendous sense of relief! And I know it's definitely done this time because I have stopped waking up in the middle of the night thinking of tiny, tiny changes to make to the script - literally swapping one word for another on page 342, for example. I'm free!

As somebody who cannot plan a story before starting it, writing a novel is always a leap of faith. Will I still be able to do I? Will ability kick in where faith is failing, and let me produce something worth reading? I know where I want the book to start and finish, and I know who my players are, but will I be able to steer them through a complex narrative? And, given that I can't plan, a book with a twisty plot - like my fourth novel, 'The Misbegotten', and like this one I have just finished - always cause me headaches. I knew when I handed this script in for the first time back in June that there was work to be done - and I was looking forward to getting my agent's and editor's eagle eyes on it. Often, I am far too close to the woods to see the trees by the time I reach the end of the story. It's all there in my head, but has it made it onto the page?

I am often asked by aspiring writers how I deal with the editorial process, and the general feeling is that it must be awfully hard. Well, it is - but not necessarily for the reasons people might think. I imagine that if you'd turned in what you thought was the perfect novel, hearing that your publisher would like changes made to it must be very hard. The key is never to assume it's perfect! I've done this enough times now to know that I have strengths and weaknesses, and every first draft I write will have strengths and weaknesses. Having a skilled editor to point out the weaknesses is a GOOD thing. I've also been asked whether a book still feels like my book once I've redrafted it. My goodness, YES. If it doesn't, something is very seriously wrong. An editor might point out a problem; it is up to the author to find the solution to that problem. Or to argue convincingly that there isn't a problem. Or to sidestep the problem by rewriting other parts of the novel in a certain way. It remains, absolutely, all my own work.

My entirely shambolic work book, which helps me keep tabs on what I've changed and what this is doing to other parts of the book, and what still needs to be added/removed/rewritten...

Another thing I also do at this stage of the writing process is to go back through all my research notes for little gems of historical detail I've missed, which I can drop in to add authenticity to my settings. This time around, that meant rural Wiltshire life in the 1920s, which has been a joy to learn about and to write. Equally, you have to leave some things behind, if they're not needed. However interesting I found the highly-skilled process of constructing a Wiltshire hoop-raved brought nothing to the plot. I've weeded out every bit of too-modern sounding dialogue, written in unthinking full-flow, as I can find; I've checked which wild flowers would have been blooming in the months I've set my story, and I've agonised over whether a character would be 'fascinated with' or 'fascinated by' her lover's body. I have, in short, driven myself quite batty.

A Wiltshire hoop-raved wagon. Would often have been painted bright blue, with the wheels and details picked out in scarlet; and would have lasted donkey's years.

The sudden loss of this soul focus of my attention is a strange feeling. I've only been half in the room for the past six weeks, as I worked on the redraft. Time to call up some friends, and apologise for being glassy-eyed company of late... I feel relieved, as I said, and also a little bereft. I find myself wondering whether I should have found a way to work in the details of the hoop-raved wagon after all... But, once I've hit send I am strict about doing nothing else to the script until I hear back from my editor. And now, a few days on, real life is slowly returning to mind!

The book is due for publication in the UK next June. The script now goes off to a copy editor, who will fact-check it and pick out any glaring continuity errors (always a danger when some sections have been rewritten); after that it'll go to be type-set and then proof read, both by me and by a professional proof reader. And I must turn my attention to the next book... Normally, by this stage, I'll have had an idea about what I want to write next. This time, I haven't an inkling. This latest book has taken up a huge amount of my energy and brain-space for the past nine months - perhaps more than any of my other novels to date. I am - tentatively - extremely proud of it, and I think I need a few weeks to recover from it!

I'll leave you with a few fantastic facts about rural Wiltshire a century ago that I wasn't able to work into the narrative:

Wiltshire folk were superstitious about elder trees and wouldn't cut them down, as it was said that Judas hanged himself from an elder tree.

Vertical stones set on top of a wall around a well, and designed to keep children out, were called 'cock-ups'.

A treat for the children when the butcher's wagon came around was a lump of suet to gnaw on. Yuk!

Obby was short for Albert.

When it came to making wagon wheels, only heart of elm would do for the hubs; only ash for the shafts, and only oak for the spokes.

Folks would say that spring had come when you could step on nine daisies at once.