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28 December: On this day in history

What events happened on 28 December in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: December 28, 2021 at 6:06 am
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28 December 1879: Tragedy strikes at the Tay Rail Bridge

High winds and faulty engineering cost 75 lives

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“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.” So begins William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster, often described as the worst poem in history. It did not even get the casualty figures right. But behind this unintended comic tribute lay a genuinely tragic story.

Opened in June 1878, the Tay Rail Bridge was one of the engineering marvels of Victorian Scotland, spanning almost two miles across the firth of Tay to Dundee. Costs had risen during construction, and the architect, Thomas Bouch, had made virtually no allowance for high winds.

So when a ferocious storm blew up on the evening of 28 December 1879, the result was disaster. At exactly 7.13pm, the Edinburgh express, which had come from Burntisland and was pulling five carriages and a luggage van, was given the signal to proceed onto the bridge. But when it was halfway across, there was a flash of light – and then total darkness.

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The collapse happened within moments, toppling the train, the bridge and even some of the supporting girders into the Tay. Counting staff, there had been about 75 people on board. There were no survivors. Much of the blame was aimed at Bouch, who had been knighted after the bridge first opened. He died less than a year later, reportedly from “shock and distress of mind”.

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

28 December 1360
Death of Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent, a veteran of Crécy and Edward III's captain in Normandy and France. His widow, Joan 'Thee Fair Maid of Kent', married the Black Prince in the following year.
28 December 1612 
The Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei first observed what turned out to be the planet Neptune. The long-held belief that he mistook it for a star and gave it no further thought has recently been challenged.
28 December 1908
At least 75,000 people lose their lives as Southern Italy is rocked by a major earthquake. The cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria are almost completely destroyed.
28 December 1937 
French composer Maurice Ravel dies after surgery to relieve aphasia.
28 December 1961
The premiere of Tennessee Williams's Night of the Iguana was staged at Broadway's Royale Theatre. Two-time Oscar winner Bette Davis played the part of Maxine.

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Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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