On seeing a newspaper picture of Sir Thomas Bouch

On seeing a newspaper picture of Sir Thomas Bouch
Edinburgh, 30 December 1879

“For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed”

Look closely.

One single black spot.

Two single black spots smudged into one spot.
One black ellipse, a dumbbell, one long black gap,
And then, from a little further
A spotted disc, the grubby oval of the bloodshot eye.

A different perspective, and a face appears
From the mess of swirling spots, scattered
Not at random after all, but in some ordained plan
To form an image of a grey face

In time and space, carefully listening to the
Sounds of rumbling rhythm, deep, eddying and dark,
The locomotive sound of printing press, filthy pistons
Pumping, black as soot, dark as the night,

Imagining the rushing train, lost in the gale
Dashing to the ink black gap. Whirlpools
Etch the wrinkles under the fatigued
Eyes of grief, black as newspaper print

Rubbing on the readers’ fingers as they browse.
So constructed glory smudges away
Into the dark night, an unforeseen disaster,
And shame comes, quick as one black spot.

Like his famous bridge, the glorious knight falls quickly,

Just ten months later and he will join the dead.

Sir Thomas Bouch, Victorian railway engineer, built the St Andrew’s railway, the pleasure pier at Portobello and a floating bridge across the Forth. He was knighted after Queen Victoria journeyed over his great Scottish bridge across the estuary of the Tay.

© Martin Porter 2005

This poem is based on a newspaper picture of Sir Thomas Bouch. Bouch is not a name that is well recognised, so the origin of the poem needs some explanation.

The background of this poem is hinted at in the poem itself, but the supporting text also offer hints. The date is significant. The epigraph is written by Scotland’s second greatest poet, William McGonagall. They are, in fact, the last two lines of his best known poem, “the Tay Bridge Disaster”. If you don’t know this poem you are probably a lucky person, but its worth reading. The postscript also alludes to the Tay Bridge. Thomas Bouch was the designer of the first Tay Bridge. He died on 30th October 1880, as mentioned in the last line.

The Tay Bridge was a spectacular lattice grid iron bridge spanning the Firth of Tay at Dundee. Thomas Bouch designed the bridge and the foundation stone was laid in July 1871. There were some unexpected problems with the construction, including the difficulty in finding sound bedrock for the foundations, so Bouch modified the design to take this into account. The first trains crossed the bridge in September 1877 and Thomas Bouch was knighted when Queen Victoria crossed the bridge shortly after.

On the evening of 28th December 1879 during a violent storm, a train carrying 75 passengers was travelling across the bridge when the central span collapsed, taking the train with it into the Tay, There were no survivors. The disaster shook Victorian engineering to the core and is still one of Britain’s worst railway disasters.

The blame will probably never be completely ascertained, but Sir Thomas Bouch was implicated by the enquiry which followed.

This poem was one of those commended by the judges of the Jersey Arts Trust Channel Island Writers’ Competition 2005 and is published in the Channel Island Writers’ Anthology 2005.

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