Research Aspect 5: Legacy and Memory
In the last chapter of The Fall of Yarmouth Suspension Bridge: A Norfolk Disaster, the author looks at the legacy and memory of the disaster. In the 19th century it was very unusual to erect memorials, indeed, not until after the First World War, did it become common place for the fallen to be in receipt of a monument. While subscriptions were often raised for memorials, usually in churches, to individuals who had made a contribution to local society, to commemorate and note the deaths of many in a town was not normal practice.
One exception to this, can be found in Rotherham. A memorial to the victims of the Masbrough or Rotherham Boatyard Disaster in July 1841 was raised from local subscription and can be found in St Ann's Church, Rotherham. In a very similar instance to the Yarmouth Suspension Bridge Disaster, about 150 people had gathered on the deck of a boat being launched sideways into the canal at Chambers boat yard. Many were boys under the age of 15 who were apprentices there. When the boat was launched they rushed to one side to see the splash, and the boat overturned trapping them underneath. In all 64 lost their lives.
The Yarmouth Suspension Disaster can also be compared with the Tay Bridge Disaster in January 1880. They are two of the worst structural engineering failures of the Victorian era. In terms of facts there are a number of similarities between them – they were, of course, both bridges, their collapse was totally unexpected and sudden, the reasons for their failure was due to poor workmanship and therefore preventable, both attracted significant concern and coverage from the press at the time, both evoked questions in Parliament, and both claimed roughly the same number of innocent victims. Yet in historical terms, The Tay bridge has entered the national collective memory to a much greater extent.
This is probably due to two factors. Firstly, there is physical evidence of the remains of the bridge, as the old brick and concrete pillars were not removed when a new bridge was constructed. They remain a very poignant reminder that exists to this day. Secondly, the Tay Bridge disaster is also remembered because William McGonagall wrote a poem about its collapse. Not that this did not happen for our bridge, indeed two elegies were written on the occasion of the Yarmouth bridge collapse. But McGonagall's reputation as the writer of the worst poetry in the English language meant his work has endured, while those of Mrs. Hart and James Stuart Vaughan efforts have not.
Both disasters also share the fact that it was not until 2013 that memorials were raised to the memory of the victims. The memorials were the result of the unstinting efforts of two campaigners with similar motives. Both felt that little had been done to honour the dead at the time and that it was now time to do so.
Ian Nimmo White, a Leslie poet, established the Tay Rail Bridge Memorial Trust in 2010 in order to raise money to erect a memorial to the victims of the disaster. In fact twin memorials were erected either side of the river. At the ceremony on 28 December 2013 he stated his reasons:
“This is a 134-year oversight which is finally being righted. The families weren't treated all that well by the railway companies after they lost their loved ones. And the rail bridge was an injustice in itself because it was an accident waiting to happen.
“But this is an opportunity to give the families some kind of payback.”
Three months previously, the memorial to the victims of the Yarmouth Suspension Bridge Disaster was unveiled. The unstinting work of a Yarmouth resident, Julie Staff. She was motivated by the fact that few people knew the story of the disaster and her empathy for the victims. She was determined not to apply for grants but to raise money from individuals, asking for just a pound coin whether they be townspeople or tourists at a stall she set-up in the Market Gates shopping centre and while running her deck-chair business on the beach during the summer. At the unveiling she said:
“This memorial has been created by the people of Great Yarmouth as all those pound coins have come together to make this happen. … It's like the suspension bridge story has finally been told and the people who died have finally been the given the respect they deserve.”
When a memorial is erected has little to do with the time, but more to do with the motivation and perseverance of individuals. Memorials and how they come about are simply part of the event's story.