the year changes – and so do the stories; but disasters, celebrations and the weather remain

Sunday 28th December 1879 was the day the centre portion of the railway bridge across the Firth of Tay collapsed taking with it a train and 75 passengers and crew. The Leicester Mercury of Monday 29th December carried the following: DUNDEE, Sunday night – To-night a terrible gale swept over Dundee, and a portion of the Tay Bridge was blown down while the train from Edinburgh, due at 7.15, was passing over it. It is believed that the train is in the water, but the gale is still so strong that a steamboat has not yet been able to reach the bridge. (The train) was seen running along rails, and then suddenly there was observed a flash of fire. The opinion was that the train left the rails and went over the bridge. Those that saw this incident repaired immediately to the Tay Bridge Station at Dundee.
On Tuesday 30th December the Mercury provided its readers with a calm review as follows:
‘The terrible disaster at the Tay Bridge, Dundee, on Sunday night, though not of the appalling magnitude indicated by the accounts of Monday morning, has proved to be the most fearful railway catastrophe on record. It has involved a loss of nearly 100 lives, and not a single passenger survives to tell the story. On Monday morning Mr Walker, the manager of the North British Railway, calculated that nearly 300 persons had perished, but happily he was able, in the course of the day, to modify his statement. The latest official report places the number of passengers and officials in the train at 75, but it is added – “All lives were lost”. It is also officially stated that thirteen of the high girders in the centre of the bridge were blown down.
In the course of the day Colonel Ponsonby, on behalf of the Queen, telegraphed for information, and was informed that 75 lives had been lost.
Despite these official assurances there was a strong belief in Scotland on Monday night that more than 300 persons had perished. A Dundee correspondent, telegraphing the Mercury on Monday night, confirmed that: ‘the first estimates of the loss of life were overstated, and that in all probability the total would be found to be about 100. At the time it was impossible to say whether the girders were blown down first or the train carried them away. The disaster occurred during the height of a gale of exceptional severity.’
The Mercury continued: ‘Two of the North British Railway officials, with great bravery, faced the fury of the storm to explore the bridge, and had to crawl the latter part of their journey to the edge of the awful chasm. On their return a steamer was immediately prepared, and in the middle of the night, cruised about the broken piers, but no sign of life was found.
Two bodies have been washed ashore, besides mail bags, personal luggage, a traveller’s pattern, and some debris of the carriages. The navigation of the Tay is stopped by the fallen girders. The Queen has telegraphed her sympathy with the friends of those upon whom the calamity has fallen, and asked for particulars, which were furnished by Provest Brownlee, of Dundee. Viscount Sandon has despatched two Government Inspectors to the spot, and directed that a Board of Trade enquiry shall be instituted at once.’
There then followed a list, supplied by railway officials and by relatives and friends of the ‘names of the officials and passengers who were, or are supposed to have been, on the ill-fated train.’

29th December 1860 was the day that discussions between Admiral Baldwin Walker, the Surveyor of the Navy and Sir John Pakington, the First Lord of the Admiralty became reality.
Both men recognised that the safety of Britain depended on bettering the French threat as soon as possible: what they couldn’t agree on was ‘How’! Packington supported the building of iron-hulled ships but Admiral Walker was not convinced that ironclad warships would ever completely replace wooden and suggested that the simple solution was to clad the existing wooden ships in iron.
Pakington won the discussions and, in November 1858, commissioned a design. The new ironclad was to be called Warrior after a distinguished third rate ship-of-the-line which had recently been broken up. In time Warrior would prove to be one of the fastest ships of her day. Pakington later said: “I often wondered how I mustered sufficient courage to order such a novel vessel”.
Warrior was launched on this day – 29th December 1860; a day recorded as the coldest it had been for 50 years! The dockyard, and the River Thames, was covered in frozen snow but despite this, sizable crowds gathered to watch as Pakington named the ship. However, even though braziers had been lit down both sides of the ship the night before, Warrior remained frozen on the slipway. Extra tugs and hydraulic rams were used, while on the upper deck hundreds of men ran from side to side to rock the vessel free! It took some 20 minutes before, almost imperceptibly, the Warrior began to move; “God speed the Warrior” shouted Sir John, and broke a bottle of wine on her bow. The spectators cheered, hats were thrown in the air, tugs blew their whistles and the stern took the water ‘as gracefully as any yacht’.
The morning after her launch, Warrior was moved to the Victoria Docks for fitting out. Two weeks later she moved, under her own power, to Greenhithe where the fitting out was completed and and her guns were installed. It was during her time here that Charles Dickens visited the ship, writing later “..a black vicious customer as ever I saw. Whale like in size, and with as terrible a row of incisor teeth as ever closed on a French frigate.”
On September 19th 1861, with everything fixed and in order, the Warrior left the Thames for Portsmouth

30th December 1906 – I thought it would be nice to finish the year with that classic English/British subject – the weather. Edith Holden, in her ‘Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’ describes this day thus: – ‘The frost still holds, Snow lightly throughout the day. The birds have become wonderfully bold this last week since their usual hunting grounds have been buried in snow. The Blackbirds and Thrushes are usually rather shy, and fly away at the approach of anyone, but now they only hop away to a little distance and sit watching with their bright eyes, from beneath the friendly shelter of a bush, waiting to go back to their feast of crumbs. The Tits and Robins and Sparrows scarcely take any notice of one. I have noticed Chaffinches feeding among the other birds the last few days, they seldom come to feed, though in the Spring they are often to be seen on the lawn, busily engaged in picking out the moss from the turf, for their nests.’

31st December: Walk along the High Street at Stonehaven at Midnight on this nightand you’ll come across the Ancient Fireballs Ceremony. This fishing community, 16 miles south of Aberdeen, is ‘home’ to one of the unique Hogmanay festivals in Scotland – and argued by many as the best.
For over 150 years, at the stroke of midnight, the High Street is lit up as sixty or so local fireball-swingers make their way through their town, swinging their fireballs above their heads. It looks dangerous but the fireballs are very safely packed in wire cages and attached to strong, five-foot-long wire ropes. The balls are made of combustible and oily waste matter (rags, twigs, cones, bits of coal) soaked in paraffin and are held together in a case of wire mesh. The ‘balls’ are made as heavy as each ‘swinger’ feels they can handle – anything from 5 to 15 pounds. Some balls can be 3 feet in diameter and in the past they have been recorded to burn for 2 hours! Now, however, they only last for 20 minutes maximum: – Health & Safety rules must be followed you know!
For the parade, the swingers, all of whom must reside in the Burgh, march down the High Street to the accompaniment of Pipes and Drums from the Mercat Cross to the Police Station, swinging the flaming balls around their heads. After the ‘fireball swingers’ have proceeded through the town they go down to the harbour where the balls are then thrown into the sea.
As you would expect, fireball-swinging is an energetic activity. As one regular participant records: “I can personally attest to the effort needed to continue swinging for the 10-15 minutes the ball will burn.” The ceremony is said to date from a fishermen’s festival in the 19th century but these torch processions can be dated back to before Christianity.
There are a number of theories about the significance of the festival:- some say that it coincides with the winter solstice and the swinging fireballs relate to the recall of the sun; there are others that have a pre-Christian theory in that the fireballs purify the world by consuming evil and warding off witches and evil spirits.
A more detailed theory is that, at some time in the Dark Ages, a shooting star appeared above what is now Stonehaven and that those living nearby had bumper crops that year. The seers of the tribe then attributed this prosperity to the coming of the shooting star and that the Fireball is a mimic of that shooting star and that recalling that at this time will bring a return of that prosperity.
Whatever the background – these days the celebration has become such a popular event that, in the interests of safety, barriers are erected to separate the swingers and pipe bands, and control the thousands that come to spectate. But the spectacle and atmosphere are still second to none.

Wednesday 1st January 1964 saw the first ever television transmission of ‘Top of the Pops’ (TOTP) on a weekly budget of £1,300. It was based on the latest record positions which were, in fact, those of 28th December 1963. The first programme had Jimmy Savile as presenter with a rather impressive playlist:
Rolling Stones‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ came first. They had just reached number 13 and would get one place higher – 12 – but that’s all. However, they did have 16 weeks on the charts with it.
Dusty Springfield then told me that ‘I Only Want To Be With You’: she never did turn up though! She had come into the charts at 9th on 7th December and would peak at number 4 for the last three weeks of January.
Next in the show were the Dave Clark 5; they were ‘Glad All Over’ – 6th in the chart this week. They were at number 2 for the next two weeks before finally knocking the Beatles off the top on 18th January.
The Hollies asking us to ‘Stay’ followed Dave Clark. They were at number 17 in the charts and would hang around until the 3rd week in February – the record peaking at number 8.
Next to perform were The Swinging Blue Jeans. Their record – the ‘Hippy Hippy Shake’ was a new release and was not actually in the charts yet. ‘Top of the Pops’ exposure worked because next week they hit the charts at number 13. They had eight more weeks in the charts where they were : 3/3/2/3/3/4/6/12 – then OUT.
The show was completed by filmed pieces with Cliff Richard & The Shadows and Freddie & The Dreamers before The Beatles played us out with – ‘It’s Number One; It’s Top Of The Pops; it’s ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’.
By the way – number 2 in the charts was ‘She Loves You’ – also by The Beatles.

Saturday 2nd January 1869: The South London Chronicle reported that : ‘An explosion, caused by oxygen coming in contact with gas lights, occured on 24th December at the East London Children’s Hospital and Dispensary, Broad Street, East. The front and backrooms on the ground floor, and the back room on the first floor, and contents were severely damaged by the explosion.’
However, as far as I have been able to check, none of the newspapers reported the following that happened on Saturday 2nd January 1869:
Late in 1868, Saxby and Farmer, railway signal engineers of the London Brighton and South Coast railway, had been commissioned to build a composite of ‘semaphore signals and coloured lights to regulate street traffic’. They erected the first such semaphore device at the intersection opposite the Palace Yard of the newly rebuilt Houses of Parliament on 9th December 1868. The pillar was fitted with three arms facing Bridge Street, Great George Street and Parliament Street and was operated by a constable. To allow drivers to see the signals at night, red and green lights were added to the device, which stood on an iron pillar, 24 feet high and weighing five tonnes. It was painted green and ‘relieved with gilding’.
Initially, this new traffic signal was a success, but three weeks after the lights were erected, on this 2nd January 1869, a leaking gas valve caused the signal to explode. The police officer who was operating the signal suffered terrible burns to the face. The traffic lights were declared a safety hazard and removed immediately. The experiment was abandoned and was not revived until the first electric signals made their appearance in the 1920s.

Saturday 3rd January 1801 – Jane Austin writes to her sister Cassandra: ‘My mother looks forward to our keeping two maids – my father is the only one not in the secret. We plan having a steady cook, and a young giddy housemaid, with a sedate, middle-aged man who is to undertake the double office of husband to the former and sweetheart to the latter. No children, of course, to be allowed on either side. I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter.’

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