The disaster has been well documented and the story will not detain us here. The salient points to bear in mind when looking at the songs and poems are as follows. The bridge opened for passenger traffic, amid much celebration, in June 1878 (18 months before the disaster). The Scotsman of 1st June called the opening "in all respects the most important event in the history of railways since they were first introduced to Scotland" and it was widely reported across Britain. William McGonagall wrote a poem celebrating the use of the bridge by the Newport Railway in May 1879 (bar716~Newport Railway).
The bridge collapsed during a violent storm while a train was crossing. It is believed that 74 or 75 people (including railway employees) were on the train although initial reports in the Times of the next morning (29th December) estimated the number of passengers at between 150 and 200. There was substantial coverage in newspapers and magazines..
The Dundee Courier of 5th January 1880 carried an article claiming that the Tay Bridge disaster is God's judgment on defective engineering"
The court of enquiry began taking evidence on 3rd January (6 days after the event) and reported at the end of June, thus keeping the event fresh in the public mind. One version of the only Tay Bridge song found in the folk tradition (bar659/Roud 21568) begins "Ye'll all have ye heard about the brig that spanned the river Tay". As with other disasters the music industry was not alone intaking an opportunity to make money. This postcard must have been published after when the locomotive was recovered during April 1880. [Ref Dundee Advertiser 20th April 1880]
Most of the songs and poems feature the standard motifs: travellers setting out with light hearts; parents trying to save their children; mourning friends and relatives; and hope that the souls of the dead are in heaven. The only piece to mark out the railway workers killed for special attention is the song written approximately a century after the event by a railway footplateman, Don Bilston (bar427).
The headblocks of two of the broadsides (bar and bar 600) look as if they were copied from newspaper or magazine illustrations.