29th September 1902

The death of a famously bad poet

Sir William Topaz McGonagall, who styled himself Knight of the White Elephant of Burma, was born in Edinburgh (so he claimed, although this is disputed) and, after many years in Dundee, died in the Scottish capital aged 77.

“Probably no man got through life as a literary man with less literary taste, judgement and knowledge,” commented the Peterhead Sentinel and General Advertiser for the Buchan District on 4 October 1902. “If you have not seen any of William’s ‘poetry’ it is impossible to realise how amusing it could be without any such intention on the part of the bard who was firmly persuaded that he was one of the sweetest and greatest singers in Israel.”

Tay Bridge disaster

One of McGonagall’s best-known poems concerned the Tay Bridge disaster, in which 75 people lost their lives when the bridge over the Firth of Tay collapsed in a storm as a train was passing over it. McGonagall erroneously put the number of dead at 90:

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away…

Tay Rail Bridge, Dundee
Tay Rail Bridge, Dundee

Unfortunately, poetry was not a profitable business to be in, even then, and McGonagall found himself in the dock at Dundee Sheriff Small Debt Court to answer charges that he had not paid for any goods from his grocer for “the last six or eight months”, according to the Leeds Times of 8 June 1878

“When the case was called Mr McGonagall appeared in the witness-box… cleared his throat, and with a tragic air addressed the Sheriff:- ‘Well, sir, I am a handloom weaver, and the charge against me here is debt, and poverty is the cause of my being unable to pay. I am willing to pay if I am allowed time to do so.” When it was suggested that “he had given more of his time to other things – poetry and the drama – than to weaving” McGonagall didn’t deny it, but admitted that “I have no wages. Some weeks I might earn 7s or 10s, or 15s, but it is not very regular.”

McGonagall’s place in history

McGonagall’s reputation was such that he has been remembered long after his death. In a 24 April 1991 opinion piece in the Aberdeen Press and Journal, Ian Sutherland reported that a new society was actively promoting the cause of the man at whom “Victorian topers hurled refuse… as he hurried from hostelry to hostelry to deliver his works.”



Other events that occured in September

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