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The Commemoration of David Mitchell of Leslie - Locomotive Engine Driver
Ian Nimmo White

Ian Nimmo WhiteI'm a writer and currently vice-chairman of the TRBDMT. After I'd completed the job on the David Mitchell headstone, I recorded the story in approx. 3,000 words, and rounded it off with a 20 line poem in both English and Scots. Both are attached here.

My purpose was to use the story, perhaps the poem as well, to raise further funds for the TRBDMT. See the link to them at the foot of this page.  Here is the story...

Some people say that history is a thing of the past with no relevance to our present day lives. In its defence I would say that each one of us has our own personal history, a part of us being made up of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents. And if we care about our ancestors, then we care about their lives which more often than not were a sight harder than our own. To deny history a part in our present day lives is to turn our backs on where we came from and who we are.

At 7pm on the night of Sunday, 28th December, 1879, the Mitchells of Dundee were a typically ordinary family – a wife and five children having risen from dinner and awaiting their husband and father, soon to finish work by arriving in Dundee at the controls of engine number 224 of the Northern British Rail Line. It was pulling a passenger train from Burntisland with 55 passengers and 3 other crew on board. Suddenly, while crossing the newly built Tay Rail Bridge from Wormit to Dundee, the high girders of the bridge collapsed in the teeth of a violent storm, dragging the train with them into the icy waters. There were no survivors.

The verdict of the following inquest upheld that this was a bridge which had been badly designed, badly constructed and badly maintained. Small comfort for the Mitchells. Like 58 other families, having been thrown into the centre of the most shocking man-made disaster in Scotland’s industrial history, they had become an extraordinary family, and their lives were never to be the same again.

Before my own link-up with the Mitchells unfolds, I’d like to make clear that I was never driven into this like a man on a mission. I just happened to be a trustee of the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster Memorial Trust, which from now on I’ll refer to as the TRBDMT. While reading up on the Disaster, I discovered David Mitchell was a Leslie man like myself, the only difference being that David was born in Leslie.

He was the son of a miller who worked at Balbirnie Flour Mill and a farmer’s daughter from Kinglassie. My curiosity had been aroused and what followed for me was an enthralling experience punctuated by hurdles which presented themselves along the way and had to be cleared one by one. No magic tricks, no spiritual revelations, just dogged determination, a few good hunches and now and again something we all need – a large slice of luck.

At the start, I just asked myself a question : Could David have been buried in his home town of Leslie after his body had been washed up on Tayside on 1st March, 1880 ? With the help of Campbell Morris, a local historian, and the staff of Fife Cemeteries, I established that Janet, his widow, had in fact returned David’s body to Leslie on 4th March and buried him in Leslie Cemetery. One year after that, his youngest child succumbed to croup and was buried beside him, inexplicably as an “unnamed child ”

My first visit to Leslie Cemetery in search of the grave of David Mitchell and his kiddie, the so-called “ unnamed child ” was made somewhat nervously. Neither by night nor day am I a graveyard geek. I was armed with a very old map of the cemetery given me by Campbell Morris, and Fife Council had already informed me that David, his unnamed child, and another child, who turned out to be his second son Thomas who died in 1946, were all buried in plot 731. But the crossway paths, so well defined on the map, had long since been overgrown with grass, and the numbering of the plots on the map was no longer reinforced by numbering on the site. However, I was able to work out that a very wide gap, rather like a firebreak between trees, must have been the second crosspath, and that the section containing plots 731 to 738 was the first on the northern, Lomond Hills’ side of it. By sheer luck, two graveworkers were on site that morning and at my request were able to establish, through their headquarters by mobile phone, the only visible headstone had been raised at plot 734. From there, they were able to pinpoint the centre of 731, the unmarked grave of David Mitchell.

I truly don’t know why it was I had to campaign for a headstone for David Mitchell and his family. All I know is I didn’t sleep at all well that night, turning the Disaster over and over again in my mind. By morning the dye was cast. I simply had to. Later that day I got an e-mail from Murray Nicoll, who co-wrote a book in 2005 entitled “ Victims of the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster ”. Intrigued by my tale of the unnamed child, he’d popped in to New Register House where he was able to unearth the death certificate of Margaret Mitchell , two year old daughter of Janet Moyes and locomotive engine driver, David Mitchell. The certificate, dated 10th April 1881, said she had died of croup and the informant was a neighbour. Clearly, the mother Janet was in no fit state after all she’d gone through. I then accessed the 1881 Census where I found widow Janet and her family on 31st March residing in High Street, Leslie – Janet, David Mitchell Junior 9 years old, Thomas 8, Andrew 6, Isabella 3, and would you believe, Margaret 2. The bairn had caught and died from croup only days after the Census. At least I now knew, if I ever did succeed in getting a headstone, the bairn’s name would be on it.

Another challenge emerged when Fife Cemeteries intimated there were a further two members of the family in the adjacent plot 732, namely Janet who died in 1929 having survived her husband by 50 years, and daughter Isabella who lived to the great age of 95, dying in March 1972. Well, I thought, plenty of people have had to raise funds for good causes, why should this task be any harder ? Not a chance, brought down to earth again, if you’ll pardon the pun, by Fife Cemeteries. By law, I had to find the eldest living descendant of David Mitchell, as that person would be deemed to be the owner of the graves and would be required to give me his or her support in writing.

At the outset I was a bit daunted by the prospect of doing such an in-depth genealogical research into the Mitchell family. On the other hand I had a little experience. Not so long ago I had uncovered the origin of my name Nimmo. Margaret Nimmo, my great grandmother on my father’s side, had been the daughter of James Nimmo, a church officer in Paisley. She married a William White, shawl weaver, and they had eight children. The family lived in a flat which size-wise would only be suitable for a single person nowadays. And there she died, while giving birth to her ninth.

Thinking about Margaret Nimmo’s life added fuel to the old boiler. Life had been hard for the Mitchell family as well after the shocking circumstances of David’s death. It seemed that tragedy was par for the course in a 19th century family. This gave me all the empathy I needed.

Okay then, where to start ? Perhaps an experienced hunter would have gone a different way, but I chose Isabella Mitchell, David and Janet’s fourth child. After all, she had been the longest survivor, and had died relatively recently, in 1972.

Campbell Morris gave me a photograph of her, taken when she became the oldest member of Christ’s Kirk on the Green, Leslie, and later in the research I came into possession of some of her writings. In 1968 she wrote a letter to the Courier in response to an article on the Tay Bridge Disaster. In it she explains she was only two years old at the time of the Disaster, but as she was growing up her mother had told her how she and Isabella’s older brothers had received the news at Peddie Street, Dundee, on the night of the tragic event :

In the middle of the storm, mum had difficulty getting my baby sister to sleep. When she finally succeeded, she realised dad was late coming off his train. So she asked two laddies who were passing the house if the train was in yet. They told her the bridge was down and the train in the Tay. It was an awful shock for mum, and she ran into the house of her dressmaker friend and neighbour ”.

The only doubt I had about my method was that Isabella had been single throughout her life and had died childless. This, I thought, could lead to a dead end and fast. Nonetheless, with the help of an assisted search at Glenrothes Registrar’s, I was able to see an image of Isabella’s death certificate from 1972. The informant, in a clear and very fine handwriting, was Beatrice Taylor, a niece from Edinburgh. Having learned from this, I subscribed to the Scotlandspeople website and continued the search on my home computer.

There followed days of furious surfing, punctuated by bouts of language unprintable here and only halted by a wife threatening to leave home if I didn’t chill out. But enough of my consummate PC skills ! Having no luck with tracing Beatrice Taylor, I went off at a tangent looking for the death certificate of the eldest child, David Mitchell Junior. Again I wasn’t all that hopeful, for David Junior had appeared as single, still living with his mother Janet, in the Census of 1901. Surely, one of the Mitchell children had produced offspring of their own !

Yet more frustration, but eventually I broke through into the third generation when I found DMJ’s death certificate from February,1945. He had died in Edinburgh, the document confirming him as the son of David Mitchell, locomotive engine driver, and Janet Moyes. More importantly, the informant was a John F. Leighton, son-in-law. This meant, although leaving it late, David Mitchell Junior had flown his original family in Leslie and started one of his own. For the first time I felt there was a fair chance I might resolve this.

This is the point when you have to get good hunches, when you have to make links which can only lead to one answer. So what did I actually know ? Beatrice Taylor was the niece of Isabella Mitchell, the daughter of David Mitchell. This had to mean Beatrice was the granddaughter of David. Now I posed myself another question : Could Taylor be Beatrice’s name from a second marriage and could she have been the wife, by a first marriage, of this John F. Leighton, the son-in-law of David Mitchell Junior ? If so, this would mean she was the daughter of David Mitchell Junior.

And this is where you’ve got to get lucky. Had Beatrice been a Mary or a Jean, the search could easily have fallen flat as a badly baked cake, but there were few Beatrice Taylors in the records of Scotlandspeople within the timescale I was scanning. Her signature on her aunt Isabella’s death certificate was Beatrice M. Taylor. There was only one such, Beatrice Mary Taylor. And best of all, marriage certificates confirmed her as wedded to John Fraser Leighton, in 1942 in Edinburgh, when she was Beatrice Mary Mitchell, the daughter of David Mitchell Junior and Annie Sweeting of Portobello, then wedded later to Stanley Taylor in Edinburgh in 1959, when she was Beatrice Mary Leighton, widow. Sadly, John Fraser Leighton had been killed in a work accident in 1952. I now knew, if I could break through into a fourth generation, that of the great grandchildren of David Mitchell, I’d likely find a living descendant.

Now I looked again at the five children of David and Janet Mitchell. Margaret had died as a bairn, Isabella and Thomas had lived out their lives single and without issue. Andrew, the third son, had moved to Glasgow, married a lass called Ellen Johnston, and worked in John Brown’s shipyards. But as far as I could make out, he had died relatively young without children. All the eggs were in one basket. If David Mitchell Junior had not produced grandchildren, either through his daughter Beatrice or any other children he might prove to have had, all my success to date would be meaningless. The Mitchell line would come to a shuddering halt.

So back to the hypotheses or as I call them, the hunches. What if Beatrice had produced a son ? If so, what would she have called him ? John, after his father, John Fraser Leighton ? Or David, after her grandfather the train driver, being mindful of the history and wanting to keep the name alive ? Oh dear, time to go back on computer again. After sorting out one of those insufferable breakdowns on the Internet, this latest search through births revealed a considerable number of John and David Leightons born in Edinburgh between 1943 and 1950. Beatrice had married J.F. Leighton there in 1942.

That’s when the computer quit the game completely, so I reverted to an old trick from my days in youth and community service. That job was always about communicating with people, and to contact someone you didn’t know you sometimes had to search laboriously through the telephone directory. It helped if the surname was uncommon, for it reduced the number of options. I wondered how many Leightons would be in the Edinburgh area. Probably a lot, and it was all speculation anyway. Even if Beatrice did have a son, he’d likely moved out of Auld Reekie lang syne, and if not, was called Callum, Torquil – anything.

Monday morning, 31st January, and a visit to the reference room of Glenwood Library, for a riveting read of the Edinburgh telephone directory. Imagine having to write one up ! Well, not so many D. and J. Leightons as I’d expected. I made a note of the numbers but, frankly, wasn’t at all hopeful. Then I went back home and tried one at random, only to hear a recorded male voice inviting me to redial with an added security number. So I did, only to get a pre-recorded lady operator talking in Swahili. More dubious language, resulting in my better half calming me down by explaining the gentleman probably had a hearing problem. At least I’d left details on his machine of my role in the TRBDMT. I decided to do the other calls later.

2.30pm on the same day, and I was woken from an afternoon nap by long suffering wife to be told a Mr. Leighton was on the phone. “ You’ll have to speak up if we’re going to talk ” the voice boomed. “ Certainly ” I copied, “ I’m sorry to have bothered you if I’ve got this wrong, but could you by any chance be the son of Beatrice Mary Mitchell ? ” “ Yes, that’s my mum, and I know where you’re going with this. My great grandfather was the train driver ”. For a few seconds I experienced something I’m not known for – a loss of speech. Then a noise came from somewhere deep inside me and frightened the poor man half to death.

The fact that David Leighton, the eldest living great grandson of David Mitchell, had lost his dear wife Elizabeth in 2004, and was now having to make daily visits to a nursing home in Edinburgh to keep an eye on his ailing mother, Beatrice Mary Mitchell, gives measure enough to a thoroughly decent human being who, from the outset, steadfastly supported me all the way to the commemoration ceremony for his great grandfather, and indeed on one occasion said to me : “ I have to remember, as well as my ancestor, 58 other people were killed. There is something much bigger going on here ”.

David dug out old family photographs stashed away long since by his granny, Annie Sweeting and his mother Beatrice. Why is it always the women who keep the family records alive ? Being sensitive and shy by nature, David shunned the media at first, but later got used to it. I worried for him when he had the Edinburgh Evening News and the Sunday Express hunting him at the same time. He thought about it for a tad, then assertively said to me “ Bring it all on, Ian ! ”

One of the finest moments in my research was finding out that his mum, Beatrice, was still living. When she was merely a signature on her auntie Bella’s death certificate, I remember doing maths and thinking she must be over 100 years old by now, probably not with us any more. But there she was for real, 92 years young, when I went with David to visit her at her nursing home in February, 2011.

From David Leighton, I learned he had an uncle of 91 who stays in Essex, a younger brother to Beatrice. He turned out to be quite a character. Although his physical disabilities prevented him from making the long haul to his grandfather’s ceremony, he has all his marbles. He wrote to me at regular intervals taking issue with some of my records on the Disaster, and without him there are one or two mysteries I’d not have solved. Amazingly, he still has the duty pocket watch taken from his grandfather’s body when washed up on Tayside nine weeks after the tragedy.

Beatrice and her younger brother David John were born in Kinglassie , the children of David Mitchell Junior and Annie Sweeting. They proved to be the only grandchildren of the train driver. David Leighton proved to be Beatrice’s only child. He has two sons, Graeme and Murray, and three grandchildren, Aaron, Victoria and Gershom. David John Mitchell has two children, David Iain and Kathleen Alison.

The commemorative ceremony for David Mitchell, his wife and their children, took place on Wednesday, 20th April, 2011, at Leslie Cemetery where a fine new granite gravestone had been erected bearing their names. Fife Councillor Fiona Grant welcomed everyone at the start, then wreaths and flowers were laid, as John Winton, the piper, played Good-bye Marion, a lament of his own composition. The first wreath was laid by David and Murray Leighton, great grandson and great great grandson of David Mitchell. Then the Rev. Mel Griffiths of Trinity Church, Leslie, blessed the stone, and John Winton played Amazing Grace. Speeches followed firstly from yours truly, then Stuart the Younger of Balgonie, chairman of the TRBDMT, and finally David Leighton.. The conclusion of the ceremony was The Dark Island played by piper John Winton and a prayer led by Rev. Griffiths.

If the story of David Mitchell’s commemoration has moved you, then please make a donation to the TRBDMT. We’re going to build memorials to the 59 who lost their lives in the Disaster, one at Riverside, Dundee, the other at Wormit in Fife. You can use our website for PAYPAL at or send a cheque to Ian Rae, Treasurer of the TRBDMT, 11 Wilmington Drive, Glenrothes, KY7 6US. Make out to “ Tay Rail Bridge Disaster Memorial Trust ”. In gratitude to all who helped me with my research, to all who donated to the Mitchell Stone, and to all who came to the ceremony, either in person or in spirit. The last words belong to the train driver’s daughter, Isabella, for so long an active member of the Leslie community. Clearly, good memories never dim, for although only 2 years old at the time of her father’s death, she said

in a church magazine some 88 years later :

My father was a sober man of gentle face, deeply fond of his children ”.

Ian Nimmo White Leslie, April, 2011

A Train Driver and a Poet

On raising a stone at Leslie Cemetery on 20th April, 2011, to David Mitchell, locomotive engine driver of the train involved in the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster, Sunday, 28th December, 1879.

There but a cricket ball’s throw from my home
were graves overgrown with grass and unstoned :
a husband and wife and three of their young,
forsaken by a Railway, a driver disowned.

In sleepless nights I tossed and turned,
as a hundred times more that Bridge gave way,
and Mitchell’s engine pitched and plunged
into metal, steam, stormed water and spray.

But now an unsung figure has place
in Scottish lore and his own hometown.
A stone is raised, fine flowers are laid,
a piper plays, and memory goes on.

Be the job complete, no pride be felt,
let the Tay be calm, let the family be one.
And let pity be reserved for the misguided souls
for whom history is nothing but theirs to spurn.

In the shadow of the Lomonds I’m stood upright
by a stone to folk I never knew. But it’s brill
that the fireside tale my mother told
returned with a mandate so fine to fulfil !

Ian Nimmo White First published in The Courier, 30th April, 2011

A Train Drevver and a Poet

On raising a stone at Leslie Cemetery on 20th April, 2011, to David Mitchell, locomotive engine driver of the train involved in the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster Sunday, 28th December, 1879.

Ther bit a cricket baa’s heave frae ma hame
wir graves owergrowed wae gress, and unstaned
a mannie and wife and three o thir weans,
forsak bi the Railway, thir drevver disawned.

In sleepless nichts Ah tossed ’n’ turnt,
is a hunner times mair yon Brig gied wey,
and Mitchell’s injin pitched and dooked
intae metal, stame, gurled watter and spreh.

Bit noo an unsang chiel hus pless
i Scotland’s lore and his ain hametoon.
A stane is heezed, and flooers laid oot,
a piper plehs and mem’ry gans oan.

Be the job weel lowsed, nae pride be kythed,
lat the Tay be lown, lat the faimlie be wan,
and peety set by for the harnliss sowels
for wham historie is naethin bit therrs tae pit doon.

I the shaddie o the Lomonds Ah’m stuid upricht
be a stane tae fowk Ah nivir kennt. Bit it’s brill
thit the ingle-cheek tale ma mither tellt
cam back wae a mandate sae fine tae fulfil !

Ian Nimmo White

Do visit the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster Memorial Trust web site.

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