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The Victorians, although it would never have been admitted, rather liked the macabre; writers rarely asked their readers to read between the lines. If nothing too awful had happened in an accident, the report would speculate on what could have occurred; in an account of an accident on the Macduff branch between Auchterless and Fyvie in 1888, which was quite bad enough with five deaths, the writer for the ILN adds: 'There was a quantity of gas tar, and other combustible matter, among the contents of the waggons, and all mixed up with the passenger carriages. If the engine had fallen with them, it is probable that these inflammable materials would have taken fire; and the passengers, unable to extricate themselves, would have been burnt to déath.' The ILN did not entirely dissociate itself from this ghoulish trait in the human personality but its prose was more restrained than that of some papers which peddled the sensational. It must be remembered that loss of human life on the scale of the worst accidents had been unknown except in time of war; the railway created a potential for disaster on an unprecedented scale. In our own times, when thousands die annually on our roads, it is perhaps difficult to realise the impact such news must have had. Even today, a railway accident, because of its rarity in comparison with other modes of transport, commands headlines while only a major pile-up on the roads would receive more than a few lines. 
        Nonetheless a sizeable proportion of the entries concerning railways in the ILN was devoted to accidents, the frequency of which was, not surprisingly, high until the establishment of interlocked signalling and block or token working on most lines. Serious investigation into the causes of accidents, and recommendations to avoid a similar recurrence, were begun as early as 1840 when railway inspecting officers, appointed by the Board of Trade from the Corps of Royal Engineers, examined an accident at Howden on the Hull & Selby Railway. News of their conclusions was then, as now, confined to the more specialised journals. 


On the night of Thursday week, it is our painful task to state, one of the most appalling accidents that ever happened in English railway travelling occurred on the Great Eastern Railway, between Norwich and Brundall, which is a station nearly six miles from Norwich. A train carrying mails to Norwich leaves Great Yarmouth every evening at 8.46, and is joined at Reedham, twelve miles from Norwich, by another train from Lowestoft. The juriction was effected that night in the ordinary course, and the combined train proceeded to Brundall, three stations farther on. Here it had to wait, because the line is single, until the 
The worst head-on collision in the history of British railways occurred on the night of 10 September 1874 between Norwich Thorpe and Brundall stations. As was generally the case human error was to blâme, although the Board of Trade inspector criticised the laxity of the system that allowed such mistakes to occur. A seriés of misunder-standings between the stationmaster, the night inspector and the telégraph clerk, and the dispatch of a message without the required signature resulted in two trains being dispatchedfrom each end of the single line. These three and the ticket collector stood helplessly on the platform at Norwich Thorpe, knowing there was nothing they couid do to avert the disaster. The final déath toll was twenty-five, and seventy-three were injured; the ILN quotes lower figures. 

arrival of the evening express from Norwich to Great Yarmouth, or until permission should be given to the engine-driver to proceed. A mistaken order from Mr. T. Cooper, the night inspector at Norwich station, allowed the down express to leave Norwich, while the combined mail-train from Great Yarmouth was suffered to come on from Brundall. The consequence was that the doomed trains met at Thorpe, nearly two miles from Norwich, and ran headlong into each other. The rails were slippery from rain; there was a slight curve in the line at the fatal spot, so that the lights of neither train could be seen; there was no time to apply the brakes, and the two engines rushed at each other at full speed. The engine drawing the combined mail-train (No. 54) was one of the most approved modern construction and of great power. The engine drawing the train from Norwich was a lighter one, but had acquired, with its train, a consider-able momentum. In the crash which followed the collision the funnel of engine No. 54 was carried away, and the engine from Norwich rushed on the top of its assailant, some of the carriages of each train following, until a pyramid was formed of the locomotives, the shattered carriages, and the wounded, dead, or dying passengers. Eighteen persons were killed, and four have since died. 
        The down train from Norwich was made up, as usual, of two portions. The larger portion, for Yarmouth, formed the first section of the train; after which came the Lowestoft carriages. These two sections would be separated at Reedham, and each would then travel on its own branch line. The Yarmouth portion of the train consisted of the following carriages: 1, the engine and tender, driven by Clarke and his fireman Sewell (both killed); 2, a horse-box belonging to the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company; 3, a second-class carriage; 4, an open third-class carriage; 5, a first-class carriage; 6, a third-class carriage; 7 and 8, composite carriages; 9 and 10, third-class carriages; 11, brake-van, containing the guard Read. Then came the Lowestoft portion of the train, in the following order: - 12, a second-class carriage; 13, a first-class carriage; 14, a third-class carriage; 15, break-van, containing the guard Black. The two guards escaped with cuts and bruises. They were in the rear part of the train, in carriages which, happily, did not leave the rails, or otherwise the whole of the Lôwestoft portion of the train would have fallen into the river Yare, which is here about fifty yards wide. As it was, the Lowestoft carriages remained on the bridge, a wooden one, 69 yards long, adapted for a single line of rails, but in process of widening. Iron girders are being intro-duced, and there were wide chasms in the bridge. It is a wonder that no passengers were drowned in attempting to get out of these three carriages, for there was no balustrade or railing, and anybody alighting upon the planks of the bridge from the projecting step of a carriage would be likely to fall forward into the water. However, dredging in the river has produced no results. Another reason for thankfulness is that the two engines did not meet upon the bridge. Even if the bridge itself had stood firm, the foremost carriages must have been hurled into the water, and the number of deaths would have been doubled or trebled. A very slight difference in the speed of either train, or a few seconds' difference in the time of starting, would have made the calamity far more dreadful. 
        It will be seen that there were fourteen carriages behind the engine and tender of the down express. The following was the composition of the up mail one: - Engine and tender, Prior, driver, and Light, fireman (both killed). Then followed the Yarmouth carriages - 2, fish-truck laden with fish; 3, brake-van; 4 and 5, com-posite carriages; 6, third-class carriage; 7, mail-van, in which was the guard having charge of the mail-bags; 8, composite carriage. Next came the Lowestoft carriages - 9, brake-van; 10, third-class carriage; 11, first-class carriage; 12 and 13, second-class carriages; 14, third-class carriage. Thus there were thirteen carriages behind the engine of the mail, so that the two trains were pretty nearly equal in weight. It is certain, however, that the mail-train must have had a much greater momentum. Both drivers had reason for putting on increased speed, believing as they did that each train was waiting for the other; but the engine of the mail-train was heavier and more powerful than that of the express, besides which there is a slight decline all the way to Brundall. It is thought that the speed of the up mail could not have been less than from thirty to thirty-five miles an hour, while the rate at which the express was travelling would be from twenty to twenty-five miles. Imagination can only faintly conceive the fearful shock of two such bodies propelled with this velocity, each presenting exactly the same points of contact, and giving and receiving at the same instant the full force of each other's blow. It was, in fact, the meeting of two iron vans, of nearly equal size and power, urged on by steam, with an irresistible weight behind urging thern on. The two engines and tenders weighed each forty-five and forty tons. This made some eighty tons of metal hurled almost through the air from opposite points, to say nothing of the dead weight of the train behind. Mathematicians may calculate with this weight and velocity what was the force exerted at the point of impact. People living close by thought they heard a thunderpeal. The darkness of the night, the heavy rain that was falling, and a slight curve round which the mail-train was making its way must have prevented the two drivers from seeing each other's lights till the trains were close together. How this was in reality can never be known, as the four poor fellows who manned the two locomotives, and could alone bear witness, were killed in a moment. 
        Captain Tyler's official report upon the disastrous collision on the Great Eastern Railway, which occurred near Norwich on Sept. 10, has been published. He, in his conclusions, first considers the systern adopted in the working of the line; then examines the immediate causes by which the accident was produced; apportions the blame between Inspector Cooper and Telegraph-clerk Robson; and, lastly, glances at the principles generally adopted in the working of single lines, and the means, by which the risk of accidents of this nature may best be provided against. 

[ILN SEPT 19 1874] 
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[ILN Jun 17 1865] - The accident at Staplehurst on the South Eastern Railway is remembered chiefly for the survival of the trains most eminent passenger, Charles Dickens. At the time of the derailment, he was reading the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend while on his way back to London after a visit to France. The accident should have been avoided, despite the absence of two sections of rail, if various safety procedures had been carried out. A labourer should have protected the line by placing a detonator every250yd from theviaductforl,000ydat which point he should have placed two more 10 yd apart and remained there with a red flag. Theforeman, however, hadplâced him only 554yd away, and since there were only two detonators to hand, the foreman in-structed that they were only to be used in the event of jog; it was a sunny afternoon. The shortened distance made it impossible for the driver to stop after he had seen the red flag, and the guard failed to realise the urgency on hearing the brake whistle, applying only the screw brake and not Cremar's patent brakes with which the leading van and two coaches were fitted. Dickens was unhurt and went round the victims administering what he thought was a helpful restorative - brandy. Some of them died immediately, which puzzled Dickens, occasioning him to note that 'Mr Dickenson was the first person the brandy saved' There is no doubt that Dickens' nervous system never recovered from the accident. One of his companions on the protracted reading tours recorded that Dickens would writhe with nervousress whenever an express gathered speed. On the fifth anniversary of the accident, 9 june 1870, Dickens died in his fifty-eighth year. Whatever else, a platelayer's error deprived us of a solution to The Mystery of Edwin Drood. 

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[ILN Mar 3 1855] - The section of line beside the sea between Starcross and Dawlish has been a continual trial to the railway, because of the frequent damage caused by high seas. The intention to construct a direct line between Dawlish Warren and Newton Abbot was only part of a larger scheme to mitigate delays on one of the most intensively used stretches of line during the summer months; but one wonders whether the section through Teignmouth would still be used today had World War II not terminated the slow progress with the proposal. The first trouble experienced with the line, after opening in May 1846, was in December 1852 at Breeches Rock between Teignmouth and Dawlish. Héavy rain caused a spring to, break out from a soft vein, resulting in the collapse of the cliff onto the railway. After a similar occurrence in February 1853, the gradient of the cliff face was eased and drainage work carried out, but it was not enough toprevent a slightfall in October of the saine year. This illustra-tion shows the result of the first attack on the line from the other side. Easter~y gales during the first fortnight of February 1855 had washed away the beach near Teignmouth, exposing the marl on which the railway and sea wall were built. Heavy seas scoured the marl and despite remedial work 30yd of wall collapsed on the 16th. Severe frosts and turbulent seas prevented reconstruction, and by the time work could begin 50yd of the embankment had been washed away. Traffic was resumed by running trains to the edge of the breach and passengers walking round. A wooden viaduct built across the gap was completed in early March. Further strengthening was carried out during the summer under the personal supervision of Brunel. The picture shows the future site of Parsons Tunnel signalbox which controlled the convergence of the double linefrom Teignmouth into the single line through the tunnels to Dawlish. This was the last stretch of single line on the line between Paddington and Plymouth and was not doubled until 1 October 1905. The odd history of the signalbox is worth a mention; the box was switched out for almost half its life (from 1909-34 and 1946-7), finally closing in March 1964. 
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[ILN Jan 27 1866] - The Bristol & Exeter Railway, fully opened in 1844, was built to the broad gauge and became an integral part of the Great Western route to Plymouth and Penzance. Flooding at Cowley Bridge and up the valley of the Exe and Culm along which the railway runs for part of the way, still happens after heavy rain; even the railway is still occasionally inconvenienced. 

[ILN Mar 24 1866] - There is little doubt that our winters have become markedly milder since the nine-teenth century when this kind of scene was an almost annual occurrence on the Highland Railway. Trains were regularly brought to a stand by snow and required the assistance of three locomotives with heavy snowplough to extricate them. Huge gangs of labourers were dispatched to dig trains out, and a well-known photograph shows a forest of spades in the snow while the men had a brief respite. The representation of an Allan 2-4-0 is quite reasonable for the time in comparison with other efforts.

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This page was created by Julia Lee '99. It is maintained by Professor Robert Schwartz of the History Department, Mount Holyoke College.