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.
[ILN Sept 19 1874] - GREAT RAILWAY DISASTER AT NORWICH
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
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.
[ILN SEPT 19 1874]
[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.
[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.
[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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