The Great Train Crash of 1868

Robert Hume investigates the first major railway disaster in Britain, which took the lives of over thirty people in a collision in North Wales.

At 7.30am on Thursday August 20th, 1868, the Irish Mail left Euston station in London on its daily journey to Holyhead. The train – which had the reputation of being the fastest in the kingdom and was the only one in the world to carry a name – transported some of the wealthiest men and women in the country to their estates in Ireland via the Holyhead ferry. It comprised four carriages for first- and second-class passengers, a post-office van and a travelling post office where the mail was sorted on the journey.

At 11.30am the Mail reached Chester, a busy junction where four extra carriages were attached to the front of the train. Many passengers joining here had stayed overnight at the Queen Railway Hotel and arrived at the station after walking through a special connecting tunnel. As they emerged from the tunnel, most passengers turned left and boarded the newly attached carriages; but some turned right, perhaps to join their friends who had travelled from London. Their decision was to be hugely significant that day.

About an hour later, as the train was approaching Abergele and ready to climb towards Colwyn Bay, goods trucks were still being shunted on the main line three miles ahead, at Llanddulas. They formed part of a daily goods train scheduled to run about twenty minutes ahead of the Irish Mail but with enough time to shunt trucks into the sidings. However, on this particular day there were already wagons on both tracks in the sidings, and the goods train’s forty-three trucks would not fit in without first being split up.

During the shunting, it was necessary to leave six trucks and a brake van on the main line. Provided the line was protected with signals and the brake firmly applied in the brake van, it should have presented no difficulty. But at one point during the operation some trucks were shunted from the sidings against those left on the main line. In an instant all of them began rolling down the incline towards the oncoming Irish Mail. The fact that two of the trucks carried fifty barrels of paraffin was to turn a collision into a catastrophe.

Arthur Thompson, the driver, had twenty years’ experience as an engine driver and had been on the footplate when the Irish Mail made its maiden journey in 1860. But on August 20th, 1868, circumstances were entirely beyond his control. The track ahead of him curved away from the sea wall, obscuring the trucks with their deadly paraffin as they rushed towards him. In any case, the shunting crew could not have warned him because there was no telegraph connection between the stations at Abergele and Llanddulas. When he did see the trucks they were almost upon him. He turned off the steam immediately and threw the engine into reverse. But by then it was too late – the trains had collided.

The paraffin exploded, and in an instant the front carriages were enveloped in flames. A column of black smoke spiralled upwards into the Welsh hills. Labourers from a nearby quarry ran to the scene and began to form a human chain, passing buckets of water from the sea to the fire. But before long the scene was one of complete confusion, with a tangled mass of iron bars and bolts jutting out at peculiar angles, and horribly charred bodies. The victims’ scattered possessions evoked a poignant reminder of a divided society. On one side, those of a privileged class: a diamond ring worth sixty guineas, a pair of opera glasses, the gold tops from smelling bottles, dozens of gold watches, one stopped at 12.52 and 23 seconds. On the other side, the possessions of those who served them: a simple blue hairpin, a crochet needle, an inkbottle.

There were no injured passengers. It was either a complete escape or a horrible death. So disfigured were the remains of the thirty-three bodies brought from the wreckage that identification was impossible in all but three cases and the coffins were simply given numbers. The London & North Western Railway Company paid the funeral expenses for all victims and arranged for the bodies to be interred in a huge trench. Death proved a great leveller: rich and poor were buried side by side.

What had caused the accident? At first, sabotage was suspected. The coroner who presided over the inquest received an anonymous letter claiming that ‘the catastrophe had a great deal to do with Fenianism’, and that railway officials along the line to Holyhead were undercover Fenian agents. On receiving intelligence that the Irish Mail would be conveying none other than the wife and servants of the Duke of Abercorn, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, they decided to strike a blow against Britain.

But the letter was quickly dismissed as a hoax and the blame was placed elsewhere. Suspicion fell next on the locomotive driver. Although Arthur Thompson maintained that his train was only going at 28-30 mph, other eyewitnesses claimed that it was travelling much faster. George Grundy, a seven-year-old boy, was on holiday nearby with his mother and a school friend. Later in life he became an Oxford professor and wrote ‘every detail’ he had seen in his autobiography:

I saw what appeared to me to be a short luggage train without an engine coming down a long incline from Llanddulas on the same line as the express, and having watched trains for hours, I knew that something was wrong … the train was going at full speed, sixty miles an hour. At the moment impact took place the engine rose like a horse taking a fence and came down on the fourth truck ...

Despite the claims of speeding, there was much public sympathy for the engine driver, who was too ill to appear at court and in October died from his injuries. Attention then turned to the role of the brakemen. Although they swore that they were shunting safely and according to the company’s regulations, the stationmaster’s boy claimed that he had witnessed runaway trucks at Llanddulas several times before.

One survivor, the Marquis of Hamilton, was certain that death was instantaneous from inhaling smoke; but Catherine Dicken, who lived in a cottage by the track, told the inquest that she believed the victims could have been saved but were burned to death behind locked doors. She had gone to help and urged a lady in the train to leave. The passenger, not realising the danger, told her to ‘Mind your own business’. A little further along, another lady with a child told her to do the same.

The railway company was very anxious to discover the causes of the crash. There was an official inquest, a criminal trial in which the brakemen were cleared of responsibility, and a Report by the Board of Trade. Alongside this raged a trial by media. Correspondents put the onus for the accident squarely on the company for not doing enough to ensure the safety of its passengers. The Board of Trade reached a similar conclusion, recommending amongst other things that every station be connected to a telegraph system; that inflammable materials should be transported on special trains; and that only one train should be allowed on a block of line at a time. All of these recommendations were eventually implemented, but even in the nineteenth century cost was an important factor holding up safety measures.

The human cost of the 1868 disaster cannot be calculated. The Railway Company’s negligence had cut short many lives, including that of Arthur Aylmer, a lad of eighteen, just about to start at Trinity College, Cambridge; and that of Louisa Syme, a seven-year-old Irish girl, placed by her relatives in the care of one of the passengers at Euston. Among the dead were merchants from Blackburn looking forward to a few days’ recuperation by the Lakes of Killarney. They included William and Christopher Parkinson who, by rights, should never have been on the train but they had tipped the driver of the Blackburn to Liverpool train to go faster so as to make the connection at Chester and guarantee their place on the Irish Mail.

Yet there also emerged some happier tales and near escapes. An American gentleman, Mr Bayard Clarke, believed to be among the dead, wrote to The Times stating ‘I am still in the land of the living and hope to continue so for some time to come’. It turned out that he had not been on the train at all but having lunch with a friend in Cheltenham. There was also a Miss Finch returning from Switzerland who had been encouraged by friends to spend an extra day with them in London instead of boarding the Mail. Not least, there were those passengers joining at Chester who unknowingly made the hugely significant decision to turn right rather than left as they came from the tunnel into the station. In doing so they were spared a horrible death in the first of Britain’s major railway disasters.

Robert Hume is Head of History at Clarendon House Grammar School, Ramsgate, Kent. His Death by Chance: The Abergele Train Disaster, 1868 has just been published by Gwasg Carreg Gwalch.

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