140 years since Thorpe St Andrew’s night of rail horror

Helpers extricate the dead and wounded from the mangled wreckage .Picture: COLMAN AND RYE LIBRARIES

Helpers extricate the dead and wounded from the mangled wreckage .Picture: COLMAN AND RYE LIBRARIES OF LOCAL HISTORY, NORWICH - Credit: Archant

On a stormy night 140 years ago, two trains collided head-on near Norwich, in what became known as the Thorpe Railway Disaster. Rescuers were faced with scenes of carnage as they struggled to help the injured and dying. KIM BRISCOE tells the story of the crash, and its aftermath.

SCENE OF CARNAGE...rescuers struggle to free survivors by the light of track-side fires.Picture: COL

SCENE OF CARNAGE...rescuers struggle to free survivors by the light of track-side fires.Picture: COLMAN AND RYE LIBRARIES OF LOCAL HISTORY, NORWICH - Credit: Archant

On Thursday, September 10, 1874, Norfolk's worst railway crash happened, near to where the Rushcutters pub in Yarmouth Road stands today.

Some reports said 25 people died, others put the figure at 27, and many more received appalling injuries as they were flung from the splintered wreckage of the trains. It was a shocking sight, with carriages piled on top of one another as high as a three-storey house.

At 9.45pm that night the London express bound for Great Yarmouth piled into a passenger mail-train from Brundall.

A misunderstanding was the cause of the accident on the single-track stretch between Norwich and Brundall.

The London express was late arriving at Norwich's Thorpe station. It should have left just after 9pm but only pulled into Norwich at 9.15pm.

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At Brundall, meanwhile, the mail-passenger train was being made up from Lowestoft and Yarmouth arrivals and waiting for the express to come through as usual.

Normally, all trains passed over single lines in accordance with the timetable. But when there were irregularities, such as trains running late, they were directed between stations by telegraph.

For 15 years Alfred Cooper had been night duty inspector and his work was blameless. But on September 10 he was to make his first, and worst, mistake.

He arrived for duty at 9pm and, seeing the express would be delayed, thought about getting the Brundall train away early.

At 9.15pm he mentioned this to the Norwich Thorpe stationmaster, William Sproule, who replied: 'All right, we'll get her off.' Cooper hurried off thinking Mr Sproule meant him to send up the Brundall train. But the stationmaster intended no such thing – he wanted to send the express to Yarmouth.

Cooper rushed to the station telegraph booth where he asked a clerk, 18-year-old John Robson, to prepare a message for Brundall telling Stationmaster Platford to send up his train.

Before the message could go to Brundall, Cooper should have signed the wire. It was his usual practice, however, to leave some messages unsigned and let the telegraph clerk send them.

The young clerk, Robson, assumed this was such an occasion and tapped out the wire at 9.26pm. Two minutes later the train pulled out of Brundall station.

Three minutes after that, at 9.31pm the London express left Norwich on the instructions of Mr Sproule.

A fatal minute elapsed before Cooper saw the express steam out.

Aghast, he ran to the telegraph booth. 'Have you ordered up the Brundall train?' he shouted to Robson. The clerk said he had and the inspector immediately ordered him to send another wire to Brundall to stop the train.

Cooper and Robson waited anxiously while Brundall took the message and replied. Finally the telegraph chattered and the awful wire came through: 'Mail gone.'

No one will ever know how the fatal misunderstanding between Inspector Cooper and the telegraphist Robson arose, but one explanation is set out in an old letter that came to light many years later.

Mr H O L Francis was a railwayman working on the Yarmouth section of the Great Eastern Railway network in 1874.

In 1931 he wrote to a railway inspector, Oswald Cook of Cromer, and in his letter put the blame for the accident squarely on Robson. 'I had been on Yarmouth section a few days before mishap,' he wrote. 'I knew the guards concerned, with the Norwich inspector Cooper and Parker – also the telegraphist Robson.

'This latter caused the accident by sending on to Brundall the unsigned message handed him by Inspector Cooper 'send up mail' which Mr Cooper told him not to send till he came to him again.

'When Cooper saw Inspector Parker start the down express he went to tell Robson to send the message after an interval to allow down express to reach Brundall.

'To his horror he found the unsigned message gone. Robson saying he did not hear him say: 'Wait till I come and sign it'.' Whatever the real sequence of events, the end result was the same: the trains met at 9.45pm and there was nothing that the drivers, John Prior and Thomas Clarke, could do to avoid the crash.

Both would have been steaming along at about 20 to 25 miles per hour, and surviving guards on both did not report slowing of the engines in the moments before the crash.

The harrowing description of the impact and aftermath in the following day's Eastern Daily Press reads: 'The engines when they met, from their appearance when we saw them, must have reared up into an almost perpendicular position, and the carriages mounted one on top of another, and gradually sunk down into an altogether inconceivable mass of rubbish and ruins.

'The inhabitants of the hamlet of Thorpe, hearing the frightful crash, rushed into the open air, notwithstanding the fact that the rain was coming down in torrents, and the sight which met their view on arriving at the scene was appalling.

'The groans of the injured passengers, and the frantic shrieks and appeals for help which proceeded from those who were uninjured and still within the carriages, were heartrendering [sic] in the extreme.'

Both drivers, the two firemen, John Light and George Freeman, and a guard on the London express were killed instantaneously.

More than 20 bodies were discovered – others died later from their injuries.

A family of three, John Betts of Yarmouth, his wife Elizabeth and their six-week-old son were killed. The eminent Bungay botanist, Dr Bransby Francis, was another victim.

A girl had her leg amputated on the spot. Dead and dying were taken to Field's boathouse and the Thorpe Gardens Inn, now the Rushcutters, and the injured to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.

The EDP report said: 'On hastily-constructed temporary beds lay some half-dozen horribly maimed and disfigured sufferers, whose groans went to the hearts of even the medical men.

'In the corner lay the corpses of a man, a woman and a pretty little child, not more than four or five years old. On the opposite side were the mortal remains of a young woman who appeared to be nothing more than a chaotic mass of clothing.'

One young doctor first on the scene was Dr Beverley, who should have been on the train coming into Norwich but had cancelled a day in Lowestoft at the last minute.

Another doctor, who became Sir Peter Eade, a famous Norwich man, was on the train itself who was lucky to escape with his life.

'I do not remember my fall, which must have been through several feet of space, and I think I must have been stunned for a brief period,' he said later.

Bonfires were built around the site so that rescue workers could see what they were doing, and a special train was sent from Norwich to take the wounded back to the city.

Other passengers who had miraculous escapes included one couple who moved to a rear carriage because they had been 'offended by the company in the leading vehicle' and a woman who was thrown through the trees into a nearby garden to suffer only bruises and the loss of most of her clothes.

Some days later a city coroner's inquest jury decided that both Cooper and Robson should stand trial for manslaughter. Both came before Mr Justice Blackburn in April 1875. Inspector Alfred Cooper was found guilty of manslaughter and served eight months in prison. Robson was acquitted. The Great Eastern Railway Company paid out £40,000 in compensation, a huge figure equivalent to around £4 million today.

The official report of the court of inquiry has in its conclusion: 'This is the most serious collision between trains meeting one another on a single line of rails, if not the most serious railway catastrophe as regards the numbers of lives lost and serious injuries, that has yet been experienced in this country.'

The Norwich-Brundall railway line had been open for 30 years, but was still single track when the crash shook the Great Eastern Railway Company to its core.

The section of the line where the crash happened was already in the process of being doubled. The second set of rails was already down and awaiting inspection,

At the end of 1873, there were 7,395 miles of single line out of the 16,082 miles of railway open for traffic in the UK.

Two years later another head-on collision took place on a single track on the Somerset and Dorset Railway and it became clear to the public, and to railway companies, that a safer system was needed. The electric tablet system, which allowed only one train at a time, was developed and considerably reduced the risks that had produced the Thorpe disaster, but came four years too late.

Soon after the Thorpe crash, the Government also announced that a commission would be set up to investigate such accidents.

The Thorpe disaster was, of course bad enough. But it could have been much, much worse: had the accident happened 100 yards nearer Norwich, the collision would have been on the narrow bridge over the river. Parts of the trains would have inevitably ended up submerged in the water – and the loss of life would have been far greater.

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