In this post, guest author Mark Greenwood looks at a passenger accident from 1884, which went on to have an interesting ‘afterlife’ in various forms of cultural production. He looks at how a mechanical fault led to the crash at Bullhouse, in Yorkshire – but also the part that the geography of the site played. We can see the value of first-hand testimony – and the role that the press took in shaping understandings of the accident.
As ever, our thanks to Mark for taking the time and effort put this together – and if you’ve an idea for a guest post, please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you.
Misery Sells. It’s an unfortunate fact of life, but our curiosity is much more likely to be piqued by a story of an accident or disaster than everyday tales of the uneventful. In today’s world of instant news we rush to click on websites and social media to feed our appetite for the morbid and distressing, and clicks mean money.
Of course this isn’t a new phenomenon and misery has been used to sell news, probably since people were first willing to pay for it. Certainly detailed reports of railway accidents have appeared in newspapers since the birth of the railways. Whilst today we may consider such graphic and intrusive reporting to be distasteful, as historians they are invaluable in the way they document an incident outside the narrow confines of the information contained within the official accident reports. As an example, I’d like to transport you back in time, initially using details from the official accident report, to Wednesday 16 July 1884, where we join the 12:30pm passenger train from Manchester to Grimsby and London.
The train was a regular timetabled service run jointly by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MS&LR) and the Great Northern Railway (GNR) which used the original Woodhead route to cross the Pennines from Manchester to Sheffield. On this occasion the train was being pulled by MS&LR locomotive number 434; a 4-4-0 tender engine designed by Charles Sacré (now generally referred to as a Class D12 locomotive). The locomotive was built in 1877, in the MS&LR works at Gorton, and had last been through the works for repairs and servicing in November 1883.
On the train that day were four members of railway staff. In the cab of the locomotive were Samuel Cawood and John Horne. Cawood had been the regular driver of 434 for the previous six years and had roughly 25 years experience as a driver. Horne was less experienced, having only been a fireman for about a year, but had been working alongside Cawood for the previous 10 months. At the rear of the train was the MS&LR brake van bound for Grimsby, in which guard Stephen Phillipson was travelling, while a second guard, James Irving, was travelling in a GNR brake van located towards the middle of the train.
Before leaving Manchester Cawood “looked my engine over […] as I always do. I went below when the engine was on the pit, and examined all the parts I could see. I could see nothing whatever amiss”. The train left Manchester on time and was made up of two GNR composite carriages, a GNR brake van, an MS&LR third-class brake carriage, two MS&LR composite carriages, an MS&LR third-class carriage, and finally an MS&LR brake van. At Godley the train was extended with the addition, directly behind the locomotive, of a Cheshire Lines Committee horsebox, a GNR brake van and another GNR composite carriage.
The train was running just four minutes behind schedule as it emerged from the Eastern portal of the Woodhead tunnel. Cawood stated that he “kept steam on until I passed Dunford Bridge station, and then I shut steam off. That is the usual place for shutting off steam, which is not applied again, if all is right, until leaving Penistone. I think I was running between 45 and 50 miles […] when approaching Bullhouse. […] The first thing which went wrong was when I was a short distance west of Bullhouse signal-box; […] I heard something like a crack in the motion.”
As this description suggests, the line at this point fell quite steeply with a gradient of 1 in 124. What isn’t mentioned is that the line also curved around to the right crossing a narrow valley on an embankment of roughly 320 yards in length. In the middle of the embankment was an under-bridge carrying the railway over a public road. The drop from the railway to the road, of just over 22 feet, was unfortunately on the outside of the curve.
With the geography in mind we turn to the main eyewitness as to what happened next. Henry Baxter, the signalman on duty that day at Bullhouse reported that at 1:21pm:
I watched the train approaching, but noticed nothing unusual, either in the speed or running of the engine or train, until just as the engine was passing my box. I heard a very heavy “thud,” as if something had been broken. I then noticed the engine begin to oscillate very violently. It continued to oscillate, and when the middle of the train was about half-way between my box and the under-bridge I saw the carriages swaying to the left, and then leave the rails and run down the side of the embankment. All the train went down the bank on the west side of the under-bridge, except, I think, the front break-van, which rolled down the east side of the bridge, and the engine, tender, and horse-box, which ran ahead.
The noise heard by both Cawood and Baxter was the crank axle failing. This caused the driving wheels to spread outwards distorting the track. The distorted track, in turn caused the wagons and carriages to bounce around violently, so much so that the coupling between the horse box and the rest of the train failed. Without the coupling in place to help guide the train the carriages, which were now off the rails, essentially continued in a straight line, which unfortunately was down the embankment and in to the road.
Cawood and Horne, safe in the locomotive’s cab, weren’t aware of the severity of the incident until having brought the engine to a stop they looked back and Cawood uttered the line “Oh, dear! wherever is the train?”.
The two guards were not so lucky. Stephen Phillipson, who was in the rear brake van recalled the incident as follows:
I had no idea that anything was wrong, and the train appeared to be “going as nice as need be” round the curve. The next thing I felt was a tremendous crash. I remember nothing more, except that we went a clean sweep down the bank altogether. […] it all seemed, to happen so quickly; I was injured, and it was four or five minutes before I could got out of my van.
James Irving in the more central brake van was lucky to escape more serious injury:
I was busy at my parcels for Penistone when approaching Bullhouse signal-cabin, and there was nothing unusual in the speed that I could perceive. I felt the continuous break go on suddenly, and almost at once I felt my van off the road. It gave one or two bounds leaning over to the off-side, and then at once, was over on the road on its, right side. It was resting on the bottom of the composite, which had been just in front of it, and which was upside down. The wheels of this carriage came through the right side of my van. I was cut about the face, but-was quite sensible, and able to get out as soon as I was clear of the luggage.
Whilst the guards were fortunate many of the passengers were not; 19 bodies were recovered from the wreckage with 5 other passengers dying later from their injuries.
With 24 fatalities it was, at the time, the fifth worst accident in UK railway history and that alone made it newsworthy. Stories started to appear in papers all across the country from the following day. As well as reporting the basic details of the accident many also published graphic narratives provided by the passengers and rescuers, some of which would, I think, give even the most jaded of modern day tabloid editors pause prior to publication. This example from the Sunderland Daily Echo is representative of many of the descriptions; in this case an interview with Mr Charles Wilson, of Park-Place, Ardwick, Manchester:
I and another gentleman who was in the carriage with me were thrown from our seats. The carriage seemed to take a leap, and immediately there was a terrible crash. For a moment I was stunned, but I must have recovered almost instantaneously, for when I came to, we were falling over a bridge upon a road which goes under the railway at that point. The depth from the bridge to the road is sixteen or eighteen feet, and when our carriage reached the bottom it was smashed to pieces, and none of the remains would have covered the body of a man. I was jammed with my legs between the seat of the carriage and some cushions, which were pressed down upon my legs by some more woodwork. My right thigh was broken, and I could not move, although I found that the carriage which followed the one in which I was riding was hanging over the bridge, and threatened to fall upon me. I got my pocket knife and cut the cushions, and relieved the pressure a little, but could not get out, and in the meantime some of the unfortunate people who were in the overhanging carriage were thrown out, and fell upon the road near me. Amongst them were three ladies who suffered terrible agony, and I, fastened between the woodwork, could render no assistance. Two of them died before my eyes in fearful agony, and I am told that the lady who was richly dressed and appeared to be in very good circumstances of life died before she was put into a train to be removed. The sight was one of the most sickening and heartrendering it is possible to conceive. […] The poor people were mixed up in the debris in a most horrible manner, and some of them seemed to be mangled out of all human shape. The cries of the wounded were fearful, and it was necessary some time before any medical aid could arrive.
Similar graphic details continued to be printed over the following days including one interview with a Mr. George Doodson (a draper from Glossop) in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser on 19 July. Mr Doodson was walking along the road and was just 30 yards from the bridge at the time of the accident:
A well-dressed lady was lying dead on the ground. She was almost covered with blood, and there were two large splinters of wood in her neck. The dead body of a gentleman, dressed in a black cloth suit, lay a few yards further off, the lower part of his body being in a frightful state of mutilation. […] two well-dressed females who had evidently travelled in one of the first class carriages, and who were lying in the road. Resting on the head of one of them was a large coping stone which had been displaced from the bridge. Mr. Doodson and his companion rolled away the stone, and found the lady dreadfully injured, and of course dead.
Whilst the isolated location meant that help took some time to arrive, by 4pm the bodies of the dead were already starting to arrive in Penistone where they were laid out in the carriage shed behind the Wentworth Arms, a scene which was again reported in detail by a number of the newspapers. This rather graphic version comes again from the Sunderland Daily Echo:
The bodies were in nearly every case fearfully mutilated, but chiefly about the legs, the arms, and sides, very few being bruised about the face and head. One child in long clothes seemed to have been killed while asleep, but the two children beside it had evidently, from the terror-stricken expression their faces presented after death, had quick though unavailing warning of the death to which they were being hurled.
Many of the injured were returned to Manchester for treatment at the infirmary with the first train, containing over twenty of the passengers, leaving the scene at around 3:30pm. Of course the newspapers also gleefully reported the names and injuries of these surviving passengers as well. This excerpt from The North Eastern Daily Gazette, showing a single family, was typical of the details printed in many of the papers.
Frederick Rawlins (48), Willow Grove House, Redditch; fractured thigh; doing fairly well.
Annie Rawlins (middle-age) wife of the above, died in the Infirmary at half-past six. She was suffering from severe contusions of the face, and was very much disfigured, so badly, indeed, as to be hardly recognisable.
Annie Rawlins (20), daughter of the last-named; slight wounds to leg and head.
Work on clearing and repairing the railway started around the same time as the dead and injured were being helped from the scene and continued into the night as reported in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser:
By the lurid glare of huge bonfires and torches gangs of men in the employ of the Manchester, Sheffield, and, Lincolnshire Railway Company were engaged up to midnight on Wednesday in clearing the line and repairing the permanent way. It was felt to be certain that no other body was buried under the wreckage at the bottom of the embankment, and therefore no further search was made after nightfall. Both lines were clear for traffic by half-past 12 and then the men rested awhile from their labours. A body of police remained in charge of the wreckage throughout the night.
Whilst the line re-opened the day after the accident, work on removing the wreckage from the road and fields didn’t commence until the Sunday and thousands of people visited the site to witness the destruction for themselves and to maybe grab a ghoulish souvenir or two as described in this report from the following Monday’s (21 July) edition of the Sheffield Independent:
Thousands of people from Sheffield, Barnsley, and the surrounding country visited the scene of Wednesday’s accident at Bullhouse Bridge, yesterday. In the afternoon the spectators were to he numbered by thousands, and at one time more than one hundred conveyances were drawn up on the road below the bridge. What rendered the scene more interesting to visitors were the operations of a large gang of men engaged in removing the wreck. […] By evening all traces of the accident, as far as the train was concerned, had been removed, but in the road, the fields on either side of it, and upon the embankment, signs were not wanting to show there had been a fearful smash. Small pieces of wood, glass, scraps of iron, and hair out of the seating of the carriages were lying about in all directions; but these also will soon have disappeared. Had not the spectators yesterday been kept back by the police, they would have cleared away this rubbish much sooner than it could be done by the gang of men employed by the company, for whenever there was an opportunity of getting near the debris, the people seized upon what was most at hand and carried away splinters of wood and pieces of iron and glass as mementoes of the occasion.
On 26 July two of the big weekly newspapers, The Illustrated London News and The Graphic, both published short articles accompanied by detailed illustrations of the accident site. The accompanying text in The Graphic made clear that the motivation behind the illustrations was to better convey “some idea of the shattering destruction wrought by the accident” to their readers.
What I find interesting is that although the style of illustration differs greatly between the two publications the details they contain are remarkable consistent and I assume the illustrators were working from photos taken either by the railway company or possibly by one of the many spectators who visited the scene. The latter is quite likely as the local area is well served with photographs from the late 19th century many of which were taken by Joshua Biltcliffe who owned a photographic studio, initially in Thurlstone, but which by 1889 had moved to the centre of Penistone. Many of his early photos are still relatively easy to obtain as he sold them as postcards and at least one of these was a shot of people reclining upon the wreckage as if comfortably seated upon a chaise longue! Yet another case of people making money from a railway accident.
Whilst a meeting of the MS&LR’s shareholders may normally have passed unnoticed by the majority of newspapers the meeting held on the 23rd, just as the investigation into the accident was concluding, was reported in some detail. In the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser of the 26th it was noted that:
[The Chairman] could not allude to the accident itself further, because it was still under investigation, but it was satisfactory to them to know that so far as the inquiry, which had been searching, had gone, no blame could be attributed to them or to those who acted for them. The permanent way was in excellent order, the engine was practically new, the speed was not excessive, the precautions for safety were in full exercise, and everything connected with it showed that their line was managed by a most vigilant and intelligent staff, who had shown upon this emergency that they were equal to any of the difficulties which occurred.
The official report produced by Major Marindin for the Board of Trade was published on 26 August and is exceptionally detailed. It runs to 20 pages and recounts evidence from the train crew and eyewitnesses as well as details on further testing of the broken crank axle and examinations of the locomotive and permanent way. As assumed at the MS&LR shareholder meeting, no blame was laid on any of the railway staff, rather the main finding related to the style of brake fitted to the train.
The problem was that Sacré had designed the locomotives to use a simple Smith vacuum brake. In such a braking system, an ejector on the locomotive creates a vacuum in a continuous pipe along the train, allowing the external air pressure to operate brake cylinders on each vehicle. This is a cheap system to both build and maintain, but has a major weakness; if the locomotive becomes detached from the rest of the train, or if the vacuum pipe is ruptured in anyway, then the brakes won’t work. In the conclusion to his report Major Marindin summarises this aspect of the disaster as follows:
Now, while I do not believe that any break which exists could have actually stopped the train on the falling gradient in the distance available, and could thus have averted the disaster, yet it is beyond question that a quickly-acting and powerful continuous-break ought in this distance to have so reduced the speed that the consequences of the accident would probably have been far less fatal … if the train had been fitted with an automatic-break, which would have remained on when the parting took place, it is probable that four or five vehicles would, by its continued action and the consequent reduction of speed, have escaped with comparatively little damage.
Unfortunately for the MS&LR this wasn’t the first time that the brakes fitted to their trains had been called into question as the report makes clear:
The value of a break having rapid action, and above all, automatic action, in such a case as this, can hardly be contested; and although the Board of Trade has, as yet, no power to insist upon the adoption of a continuous-break possessing these qualities, yet I would remind the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company that this is the second emphatic warning which has been given to them within the last six months as the need for automatic action in the breaks used upon their line; the previous instance being on the 6th February 1884, when after a carriage had left the rails when running at high speed near Dinting station, the vacuum-break pipe was severed, the break became useless, and the carriage was dragged along off the rails for over 350 yards further than it would have been if the breaks had remained on, at the imminent risk of falling, and taking with it the carriages behind it, over a viaduct 100 feet in height.
Perhaps amazingly, after such a rebuke, it took another three years and a stern reminder from the Board of Trade, before the MS&LR began to modify their locomotives to have automatic vacuum brakes.
With no blame laid at the feet of the railway or its staff the accident can best be described as a random unpredictable occurrence as reported in The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent on 26 July:
Every one remembers the Tay Bridge disaster, which, coming at the end of the last month of the year, “restored the average” of railway accidents. The very same thing has happened at Bullhouse Bridge, after six months of unexampled freedom from such calamities, and just after the Heir Apparent has informed us that “a railway carriage is the safest place in the world.” What makes it exceptionally terrible is, that it was owing to an accident which can hardly be called preventible, namely, the breaking of an engine axle, which it seems has happened 93 times this year already! It was a bad place in the line – an incline and curve together – for such an occurrence to take place, it seems; and hence the calamity. But what an every day risk does such, a scientific confession involve! Translated into plain English, it means that it is almost as likely as not that an axle will break somewhere, but that there are only a few places on the journey where it will entail wreck and ruin.
If there had been someone to blame for the accident it’s likely that it would simply have passed into history once the official accident report had been published, but it seems that the random nature of the accident kept it in the public consciousness which brings us to a rather odd example of the accident being used to promote and sell something.
While I’ve been interested in railways and their history for almost as long as I can remember, I first started looking into the history of the lines around Penistone in 2009; motivated by moving into a house with the Penistone line running across the bottom of the garden. In that time I’ve read through a lot of news reports and unearthed the photos that accompany this article but by far the oddest thing I’ve come across is a small green book entitled “An Incident of the Penistone Railway Accident”.
When this book appeared on a certain well-known auction site the listing gave very little in the way of details but I thought it would be worth adding to my collection. Given the title I assumed it would either be a personal account of an accident or something pulled together from newspaper clippings; what I wasn’t expecting was a religious tract!
In fact the book has absolutely nothing to do with Penistone or any of its railway accidents and Penistone appears in just two places; the front cover and the frontispiece. The contents starts with the following paragraph:
Who would have thought as they bade her “Good-bye,” that on earth they would never meet again? Loved ones gathered round her at the railway station. “You are not nervous?” they asked anxiously, “it is a long way to go alone.” “No,” she had answered cheerfully, “why should I be? I am in good hands, in safe keeping,” and with fond farewells they parted. The train moved on, and mile after mile of fair verdant country was safely passed, until, with an awful crash, a sudden railway accident brought death and suffering in many a ghastly form among the passengers.
The rest of the first chapter is a discussion on the nature of death and how religion helps us prepare ourselves for its unexpected nature; there aren’t even any further mentions of railways. The rest of the chapters are similarly religious tales with even less relevance to Penistone or railways.
Unfortunately there is no publication date within the book itself, and I’ve been unable to find many references to it, but a brief entry on Google Books gives a publication date of 1887. This suggests to me that even three years after the accident it was still notorious enough that just mentioning it in the title of the book would aid in sales.
It’s not only the title that is a little odd either as while the frontispiece includes a nice engraving, whoever picked it did so for reasons of aesthetics rather than any relevance to an accident in Penistone. To my eye the proportions of the locomotive look wrong — the engine looks too wide for its height. In fact I think the image depicts a broad gauge locomotive (the rails being 7ft 1/4in apart rather than the standard gauge of 4ft 8 1/2 in) which explains why it looks much wider than I would expect. From a bit of digging around the nearest match I can find is to the Great Western Railway (GWR) Star Class locomotives. Strangely all members of the class had been withdrawn by 1871, 17 years before I think the book was published. This means that not only wouldn’t it have been a particularly up-to-date illustration but it also doesn’t depict any engine that ever passed through Penistone as the GWR never ran a line into Penistone, and none of the companies that did laid broad gauge track.
As I said, a very odd book that uses the accident simply as a way of promoting itself, which I guess proves my original point; misery sells.
I deliberately focused my initial description of the accident on the experiences of the railway employees to fit within the themes of the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project. While fortunately none of them were seriously inured or killed there are two further deaths related to the accident and which warrant a short postscript.
One of the passengers who unfortunately died in the accident was Massey Bromley. At the time of his death he was living in London and working as a consulting engineer. He was, however, well-known within the railway community having previously been employed, between 1878 and 1881, as the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Great Eastern Railway. In fact his body was identified by the general manager of the MS&LR, Robert Underdown, a fact reported in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser on the 18th of July:
Mr. Underdown in the course of the morning identified one of the bodies as that of an old personal friend of his – Mr. Massey Bromley, engineer, of Victoria-street, Westminster. Mr. Bromley until about two years ago held the office of locomotive superintendent of the Great Eastern Railway Company. In his pocket was found a first-class ticket from Manchester to London.
Massey Bromley had also been close friends with Charles Sacré, the chief engineer of the MS&LR and designer of the locomotive involved in the accident. Although the official report attached no blame to Sacré, or his locomotive design, it would appear that he felt at least party responsible having adopted the Smith braking system, probably against his better judgement, as a cost saving measure. He retired in 1886 at the relatively early age of 53 but never fully came to terms with events and sadly committed suicide on 3 August 1889.
Dr Mark A. Greenwood is a researcher at the University of Sheffield working on natural language processing. He has had an interest in railways and their history for as long as he can remember and is also a keen railway modeller. These interests have seen him research and model some rather niche railway topics, such as Scottish grouse shooting railways, details of which have appeared in a number of UK railway modelling magazines. Popular demand has also seen some of his railway models turned into kits for others to enjoy. For more of Mark’s railway musings visit his blog at http://caffeine-train.blogspot.com/
Railway accidents. Returns of accidents and casualties as reported to the Board of Trade by the several railway companies in the United Kingdom, during the nine months ending 30th September 1884, in pursuance of the Regulation of Railways Act (1871), 34 & 35 vict. cap. 78; together with reports of the inspecting officers of the Railway Department to the Board of Trade upon certain accidents which were inquired into.