Tonbridge, 1909 – snow, a crash, the king & a postcard

The recent snow has affected all of the UK’s transport modes to varying degrees, and the railways have been the subject of much discussion. We’ve already blogged about some of the ways in which wintery conditions were made manifest in accidents found in our database. Today it’s the turn of a single event that was very much in the news at the time – rather unlike worker accidents under ‘normal’ circumstances, which were rarely big news (if news at all) such was their frequency.  This event was also one in which there was cold weather: the Tonbridge crash of 1909.

Postcard of the 1909 Tonbridge crash

Technically this is outside the project’s scope on two grounds – it’s understood as a passenger crash, and it occurred outside our period of 1911-15. However, it’s a helpful example of some of the issues important to us, so we can play fast and loose with the boundaries.

Whilst 11 passengers and Post Office staff were injured, none died; the only fatalities were the workers featured prominently on the disaster postcard that was produced (more on the card later): loco inspector Rowley and fireman Howard. So, it’s a valuable reminder to us that even in events usually thought of as passenger crashes, workers might very well bear the brunt of the accident and they shouldn’t be forgotten.

Even had this accident occurred within our period, it wouldn’t feature in our database, as because it involved passenger working it was investigated by a different part of the Railway Inspectorate – and the report was presented under Appendix A of the returns made to the Board of Trade, rather than appendices B and C which are the subject of our project. So, we must remember that our database and any other statistics reliant solely upon appendices B and C will be incomplete. True, this will mean only a few casualties are missed, but they are no less important.

So what happened? On 5 March 1909 two passenger trains collided on the South Eastern and Chatham Railway at Tonbridge Junction, at around 10am. The case was rather complicated, owing to the procedures and practicalities of railway working, but to summarise, both trains ended up heading towards the point at which their lines converged. When they realised the error both crews acted to slow their trains down, and whilst reducing speed, they were unable to avoid coming together. The driver of the fast train to Dover, Moore, survived, but his fireman, Howard, and a locomotive inspector travelling with them that day, Rowley, died. There was uncertainty over how Howard and Rowley died: whether thrown from the footplate by the collision, or that they jumped and were hit by the other train was unclear.

Fortunately a third train due imminently was stopped in time to avoid a further collision.

Unusually, there were 3 men on the footplate of the Dover train: driver Moore, fireman Howard and, additionally, inspector Rowley. This was a result of the special element of the day: a royal train carrying the king was due to pass through Tonbridge around 40 minutes after the crash. Time-keeping on all services along the route was therefore imperative on this day, so locomotive inspectors were placed on key services along the route – hence the presence of Rowley. Whilst not identified as a contributory factor – no crew would have wanted to run late and delay the royal train – it was clearly understood that people might consider the aspects related, and the report went out of its way to state that this was not the case.

Some of the evidence presented at the inquiry touched on the sorts of issues we see in railway working and particularly in staff accidents: difficult conditions, potentially faulty equipment, errors of judgement, the necessity to keep to time, the pressure under which employees work … The investigation found that all the signals were correctly set, and the snow lying on the ground had no impact on the crash. The faulty equipment angle was deemed to be a possible contributory factor, with speculation that the attention of Howard and Rowley was given over to fixing a problem; however, without their testimony it was difficult to come to a firm conclusion on this.

Ultimately Major JW Pringle’s investigation concluded that Moore, driver of the Dover-bound train, was responsible for passing signals at danger. His character was noted in the report: ‘His record is not a very good one. There are several entries against him for over-running platforms and signals at danger. There are five such cases in the last five years.’ Moore had, of course, survived, so was able to testify at the inquiry, where ‘his excuse’ (as the report put it) was ‘that he was worried and rendered over anxious by the presence of an inspector on the footplate, so that he misread the position of the home signal’. He also went on to claim that Inspector Rowley had given him verbal assurance to continue – though of course that statement couldn’t be corroborated, given Rowley died in the accident. The investigating officer didn’t see this as a valid reason anyway, even if it were true – which he doubted.

Looking at the report into the accident (available from the Railways Archive website), we are immediately struck by the depth and detail of the 12 and a half page report – a great contrast with the limited detail found in the worker accident reports, amounting to a page or so at most, but more frequently two or three brief paragraphs. This speaks to the ways in which passenger and worker accidents were viewed at the time, and the relative importance accorded to each. There are many reasons for that – something to return to in the future, perhaps.

One particularly useful thing we get in these Appendix A reports is the evidence, given verbatim and so including the testimony of those workers involved (where they survived, of course). Would that we had this level of detail for the worker accidents!

The postcard is also really interesting. It was produced by Warner Gothard, a prominent Barnsley-based producer of montage postcards, including many disaster scenes (railway, mining, factory, shipping … anything that might sell, really). Beyond the practical questions about Gothard’s ability to get hold of images so quickly, this card foregrounds the workers involved – a reminder of the cost of passenger crashes so far as the workers were concerned. As an aside, some of the explanatory text on the card is revealing about priorities: there’s some detail about the arrangements made to divert the king’s train and to ensure he wasn’t affected!

A later version of the card – a day or two later, perhaps – included detail about the collection taken up to provide for Mrs Howard, wife of the fireman. This is one more reminder of the precarious position of railway workers and their dependents in the event of an accident, and that we must think about what happened after the accident, too. This is something we shall return to, as we have a little more detail about Mrs Howard’s next steps.

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