Menu Close

Manton Tunnel: Marking the centenary

The previous four blog posts in this series, the most recent of which is here, have focused on the past. Today’s post links past and present, on the day of the centenary of the Manton tunnel accident. Yesterday there was an event at Manton signal box, the closest accessible point to the tunnel, to mark the centenary.

Group of people gathered outside Manton signal box, tracks on either side, at a safe distance.
Those gathered to mark the centenary of the accident, at Manton Junction signal box.

Reflecting at the site

Descendants of John Cockerill and George Buckby, representatives of Network Rail and the RMT Union, the railway chaplain for the area, press, and the Railway Work, Life & Death project’s Mike Esbester all gathered to pause and remember the accident. After a site safety briefing, we heard about the accident, held a moment of reflection led by railway chaplain Colin Fraser, and laid flowers in memory of those affected.

Three men standing apart, in front of railway track but in a position of safety.
L-R during the event: Joe Rowberry (Network Rail); Colin Fraser (Railway Chaplain for the area); and Mike Esbester (Railway Work, Life & Death project). Taken with permission and from a position of safety.


Being at the site, with descendants as well as those from within the current industry, was very special. Over the past few months of researching the accident and those involved, I’ve become quite attached to them. This was personal – and not just for me. I could see others had taken this on board too – Joe Rowberry, Head of Safety, Health & Environment for Network Rail East Midlands, discussed how much doing this meant for him.

And of course, the family members were affected too. In particular I could see how much it meant to Dorothy Buckby, daughter of George Buckby. At 104, it was no mean feat for her to attend – very much helped by her lovely neighbours Alisdair, Alice, David and Jeff. Given Dorothy – like her father – had been living in Wing all her life, it really demonstrated how this was an accident and a remembrance rooted in the local community.

Chris Cockerill Snr (Great Grandson of John Cockerill) and Andrew and Chris Cockerill Jnr (Great Great Grandsons of John Cockerill) were able to attend. They were also appreciative of what was being done to remember their ancestor, one of the fatalities.


Local workers remember

Seeing the site did make it more tangible, in a way very hard to pin down. It brought some other unexpected benefits, too. It turns out the accident hadn’t been completely forgotten. A pocket of local memory existed, passed down – though those working at Manton. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The ‘railway family’ is often talked about inside the industry, and with good reason. This is a very tight-knit occupational community, with a strong sense of identity. That identification exists in the present, but also backwards too. Many railway staff are deeply engaged with and knowledgeable about their industry’s past.

Manton tunnel seen from the trackside beside the signal box. Double tracks leading into the tunnel; trees around the tunnel. Image taken from a position of safety, with permission & oversight from Network Rail.
Manton tunnel, from the signal box. Image taken from a position of safety, with permission & oversight from Network Rail.


At one point I talked with Stuart, the signaller on duty that day, and Stuart, the Network Rail Local Operations Manager who first worked Manton Junction signal box in the 1990s. They were both aware of the explosion – having been told about it by older colleagues. This was clearly a significant event in the history of the site, and one that was remembered. It therefore seemed apt that we had shared a copy of the Railway Inspectorate investigation from 1924, and it was present in the signal box.

Stuart the signaller was also able to tell us further pieces of the story we hadn’t heard. At the tunnel mouth, part of the brickwork was discoloured. Local belief had it that this was a result of the fire. Beside the Peterborough lines, in the undergrowth that had grown up since the station was closed in the 1960s, were the remains of a storage hut. This was, we were told, the replacement that was provided after the explosion. It was a lot more sturdy than the original, which appears to have been a fairly ramshackle affair.

Two railway lines heading towards tunnel; to the far side an overgrown cutting, in which there are the remains of a small building.
Peterborough lines, beyond which on the cutting side and in between undergrowth can be see the remains of the ‘new’ store. Taken with permission and from a position of safety.


Not only that, but in the signal box was a folder, containing copies of images of the tunnel, signal boxes in the area and station. Inside this was a grainy image of Manton East signal box (long since closed and demolished). It showed signalman Alec Shillaker – son of Richard Shillaker, injured in the accident. Stuart noted that he regularly worked with other members of the Shillaker family when he first started at Manton. The railway family runs deep.


Linking past and present

We’ll always say that it’s important to remember worker accidents in their own right. But if there’s also a way it’s possible to learn from the past and contribute to improving safety on the railway today, then we’re very much in favour. That’s certainly happening in the case of the Manton explosion.

Some of that has already started. Network Rail Eastern Region produce a weekly safety publication: the Continuous Learning and Improvement Cascade. This week’s issue includes a piece on the Manton accident, written by the Railway Work, Life & Death project, and including learning points. Joe Rowberry is also planning internal communications to follow up on the centenary, to reinforce the safety messaging in the East Midlands Route. And Paul Shore, representing the RMT Union at the event yesterday, will also be making sure that RMT members nationally know about the accident, via RMT News.

Joe Rowberry has also reflected on the accident and its implications for use:

Health and safety management has matured significantly in the last 100 years.  2024 is not only an important anniversary for the Manton tunnel fatal accident, but also it is the 50th anniversary of the Health & Safety at Work Act.  Over the last fifty years, the law has driven organisations to improve working conditions for their employees and other people, and this continues to this day.

The accident at Manton was tragic and must have been incredibly traumatic for all involved; not only for the workers and their families but also other colleagues and community in which it happened.  Thankfully, accidents like Manton Tunnel are much less prevalent these days, thanks in no small part to legislation compelling organisations to now act responsibly.  Much as there is a legal duty for all of us to ensure the health, safety and welfare of our colleagues, there is also a moral obligation too.

I would like to think that the chances of a tragic recurrence of Manton are impossible, and this is due to better risk identification and control, better training and information given to workers and a better, more open culture that allows and encourages people to speak up if they think something is not right.  We must always be careful though, not to fall into the trap of complacency and assume that the risks have been dealt with and are now tolerable, as I’m sure that that is what the poor souls involved in the Manton Tunnel accident 100 years ago thought before their lives changed forever.


Making the event possible

It’s well worth recognising how willing Network Rail have been not only to support remembering this centenary, but really championing it. This is down to Joe Rowberry’s support, and we’re very appreciative. He went above and beyond to make the reflection possible. Without him, this really wouldn’t have happened – and the support of his colleagues at Network Rail has been an important part of that. Our thanks to them all, including Rachel Lowe and Josh Chapman.

It took a lot of time and energy to make the event possible. Doing something like this, at an operational railway site, is not straightforward. We started to ball rolling by making people aware of the accident and the centenary. It then required plenty of coordination and consideration to bring it all together. It was a real team effort – and it was incredibly rewarding.


A lasting memorial

The accident will be remembered beyond today, too. The men who died in the explosion, John Cockerill and William Hibbert, will also be remembered in this Sunday’s services at the church and chapel they attended, in Wing and Peterborough respectively. We’re also delighted that Network Rail will be erecting a plaque on the tunnel itself, at the very spot of the accident. As Joe Rowberry noted at the reflection yesterday, that memorial will remain as long as there is an operational railway, a very permanent marker.

And so, on the day of the centenary, it seems appropriate to end our series of blog posts about the Manton tunnel accident as we started – with the men involved:


John Cockerill

William Hibbert

George Buckby

Richard Shillaker

Thomas Shillcock

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.