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The 1907 ‘Speyside Disaster’

It’s not often that the kinds of accidents which feature in the Railway Work, Life & Death project and its database were described as a ‘disaster.’ That kind of language was usually found in public discussion of passenger train crashes. These spectacular and rare incidents were big news (as they are now), often involving large numbers of people. There were highly visual too: piles of wreckage that were accessible to the media. Railway staff accidents, by contrast, generally happened out of sight and involved a relatively limited number of people – often ‘only’ one or two. They also happened far too frequently to be newsworthy, in all but the most unusual of cases.

The 1907 ‘Speyside disaster’ was one of those unusual cases. Whilst not making the front pages of UK-wide newspapers, it did receive some media attention. It had drama, and there was something to see – and according to one report, hundreds of people did go to see. Significantly, it involved a relatively large number of railway staff: three dead and two injured. So what happened?

Colourised photo postcard of Craigellachie station, showing the line curving in from the bottom, over the bridge involved in the incident, through the station and away to the distance over another bridge.
Craigellachie station at roughly the time of the accident. Newton bridge is in the foreground.
Source: Wikipedia.

Newton Bridge, Craigellachie

The station at Craigellachie, Moray, was opened by the Great North of Scotland Railway (GNSR) in 1863. It was a junction, awkwardly located at the confluence of the rivers Fiddich and Spey. As a result, it needed a bridge over the rivers on either side of the station, both for a single line of track.

Ordnance Survey map showing river Fiddich looping from the south to north, with a railway line crossing on the Newton bridge in the centre of the map. The railway line then opens out into Craigellachie station.
Newton Bridge seen in the centre of the 1902 Ordnance Survey map, to the south of the station and crossing the river Fiddich.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

Newton bridge carried the line to the south-east, over the river Fiddich, at a height of around 25ft. It was on a relatively sharp curve, of 10 chains, and the track was ‘superelevated’ – that is, one rail was raised higher than the other. This helped allow trains to run at higher speeds, safely, over the curve. The bridge consisted of three 33ft spans of cast iron girders. By 1907 they were life-expired, and so were being replaced with new, steel, girders.

On Saturday 13 April 1907, a gang of about 50 men started work. The five who were to be casualties had already worked from 7am until 1pm that day; three of them recommended work at the bridge at 6pm, with another two joining at 7.20pm.

After site preparation, work started on the span closest to the station at 7.30pm. Track and ballast was removed from the first span. Each of the six girders weighed around 5.5 tons, and was to be moved using two rail-mounted hand cranes. Each of these cranes had a maximum lifting weight of 10 tons, so the girders were, in theory, well within limits.

The first girder was lifted, using one crane at either end. It was placed close to the girder still in position on the other side of the bridge. Because of the curve of the bridge this was necessary, to bring the centre of the girder within reach of the crane at the station end of the bridge. The plan was then to use just this one crane to lift the girder and move it off the bridge.


Bridge fall

All did not go to plan, however. The stability of the crane was being assisted by two iron guy ropes, held by teams of men on the river bed on either side of the bridge. In addition, a rope was secured to the tail end of the crane and wrapped around the buffer of the vehicle next to the crane. Three men were cranking each of the two handles of the crane, to raise the girder.

Monochrome photographic postcard, showing the station and Newton bridge to the fore, side on, with the three spans over the river visible.
Photo postcard roughly contemporary with the accident. Newton bridge appears side on, with the three spans clearly visible.

At 11.50pm the girder was lifted. At it reached three and a half feet, the crane suddenly swung to the south. The team of men on the guy rope on the north side couldn’t prevent the movement. The crane ‘toppled over sideways, and fell into the bed of the river, a distance of about 27 feet’ (1907 Quarter 2, Appendix B). The men on the guy rope ‘had a narrow escape, as they had just time to clear out of the way when the girder, crane and bogey platform crashed over the side of the bridge’ (Banffshire Reporter, 17 April 1907, p.3).

Five of the six men working the crane handles fell with the crane; the sixth, William Pressley managed to jump clear. Four of the five men who fell with the crane went over the bridge side; one managed to stay on the bridge. Those who fell from the bridge were fortunate not to have been followed down by the steam engine – the coupling between crane and the rest of the train snapped.

Ochre painted hand crane, mounted on four-wheeled body.
Great Northern Railway rail-mounted hand crane, built c.1850. The balance box can been seen on runners at the near end of the crane. At Locomotion, in Shildon. Courtesy National Railway Museum.

The subsequent investigation by Inspector JH Armytage disclosed that several steps which might have been taken, weren’t. The crane had a balance box which wasn’t fully extended (to counteract the weight of the girder). Clips, to hold the crane in place, and out-riggers, to distribute the load more widely and provide greater stability, weren’t being used.

Even by the standards of the time, the work had been planned inadequately. Armytage noted that the men in charge at the site, and the GNSR officials above them, were unable ‘to give any information as to the loads which might safely have been lifted by this crane under the various possible conditions’. Armytage said the line should have been levelled before attempting the lift, clips used and the balance box fully extended.


Dodging responsibility?

The state investigation hints that there was some debate about who was seen as responsible for the accident. It looks rather like the GNSR tried to pin this on one of the lower ranking men involved. Armytage noted ‘it was suggested at my inquiry that labourer Alexander Greig, who was sent from Kittybrewster locomotive shed with the crane, was responsible for making the necessary adjustments of the crane’. This would, of course, have been convenient for the Company.

However, Armytage was unwilling to accept this. He believed that responsibility was actually split between the (significantly more senior) District Permanent Way Inspector, James Copeland, and the GNSR itself. Greig ‘was ignorant both of the weight of the girder and also of the amount of the superelevation of the outer rail.’ Had Copeland been equipped – by the GNSR – with ‘reliable information as to the capabilities of the crane’, Armytage felt it ‘extremely improbable’ the accident would have happened. He therefore recommended the GNSR to ‘at once take steps to ensure that all persons who are likely to be in charge of similar cranes are supplied with accurate information’ (1907 Quarter 2, Appendix B).


Immediate responses

Railway workers were often trained in first aid – due to the frequency with which they were likely to encounter accidents. You can read more railways and first aid in this blog post. At Craigellachie, one of the men at the scene ‘did excellent work in rendering first aid’ before doctors arrived.

Meanwhile, Copeland ‘at once despatched engines to Rothes and Dufftown for medical assistance’ (Banffshire Herald, 20 April 1920, p.8). Dr Sleigh (Dufftown) and Drs Bisset and Ogg (Rothes) came ‘and rendered all possible assistance to the three injured men’ (Banffshire Reporter, 17 April 1907, p.3). Presumably from Craigellachie itself, Drs Campbell, Alexander and Stephen also attended the scene (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 16 April 1907, p.4).

In due course a special train was put on to take two of the injured, Charles Petrie and Charles Noble, to Gray’s Hospital in Elgin. The third injured man, Calder, was taken home (Banffshire Reporter, 17 April 1907, p.3).

Sadly two of the men died at the scene: William Riach and George Cormie. Their bodies were moved to Craigellachie station ‘where they were laid out in the guards’ room.’ On the Sunday afternoon they were placed in coffins and taken home by a special train (Banffshire Herald, 20 April 1920, p.8). Riach went as far as Keith; and Cormie to Drummuir.


William Riach (1873-1907)

The first of the men to die was William Riach. He was one of two men ‘wedged in by the weight of the beam … carried the whole distance’ from the bridge. He ended up in the river, but was ‘killed instantaneously’ (Banffshire Reporter, 17 April 1907, p.3).

Riach was born in Cairnie, Aberdeenshire, in 1873. His father was a farmer – and no doubt his mother and siblings also assisted on the farm. On the 1891 Census Riach was still living in Cairnie with his family, working as an agricultural labourer.

On 14 July 1899 he married Elizabeth Morrison, in Botriphnie. By the 1901 Census, he was working as a horseman on a farm in Boharm, Banffshire. Also living with them was Elizabeth’s sister. William and Elizabeth had a son, William James, born in 1901. It appears that their second son, George Morrison, was born in 1902.

At some point after 1901 Riach left farm work and joined the railway. He role at the time of the accident was ‘wayman’ – presumably the GNSR’s term ‘permanent way man’, a form of track worker. After his death he was noted as ‘of a quiet, unassuming and unpretentious disposition’. His funeral took place on Wednesday 17 April ‘amidst numerous expressions of profound sorrow’ (Banffshire Herald, 20 April 1920, p.8).

The challenges the Riach family faced continued after William’s death. We’d expect them to, of course. The loss of a father and husband must have been incredibly difficult, emotionally and financially. The press reports at the time simply noted that William left a wife and two children. What they didn’t record was the Elizabeth was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth Jeanie Lorient Riach, on 27 June 1907. Clearly William’s death had an even greater impact than we’d imagined.

Piling more challenges on top of this, Elizabeth (William’s wife) died on 12 November 1910. That left three children under the age of 10 without mother or father. On the 1911 Census they were living with their grandparents, Elizabeth’s mother and father, and four of Elizabeth’s sisters, on the family farm. All three of William and Elizabeth’s children remained on the family farm on the 1921 Census – Elizabeth was still at school, but William and George were horsemen on the farm.


George Cormie (1885-1907)

George Cormie was the second man to die at the scene. He landed on the gravel at the river’s edge, and lived for around 20 minutes, though ‘much mangled’. He ‘showed great heroism in his last moments, telling those of his comrades who proffered him help to attend to the other injured men and not mind him.’

Sadly we know very little more about George. Like Riach he was a ‘way man’, a track worker. He was single, and lived locally with his sister. Reported as ‘a great favourite’ in his local area, he belonged to the cricket, gymnastic and draughts clubs ‘with the members of which he was exceedingly popular’ (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 16 April 1907, p.4). He was noted as having been ‘for years […] the chief support of his aged father and mother, who reside at Newmill.’ Like Riach, he too was interred on Wednesday 17 April (Banffshire Herald, 20 April 1907, p.8).


Charles Petrie (1862-1907)

Charles Petrie was severely injured at the scene, also having landed on the gravel at the river’s edge. Having been taken to hospital in Elgin, the press reports over the days following the accident were pessimistic. By 20 April he had ‘had several restless nights […] his condition is still critical’ (Banffshire Herald, 20 April 1907, p.8). On 22 April he died, with the cause given as ‘shock and exhaustion from fractures of skull, collar bone, ribs, arm and hand – 8 days’ (Statutory Registers Deaths 135/84).

Petrie was born in 1862 in Inch, Aberdeenshire. He married Isabella, and by 1901 they had five sons, aged between 2 and 11. They were living in Botriphnie parish. At the time of the accident Petrie was a ‘foreman wayman’ – so, in charge of a gang of track workers. By 1907 he and Isabella were reported as having nine children, eight of whom were under 14 and so were dependent. We’ve only been able to locate information about seven children, five of whom were under 14 – but still a large family for Isabella to have to support unexpectedly.

On the 1911 Census, Isabella was still living in Botriphnie parish, in the same property as 10 years previously. With her were two sons and two daughters, and a boarder. Isabella was given as head of household; no occupation was given. The eldest son still at home, William, was 19 and worked in a distillery; the two middle children were at school, and the youngest, Elsie, being 4 was not yet at school. What happened to the other children? By 1911, some would have been old enough to move out and find work. Had Isabella received help with any younger children, perhaps living with relatives? Or had some of the children died?


Charles Noble

Charles Noble was one of the two men who were injured but survived. He was the more seriously injured of the two, and spent some time in hospital being treated. By 22 April he was recorded as ‘making satisfactory progress’ (Banffshire Journal, 23 April 1907, p.5). He was sufficiently recovered – very probably back at work – to be questioned at the public inquiry into the accident in late May 1907.

He was born in 1862 in Urquhart, Moray. On the 1901 Census he was living in Elgin, with his wife Mary (nee Dow), and their five children. Charles was at this point a ‘navvy’ – probably actually a track worker. By 1907 he was a foreman wayman. He joined the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR)’s Elgin branch in 1917, as a foreman platelayer, remaining in the Union until at least 1924. He died in 1931 and was buried in Elgin Cemetery.


George Calder

Calder Calder, it seems, had a very narrow escape, thanks to the presence of mind of William Pressley, the sixth man who jumped clear of the crane as it toppled. As he did so he pushed Calder off the crane (Banffshire Reporter, 17 April 1907, p.3). Calder received a scalp wound, having landed on his head, but was deemed sufficiently well to return home that evening. On 20 April he was still in bed recuperating, but ‘expects that he will soon recover’ (Banffshire Herald, 20 April 1907, p.8).

Calder was born in 1860 in Aberlour, Banffshire. In 1901 he was living in Elgin with his wife, Margaret (nee Esslemont), and their seven children. He too was a foreman surfaceman. Calder joined the NUR, also via the Elgin branch, in 1916, remaining a member until 1922. He died in 1924, and was interred in Elgin Cemetery. Sadly he occupied the plot with three of his sons killed in the First World War; they were later joined by Margaret in 1961.


‘Great consternation in the district’

Many of the men involved came from a relatively rural area. It was therefore a significant event. Immediately following the accident, the local GNSR representative at Botriphnie ‘had the news broken to the relatives [of the dead, Riach and Cormie] by the local ministers, Rev. A M’Kay, Parish Church, and Rev. R. Grant, United Free Church’. The word was also spread more publicly: ‘The sad calamity caused great consternation in the district’ on Sunday 14 April. (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 16 April 1907, p.4). Mention was made in local church services, which ‘gave rise on all hands to expressions of the most profound regret’ (Banffshire Herald, 20 April 1920, p.8).

At the same time, people flocked to see the site: ‘All the Sunday forenoon, and right up to the evening, hundreds made their way to the scene.’ Copeland was reported to be ‘much upset by the disaster, as this is the first one which has happened during his long service’. Pressley – the man who jumped clear of the crane – remained at work ‘and felt no bad effects, with the exception of a slight pain on his left shoulder’ (Banffshire Herald, 20 April 1920, p.8).


Life goes on – for some

So far was the GNSR was concerned, there wasn’t time to stop the work on the bridge, other than to render first aid, recover bodies and ‘make good’ the infrastructure and stock damage. The bridge girders still needed replacing, and with the line closed for the work revenue was being lost. According to the Aberdeen Press and Journal, ‘After the excitement consequent on the catastrophe had subsided, the permanent way staff resumed operations on the bridge, which was quickly put into working condition.’ (16 April 1907, p.4)

As was reported at the time ‘though the work was necessarily delayed by the exceedingly regrettable occurrence, it was proceeded on Sunday, and the line was open for traffic as usual on Monday’ (Banffshire Reporter, 17 April 1907, p.3). Interestingly, to enable that work to take place, the rails were levelled, a platform erected to hold the girders, and the nearby trees used as stays to stabilise the crane (Northern Scotland & Moray and Nairn Express, p.5). These were all of the sorts of things that should have been done in the first place, and which might have avoided the accident. A hard way to learn.

Though we don’t have a strong sense of it beyond the immediate responses recorded in the local press, the accident must have had a marked impact on the area. The three dead men all lived within Botriphnie parish – geographically fairly large, but sparsely populated. The families announced the deaths in the local newspapers at the time, and one year on Petrie’s sister included an ‘in memoriam’ notice. The families of Petrie, Riach and Cormie had to live with their losses from that point forwards, something that escapes the formal record. How did they remember their dead? How did they cope? Such questions remain very difficult to answer, but important to consider.


Reflections: longer term remembrance, individuals and groups

In the longer term, how do we remember those involved? Do we? No doubt over time the memory of the accident and the men would have faded, on the GNSR and in the district. For the families affected, the accident would have lasted longer. For the widows and wives, potentially as an absence until their deaths. Some of the children who lost their fathers would have had very concrete memories of the man no longer present; some would only know the gap. As the children died, we suspect so too did the memory of the accident. Hopefully this blog and the Railway Work, Life & Death project’s efforts will preserve the memory of the accident and the men and families affected.

Indeed, it looks like the Newton bridge is still in situ, albeit without tracks – the railway closed in 1968. We don’t know if it’s publicly accessible, but if it is, it would be wonderful to see some form of plaque or public recognition of the accident and the men involved.

As a project, it also raises an issue. By far the most numerous railway worker casualties happened in ones and twos. However, they rarely received much attention – at the time, or since. Put simply, there were so many accidents, it wasn’t news. The view was very much ‘these things happen.’ That doesn’t make them any the less significant, for the families and those affected, or for us at a distance. Arguably, it makes them more significant, given they affected so many people. But they’re also a lot more difficult to get people interested in, certainly now. Instead the spectacular, one-off cases – like the crane disaster at Craigellachie – can get people’s attention. They’re valuable, therefore, in bringing railway staff accidents into focus – but do they leave people with a skewed view of railway risks? This is a topic we shall return to in a month or so.


With particular thanks to Fergus Smith for locating the entries in the Death Registers and Register of Corrected Entries.

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