The Thorpe Railway Disaster 1874

September 10th 2014 marks the 140th anniversary of what was considered to be the worst railway accident in Britain at the time. Confusion over telegraph messages and failed protocol saw two trains come together in a catastrophic collision  on the single track Great Eastern Railway line at Thorpe St Andrew, resulting in the deaths of 27 people.

It was a cold, dark evening on Thursday September 10th 1874. Rain was lashing down as The Great Yarmouth mail train left the station at 8.40pm, heading for Reedham where it would pick up its Lowestoft counterpart before heading on to Norwich. In the cab of engine number 54 was John Prior, 49 years old and a train driver with great experience, said to be a firm stalwart possessed of considerable skill and nerve. Beside him was fireman James Light, 25 years old and a resident of King Street in the city. It was a journey that Prior had made countless times before and, as they drew away from the platform, there was nothing to suggest that this shouldn’t be a shift like any other.

Reaching Reedham, Prior waited whilst the carriages of the Lowestoft train were coupled to the back before setting off again towards the city. The rain was getting heavier, the men’s only concern perhaps being the rather soggy walk home after their shift had finished. Behind the engine were mixture of first, second and third class carriages, a cargo truck laden with fish from Yarmouth docks and two brake vans. There were thirteen carriages in all. The Lowestoft section was especially crowded as there had been a flower show in the town that day. Amongst the passengers were the Reverend Henry Stacey and his wife who were returning to their Norwich home after a day out. Rev. Stacey was a former congregational minister at Beccles but had recently moved to Mount Pleasant in the city. Sgt Major Frederick Cassell and Sergeant Robert Ward, serving members of the West Norfolk Miliitia, had been away on the fishing trip on the Norfolk Broads. Robert Ward had been in the Coldsteam Guards before joining the West Norfolk Militia and was now residing in Cherry Street, Lakenham with his wife Eliza and four children. 29 year old John Betts was employed as a stoker by the Great Eastern Railway Company and had been granted a half day leave. Like many families then and now, he took his wife, Elizabeth, and two sons to the seaside.The mail train rattled its way along the double track line to Brundall, from whereon it became single track into the city. At Brundall, the mail train would wait on a loop for the line to become clear before finishing the last stretch of its journey.

At Thorpe Station in Norwich, night inspector Alfred Cooper looked nervously at his watch. It was 9.17pm and the express train from London should have arrived seventeen minutes ago. It was usual practice for a telegraph message to be sent from Wymondham station to alert Norwich if the London train was delayed by at least fifteen minutes, but none had been received. Punctuality was becoming a bit of a joke and the London Express was seemingly more often late than on time. Passengers on the London train would transfer to another which would be ready and waiting at Norwich for the onward journey to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. There was a brief discussion between Cooper and Stationmaster Sproul as to whether they should forward a telegraph message to Brundall to send the mail train up first. Whilst the express train had priority, if it was unlikely to arrive before 9.25pm, then it wasn’t uncommon for word to be sent to let the mail train through first. In fact this had been the case on several occasions over the preceding months.

It was getting close to the 9.25 deadline when the mail train would be ready to leave Brundall and Cooper had asked Sproul if they should send it up first. “Certainly not” answered Sproul, “we’ll soon get the down express away.” Nevertheless, a few minutes later Alfred Cooper went to the telegraph office and instructed the young clerk, John Robson, to request that the mail train be sent up. It was company protocol that all such orders on single track lines must be written down by, and signed for, by the inspector. However, it had become commonplace for the clerk to write it in the book and the inspector to then sign it afterwards. At 9.21pm Robson sent the message, “Send the mail train up before the 9.10pm down passenger train leaves Norwich – A Cooper” At 9.23pm the London train arrived and the passengers were transferred. Alfred Cooper left the telegraph wicket and made his way over to the platform where the Norwich train was waiting to leave. It was Inspector William Parker’s responsibility to wave the express train off but, given the lateness, he checked with Cooper whether he had ordered the mail train up first. “Certainly not” Cooper replied, “let’s get this train away.” At approximately 9.30pm the express left the station.

William Platford had been stationmaster at Brundall for eight years. On this particular evening he was being assisted by his twelve year old son who regularly sent and received telegraph messages for his father. When the telegraph arrived requesting that he send the mail train up, seemingly signed by Alfred Cooper, Platford duly despatched the train.

Back at Thorpe Station, the sudden realisation of what he may have done flashed across Alfred Cooper’s mind. He rushed to the telegraph office and shouted for John Robson to cancel his previous order. Robson hastily typed and sent the message “Stop Mail” to Brundall. Less than two minutes later came the chilling reply “Mail Gone”. The horror of what was now inevitable was relayed around the station but they were powerless. There was no way of communicating with either driver or stopping the trains. Cooper demanded to know why Robson had sent the telegraph to order the mail train up when he had expressly told him not to. Robson replied that he had told him to send the message and, if he hadn’t, then why had he then asked him to cancel it after the express train had left the station. According to eye witness statements, Cooper froze, became almost paralyzed with fear, knowing the consequences of his actions were very grave indeed.

Thomas Clarke was driving the Norwich Express train that evening, alongside him was fireman Frederick Sewell. It was not unusual for the London train arrive late and Thomas was keen to make up lost time. Conscious that the up train was still waiting to be let through at Brundall, he opened up the steam regulator as he left the city. Having been instructed to head into Norwich before the down train left, John Prior was also eager not to delay the Norwich train any further than necessary and had built up considerable momentum.  Steaming down the incline from Postwick in the driving rain it’s unlikely that Prior would have seen the approaching lights of the express train. There was a slight bend on the track, the rails were slippery due to the rain and there wouldn’t have been enough time to apply the brakes to pull up.

Engraving of the Thorpe Railway Collision from the Illustrated London News

Residents in Thorpe St Andrew reported hearing what sounded like a massive peal of thunder as the two trains collided head on with a combined speed of around 60 mph just beyond the eastern rail bridge. The engine of the Norwich train was pushed round sideways and up over the top of the mail train, the funnel being carried away with it. John Prior, James Light, Thomas Clarke and Frederick Sewell would almost certainly have been killed instantly. The first few wooden carriages splintered and were ripped apart as they ploughed into the twisted wrecks of the locomotives. The carriages kept coming, rearing up on top of one another, some splitting in two, some having the roofs torn off. Eye witnesses stated that the top most carriage was some 20 or 30 feet above the ground, teetering precariously above the engines.  And then there was darkness. The impact had extinguished the lamps in all of the carriages. The Times described the scene as a “ghastly pyramid formed of hissing locomotives, shattered carriages and moaning, in some cases dying, passengers”. There hadn’t been time for the drivers to turn off the regulators and the steam was still in operation for some time afterwards. It was only the heavy rain which prevented the whole lot catching alight.

Those who could, scrambled out of the wreckage and attempted to help those who were trapped. Many were suffering from head wounds having been catapulted across the carriages upon impact. Around them was a scene of utter devastation, people were dead and others were dying. Villagers who had heard the crash rushed down to try to help. Dr Eade had been in the first class carriage on the Lowestoft section of the mail train. He said that he had felt a tremendously heavy blow and assumed that the bridge across the river had given way. The carriage had split in two but he managed to crawl through the opening and out onto the adjoining marshland.  He was cut about the face, but immediately rushed to assist those who were injured.

Black, one of the brake van guards, was thrown across the carriage. Dazed and bleeding from a head wound, he picked himself up, grabbed a lantern and clambered out Although hurt, Black insisted on carrying out his duty and made his way to the wooden rail bridge which crossed the River Yare where five or six of the Norwich carriages had come to a stop. Inside the carriages there was panic and confusion. Terrified passengers were screaming and crying, unable to get out because there were no guard rails alongside the narrow bridge. Cautiously, Black edged his way along the rails with his lantern, holding on to the steps of the carriages to prevent himself falling into the water below. He did his best to calm the occupants and urge them to stay where they were to await rescue. Another of the van guards, a man named Read, staggered back along the line to alert Thorpe station of the disaster.

Another engraving depicting the Thorpe Rail Disaster from the Illustrated London News

Back in Norwich, emergency procedures were already underway. A train was prepared to take men and equipment to the accident and cabs had been sent out to fetch every doctor that was available. The train met and anxious Read running up the track towards them. The job of extricating the injured from amongst the wreckage was a difficult one as many needed to be cut free. The steam and the heat from the boiler complicated matters further. Light was provided by huge bonfires which were built beside the track, fueled by the remains of the shattered wooden carriages. Makeshift mortuaries were set up in a boat shed beside the track belonging to Steven Field and in a room at the Three Tuns pub across the river at Thorpe Gardens. These were soon occupied by 15 bodies. The wounded were taken back to Norwich by train from where the most severe cases were sent to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. The men worked long and hard throughout the night and by mid morning most of the wreckage had been cleared. The death toll had risen to 18. Surprisingly, there was little damage to the track itself. Two of the rails were slightly bent, but none of the sleepers had been dislodged. By 2.3o that afternoon, the track had been opened up to rail traffic once more.

News of the accident spread quickly and it was the subject of some very graphic and sensationalistic reporting for several weeks. It prompted much discussion in both national and provincial newspapers over safety on the railways. The reports make for a harrowing read. Over the next couple of weeks, the final death toll rose to 27, with over 70 suffering varying degrees of injury. It was estimated that their had been around 220 passengers in total on the two trains. Amongst those who died were GER stoker John Betts, his wife and their youngest son who was just six weeks old and hadn’t yet been named. He had been found lying in his mothers arms.  Their three year old son Charles suffered a head wound but survived. Sgt Major Frederick Cassell and Sergeant Robert Ward also lost their lives and were buried with full military honours. The Rev. Henry Stacey and his wife Ann were killed along with Mr George Womack, a clothier from Norwich, Mrs Sarah Gilding from London and her four year old daughter Laura, Mr Stanley Slade, a London auctioneer, Miss Susan Lincoln a servant from Thorpe Hamlet  and Mr J Hupton, a 45 year old harness maker from Great Yarmouth. They were people from all walks of life.

Alfred Cooper and John Robson were arrested and investigations were conducted without delay. The Coronors inquest, held before a jury by Mr E. S. Bignold, considered the evidence and decided that both men were guilty of gross negligence and carelessness and should be tried for manslaughter. However, it was felt that Cooper was the more culpable of the two. At a separate inquest held by Captain Tyler of the Board of Trade, the jury concluded that both should be charged with manslaughter but that Robson, having sent the telegraph message to send the mail train up from Brundall was the guilty party. In giving evidence, both men tried to shift the blame onto one another. When the case reached trial in April 1875, John Robson was acquitted and released and Alfred Cooper was found guilty and sentenced to eight months imprisonment with hard labour. The Great Eastern railway Company paid out over £40,000 in compensation to the victims and their families, an unprecedented sum at the time.

The Thorpe Railway collision, along with two further rail accidents in the following months led to new safety measures being implemented to prevent similar incidents happening in the future. It was noted that the Thorpe accident could have been far more serious  had it occurred just a hundred feet closer to Norwich the line. The engines and carriages would probably have ended up in the river and many passengers would have been drowned. The fact that there were three empty carriages and a horsebox directly behind the Norwich engine, and a cargo truck carrying fish behind the Yarmouth engine, also limited the number of fatalities as it was these which bore the brunt of the collision.

I don’t know what happened to Alfred Cooper after he was sent to prison. He was a man who had a history of mental health problems, a fact which was brought up during the trial, although he was judged to have been of sound mind and sober at the time of the accident. The evidence and eye witness statements seemed to stack up against him though. A momentary lapse in concentration or a serious error of judgement? Whatever the reason, the outcome was one of the worst railway accidents ever witnessed in Britain.

My journey into this story took began with one of the original illustrations of the accident and led me to the original newspaper reports covering the accident, the inquest and the trial. It seemed right that I should finish that journey by visiting the graves of two of those who lost their lives that night. The driver and fireman of the Great Yarmouth mail train, John Prior and James Light were buried side by side in a corner of the Rosary Cemetery in Norwich. Rest in peace.

Compiled from contemporary reports in the Times newspaper. My thanks also to Richard Slipper, a descendant of Sergeant Robert Ward.

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