The Charfield Railway Disaster
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was a merry man. Just back from a funeral, still in professional black, he
laughed out aloud at what I had hoped were discreet questions. "Oh dear, oh
dear," he said to no one in particular, "I do think he’s trying to
find out how old I am. Looked at me a bit strange, he did, when he thought I’d
Dick Goscombe of Grimes & Goscombe is, in fact, 75, so
it was his father Trevor who buried the dead after the Charfield Rail Disaster
in 1928. But Dick was there. He was just 200 yards away in the family house and
can remember the firemen in their brass helmets, the stretchers passing, and the
cries of the trapped passengers in the wreckage. A boy of eight never forgets
the cries of grown-ups.
He has not forgotten the questions, too. For these have never
stopped. "I were on the radio once. Got up for seven o’clock, and all I
got for it were a cup of coffee and a barge." This, it turned out, was a
badge, but the questions are familiar because, whoever asks them, they always
lead in the same direction. "My father said he had a very open mind on the
mystery," said Dick Goscombe.
At 4.28am on Saturday, October 13, 1928, the Leeds to Bristol
night mail crashed under the road bridge at Charfield Station, some 20 miles
south of Gloucester. It had collided in fog with another train being shunted on
to a station siding, and this threw it into the path of an oncoming freight
train. But it is what happened then that turned it into such a disaster. The
crash ignited the gas cylinders used to light the carriages, and within seconds
the express was an inferno. The Charfield Mystery had begun.
Identification of human remains proved so difficult that
relatives of the missing accepted the railway company’s offer of a mass grave
in the village churchyard. Ten names are on the stone, but even then the list is
followed by the words, ‘Two Unknown'. This is remarkable enough in
itself but it had happened before and would happen again in railway disasters (one of the dead after the King’s Cross fire is still unidentified in our
time). It was another factor that made for the Mystery.
A crane carries our salvage operations
next to the overturned remains of the
express mail train.
Two children were said to have been on the train, but of them
no trace remained. "My father had this old carpenter who actually put the
dead into the coffins," said Dick Goscombe. "They were in full-sized
coffins but that were only to ease the feelings of relatives, there were that
little left of some of them. And he always swore he hadn't seen the bodies of
But the story refused, and still refuses, to go away, for the
national imagination had been gripped by the possibility that two children could
disappear into thin air in the 20th century. No parent, guardian, relative or
teacher came forward to report them missing. If there had been two children on
the train, that is.
Now you might have expected that interest would fade after a
certain time but it doesn’t. When the story surfaced in the letters columns of
Saga magazine two years ago the correspondence went on for three months,
various theories being aired. There was the one that two ventriloquist’s
dummies had been on the train, another that a jockey had been a passenger, whose
size might have persuaded someone into thinking him a schoolboy.
There was a third, popular at the time, that the children,
whose parents were in the Indian Colonial Service, were in the charge of a
governess who, neglectful of her duties, had for some reason sent them
unaccompanied on the train. In her guilt she had vanished. This theory is now
largely forgotten, for the conditions of the Indian Colonial Service, which
meant that parents could be separated from their children for years (and is the
basis of Kipling’s harrowing story Baa Baa Black Sheep), have also been
forgotten, except by the old.
But no parents came back from India to claim their children,
no ventriloquist came forward, no racing stable mourned a lost jockey. Still
there was no shortage of additional details in the aftermath of the crash.
There was the Lady in Black who, it was said, on every
anniversary between 1929 and the 1950s came to Charfield in a chauffeur-driven
car to stand silently by the grave. There was also the chief constable of
Bristol who himself disappeared mysteriously two years later, an event which
prompted the great Edgar Wallace to investigate his case. He was found dead in
1931 in a London park, his throat cut, but just before this he had met a local solicitor,
a Mr Habgood, to whom he had revealed the children’s identity. Or so it was
The trouble with such details is that they make it possible
to dismiss the Charfleld Mystery as just another 20th century myth in the
making. For why did nobody attempt to speak to the Lady in Black during her
20-year vigil? Why did the solicitor Habgood not pass on his information? And,
come to that, why did the chief constable not speak up? The explanation that a
powerful family had arranged a cover-up has to be an invention, for by now
someone would have talked.
So where do you start looking? With eye-witnesses? Some do
survive, but they were either too young, like Dick Goscombe, or, like the Rev J
H Urwin, on the scene within hours as a 17-year-old apprentice photographer,
were kept away from the crash by police.
The Rev Urwin remembers the terrible smell of burning and the
draped bits of bodies being carried quietly away, but 68 years on he is still
fascinated by the mystery, for the story of the lost children, as he recalls,
was there almost from the beginning. So where do you start?
You start where it happened, two miles east of Junction 14 on
the M5. There are two Charfields, the old and the new. Old Charfield was a
village on a ridge, a good half-mile from the present village, for this is where
the churchyard is, and the communal grave.
The London Midland and Scottish
Railway erected a cross, on which the names range from that of Mrs Esther
Whitehead, aged 60, of Leicester, to Philip Jenkins, aged 22. The words follow, "Two Unknown."
THE LONDON MIDLAND AND SCOTTISH
IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO LOST
THEIR LIVES IN THE RAILWAY
ACCIDENT AT CHARFIELD
MRS CLARA ANNIE JOHNSON,
AGED 46. SHEFFIELD
MISS MILLICENT SARAH RADFORD, AGED 47.
JOHN HENRY PINKNEY, AGED 27.
WALTER TOVEY, AGED 38. DERBY
RICHARD WHITEHEAD, AGED 57. LEICESTER
MRS ESTHER MATILDA WHITEHEAD, AGED 60.
MISS FLORENCE HYLDA CROSS, AGED 36. BELPER
WILLIAM LAWTON, AGED 53.
MRS ELIZA JANE LAWTON, AGED 49.
GOODWIN PHILIP JENKINS, AGED 22.
In fact, there may have been more. Jenkins, for instance, was never identified, and he is there
on the list only because he was known to have been on the train; his landlady
gave evidence to that effect. And he was not the only one, so you begin to see
what you are up against. At the time was reported that some survivors just
wanted to get away from the accident and, despite appeals, never contacted the
authorities. They had no wish to see Charfield again.
The present village is in the valley, having grown up around
the station and then spread along the road, a line of houses, shops and pubs. It
is not a beautiful village, unlike. the old village and Wotton-under-Edge on the
ridge opposite, where Dick Goscombe lives, guarding the secret of his age.
Charfield has become somewhere people pass through on the way
to somewhere else, in our time so quickly that it has been found necessary to
introduce a Traffic Calming Scheme. The old churchyard on the hill is history, a
place where the drinkers in one of the pubs admitted, shamefacedly, they had
never been. The station is closed.
But the trains come through as they always did, a long line
of petrol trucks shaking the platform as I stood there, for it remains the main
line North from Bristol. The old waiting rooms and the offices were boarded up
long ago, but I saw Bill Carter watching the train from a window in the old
station-master’s house, where he now lives. Bill has been watching the trains
go by ever since he moved in 20 years ago.
He showed me where the crash occurred, under the road bridge,
over which the impact pushed the carriages up so that one passenger, according
to Dick Goscombe, was so stunned, being woken from sleep, that he opened his
door and just walked down the road and away. Bill Carter has also become used to
being asked questions, for people still call on him. The Charfield Mystery, he
told me, was "an old tale."
So far, the living. It is now time to call on the dead, where
testimony at the inquest survives in the local studies collection at Gloucester
Public Library. There are many contemporary newspaper accounts here, along with
grainy photographs of twisted metal.
The Gloucester Citizen was so overcome its sub-editors
just put one headline after another:
"An Awful Disaster"
"Unparalleled in local History"
"Passengers Trapped in Burning Carriages"
"Several Killed or Injured Collision Due to Fog"
"Shocking Spectacle of Blazing
But the horror comes in the small details: the fact that,
although relatives had flocked to Charfield and to the neighbouring hospitals,
only two of the dead had been identified after two days, and that even when the
inquest opened the coroner said he did not think more than four ever would be.
The result is that there is even now some doubt over the fatalities, some
accounts saying there were 15 dead, others 14.
The personal details were harrowing. I read of a little girl,
her leg badly broken, who lay without a murmur so long as her mother stayed with
her. Then there was the young man travelling with his fiancée who awoke from
sleep to find himself in darkness, lying severely injured on the roof of a
carriage. Though he called out to his fiancée she did not reply, nor did he
ever see her again or recognise anything that was hers. She, again, was never
identified: all that is known is that she was on the train.
Husbands recognised wives only by their high-laced boots; the
guard was identified by his brass buttons, a man by his shirt cuffs, and one
woman by a case containing "unusual cigarettes" of a brand she smoked.
There was a sad catalogue of salvage. The rings, watches, wires which were all
that remained of umbrellas, some masonic regalia, a small silver basin bearing
the name of a banana boat due to sail three days later from Avonmouth.
Then there was the mystery of the cause. The inquest jury
accused the express driver of negligence in passing signals at red for danger.
But both driver and fireman swore they had seen the lights at green, and the
case was thrown out at the local Assizes. After the accident it was indeed at
green, but that was because of wreckage lying on the signal wire. The truth will
never be known.
And then I found it, the thing I had been looking for. A
porter named Haines, who had earlier been congratulated by the coroner on the
accuracy of his memory, his testimony having been borne out by that of other
witnesses, said he had seen two children on the train at Gloucester station.
He had moved through the train, checking tickets, and had
found them travelling alone and overnight, which was enough to have fixed it in
anyone’s memory. They had their own tickets, the girl aged about nine, the boy
between 11 and 12. The porter remembered that each had been wearing a school cap
of some kind.
A Police Sergeant Crook said part of a school blazer had been
found after the crash, of a size to fit a boy or girl aged between eight and 10,
Air Force blue in colour with black ribbon around the pockets.
There was also a badge, a floral design on a red background, and a motto "Luce magistra". This being translated is "By Light, Mistress" (presumably of life or
fate), its gender suggesting a girls’ school.
There were other finds: a child’s shoe about five inches
long, also a pair of child’s kid leather gloves, inside one of which was a
blue ribbon and a safety pin with which, a moving little detail, they had been
attacked to the wearer’s clothes.
But among the bodies there was just one "believed to be
that of a child", though its age’ and sex could not be determined, except
that there was a tiny boot on one foot just nine inches long, a child’s
And that was all of it, but it was enough for the LMS to
appeal nationally to any school that might recognise the badge. No school came
forward. A company spokesman said that the children might have resumed their
journey, but in which case why did they, or their relatives, not come forward?
It has been suggested that the children may have left the
train after having their tickets inspected at Gloucester station but in that
case, someone would have remembered seeing them, just as Thomas Hardy remembered
seeing the small boy travelling alone. Small children just did not travel alone,
and the occasion prompted Hardy’s mysterious poem Midnight on the Great
In the third-class seat sat the journeying boy,
And the roof-lamp’s oily flame
Played down on his listless form and face,
Bewrapt past knowing to where he was going,
Or whence he came.
In the band of his hat the journeying boy
Had a ticket stuck, and a string
Round his neck bore the key of his box,
That twinkled gleams of the lamp’s sad beams
Like a living thing.
What past can be yours,
O journeying boy
Towards a world unknown,
Who calmly, as if incurious quite
On all at stake, can undertake
This plunge alone?
Knows your soul a sphere,
O journeying boy,
Our rude realms far above,
Whence with spacious vision you mark and mete
This region of sin that you find you in,
But are not of?
There are details in this that recall the sad inventory of
what was found on the gutted mail tram. When I started researching the Charfield
Mystery, I suspected it would be just another 20th century myth, for such myths,
like the Disappearing Granny and the Axe in the Handbag, persist mainly because
people believe there cannot be myths in the 20th century; in our time there are
too many sources of information for that, or so we think. The result is that we
accept them as fact, only there are no facts.
But here there are facts. There is porter Haines. who had no
doubts. There is that small boot. However much you want to debunk the story you
keep colliding with these, there is just enough, just as there was enough for
the LMS to launch its nationwide appeal for information at the time of the
crash. But you also collide with the silence. In the end, like Goscombe senior,
I have to admit that now I have a very open mind.
"I wonder how many more journalists I shall meet,"
said his son.
Railway Tavern in Charfield was used as a temporary mortuary. The 'Dursley Gazette' reported on October 20th 1928 that
'later on Saturday morning the dead bodies and charred remains were placed in an old coach-house at the Railway Tavern and throughout the weekend sorrowing relatives and friends paid visits to this tragic building to make what, alas, often proved to be unavailing search for clues to