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The Charfield Railway Disaster
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The undertaker 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 buried them."

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.

Click for larger image

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 the children."

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 said.

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.

Charfield ChurchSo 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?

The communal graveClose-up of the grave stone (3.1 MB)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."

TH 1928.



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.

Charfield Station todayBut 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 Train"

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 fitting.

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 Western:

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.

Additional note:

The Railway Tavern todayThe 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 identity.'

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