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The Charfield Railway Disaster
[Source 1] [Source 2] [Source 3]

A few seconds was all that was needed for a goods train to clear the main line at Charfield before the arrival of an express travelling at full speed. It was a few seconds too many however, as the express thundered directly into it.

Charfield was a small country station on the Birmingham - Bristol line of the Midland Railway, which, following the 1923 Grouping, had become part of the LMS. It was the company’s West of England line carrying traffic from the north and Midlands to the south-west through what was largely Great Western territory.

Yet though the GWR had lines around Birmingham and was the master of the Bristol area, it had no direct through route all the way from Birmingham to Bristol. Its goods trains had either to go the long way round via Didcot, or use the cross-country route through Cheltenham before travelling over the LMS line from Gloucester to Bristol.

As a result, the LMS Bristol line was usually busy and, just before dawn on 13 October 1928, several trains were heading south-west from Gloucester. Of a group of four, the first two were slow goods trains on their way to Bristol: the previous evening’s LMS 10.35pm from Washwood Heath (on the Birmingham — Derby line), and the GWR 9.15pm from Oxley Sidings at Wolverhampton.

Not far behind the GWR goods train was the LMS 12.45am parcels train from Leicester to Bristol, which, being faster, was gradually closing up. The last of the group, the LMS 10.00pm overnight mail and passenger express from Leeds to Bristol, was the most important. This was the one that no signalman would delay without very good reason. The parcels train also had a certain priority and slow running goods trains had to get out of its way.

Train regulation on former Midland routes was bound up in the control system. While signalmen had limited freedom to run trains, shunting one out of the way of another, known as 'out of course working', was often a matter for line controllers. They not only kept an eye on train regulation, but also on engine and train crew workings, and on goods train loadings. In this case the controller was based in an office at Fishponds, Bristol.

In order not to delay the parcels train, the controller had decided to shunt the two goods trains out of the way. The LMS was shunted off at Charfield and the GWR goods a little further behind at Berkeley Road. The two sidings used were dead ends trailing into the main line, so they could only be reached by running the train beyond the points and backing it into the sidings.

In the normal direction of running, points were trailing. Facing points had been frowned upon (unless absolutely necessary - as at route junctions) right from the dawn of railways, because of the danger of a fast train being accidentally diverted into a siding if the points were set incorrectly. If the points were trailing this was impossible, but it did mean that a goods train being shunted in had first to draw past the points and then reverse in, a time-consuming process.

With both goods trains safely shunted, the line was clear for the parcels train to overtake, which it duly did. As soon as the parcels train had cleared the section from Berkeley Road to Charfield, the GWR goods was let out of the siding to resume its journey. The controller also told the Charfleld signalman to let the LMS goods out as soon as he had received ‘train out of section’ from the next signal-box to the south, Wickwar, for the parcels train. Given a clear line both goods trains could have been shunted out of the way further south for the express mail train.

An unscheduled stop

Click for a larger image

An aerial view taken from above the goods
shed, south of the bridge. The overturned
mail locomotive is visible through the smoke 
and steam.

Then came the first complication. Once out on the main line the LMS goods stopped at the platform to take water. Its driver had not told the signalman or even asked beforehand whether he could. This took about five minutes. Meanwhile the GWR goods was approaching Charfield from Berkeley Road. The LMS goods restarted and continued south, but with the delay it was clear that the mail was going to be checked by the GWR goods. The Charfield signalman had no alternative but to stop the GWR goods beyond the siding points and set it back into the refuge out of the way of the mail train.

It was still dark and, with a clear sky, mist was beginning to rise. It wasn’t thick, and although the signalman thought about fog working he could still see his fog object, a landmark a certain distance away, and decided he was justified in continuing normal block working without fog signalmen. With the GWR goods setting back into the sidings, he was able, in accordance with the regulations, to clear the rear block section by giving ‘train out of section’ to Berkeley Road and accepting the express.

All his signals were at danger for the mail, and the distant signal lever was set to normal in the lever frame, meaning that the signal should have been at caution. He could not clear his signals with the front of the GWR goods still on the main line moving backwards. The LMS goods train had also not cleared the section to Wickwar.

It was about 5.16am. The slow-moving GWR goods engine was still a few wagon lengths from the points backing into the siding. On the adjoining up line another goods train heading for Gloucester was approaching. The signalman saw his track circuit indicator for the down home signal go from clear to occupied. The mail had arrived.

Click for a larger image

The charred remains of one of the four
burnt-out coaches from the express
mail is lifted away from the scene.

But to his horror the indicator went back to clear again. The mail had run by his home signal. In seconds, the Class 3 4-4-0 No 714 appeared out of the darkness and at over 60mph hit the eighth wagon of the GWR goods. No 714 was sandwiched between this and the LMS goods train coming the other way. The goods wagons were reduced to matchwood. The eight wooden-bodied coaches of the mail fared little better as they broke up and rode over the wagons. One coach was thrown over the bridge which crossed the line. Worse was to follow however. All the coaches were gaslit and hot ashes from the fire box spat over the line. Fire broke out and escaping gas soon ignited the wreckage.

Amazingly, the driver and fireman of No 714 survived. The driver helped as best as he could and tried to rescue passengers before the fire spread through the wreckage and forced him back. He then went to the signalbox to ask in forceful terms what had gone wrong, since he said he had seen a clear green distant signal light.

With the interlocking through the block instruments and with the trailing points set for the sidings, this should have been impossible, yet when the signalman looked at the distant signal repeater it was showing clear. It was found however that wreckage was pressing down on the signal wire and when removed the distant signal arm went back to caution.

Both driver and fireman remained adamant that they had seen a green light at the signal. No 714, like most Midland engines, was driven from the right of the cab so the fireman normally worked on the left side from where he could see the distant signal. How did the signal show green? Had someone deliberately tampered with the wire? We shall never know, for the mystery was never solved.

The mail train fortunately had few passengers, but with the wreckage compressed against the bridge and partly over it as well, and then catching fire, it was inevitable that there would be casualties; fifteen passengers lost their lives. The driver of the mail train was blamed by the inquest for negligence in passing signals at danger. He was then charged with manslaughter at the assize court, but was found not guilty.

Out of a grey mist

Charfield arose from an unfortunate combination of circumstances. Had the driver of the LMS goods told the signalman beforehand that he needed water, the signalman would have kept him in the siding and let the GWR goods and the mail overtake him. But the cruelest irony was the fact that it only needed a few seconds more for the GWR goods to have shunted clear of the main line before the mail train burst out of the mist. Only a few wagons and the engine remained to be shunted on to the refuge siding when it arrived. According to the findings of the inquiry, the driver of the express had passed the distant signal at caution and the home signal at danger. The accident was compounded by the arrival of the up goods train which sandwiched the express and forced the coaches to pile on top of one another as they reached the bridge. Exploding gas tanks and the ensuing fire made the tragedy complete. Fifteen passengers died.

Whose children?

Apart from the conflicting evidence about the distant signal, there was a second mystery in this accident. Among the dead were two children, badly burnt in the fire, so badly burnt in fact that it was impossible to identify them. Yet nothing emerged linking them with the other passengers. Nobody afterwards reported them missing or was able to provide any clue as to who they were with, or whether they were travelling on their own. How did two young children come to be on the train seemingly unaccompanied? It was just another mystery of the Charfield disaster which has never been resolved.

Additional note (added by KLB staff)

If the two children were indeed on their way to or from a boarding school in 1928 then it is interesting that an Internet search for  "Luce magistra", the motto on the blue blazer, shows that it is the motto of Queen Ethelburger's School in North Yorkshire. This is a boarding school, founded in 1910 and the translation of the motto as "By Light, Mistress" may link with the school being named after Queen Ethelburga, who married King Edwin of Northumbria and converted him to Christianity. The train that crashed was travelling from Leeds to Bristol and Queen Ethelburgers School is only about 25 miles from Leeds. Interestingly, a look at their website shows that the present-day uniform is blue...

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