On Thursday, 10th September, 1874, Norfolk experience both stormy weather and a rail tragedy. Two trains collided head-on near Norwich, in what became known as the Thorpe Railway Disaster. Passengers were killed and rescuers were faced with scenes of carnage as they struggled to help the injured and dying.
The evening of that Thursday, 145 years ago, was cold, dark and wet as the 8.45pm mail train left Great Yarmouth station for Norwich; it would pick up its Lowestoft connection at Reedham before heading on to its destination at Norwich. In the cab was 49 years old and experienced train driver, John Prior; beside him was 25 year old fireman, James Light of King Street, Norwich. As their train drew away from the station, there was nothing to suggest that this journey would be any different from any other.
At Reedham, John Prior’s train waited whilst the carriages from the Lowestoft train were coupled on to the mail train before it continued on to Norwich. Behind the engine was mixture of first, second and third class carriages, a truck laden with fresh fish from the docks and two brake vans; totalling thirteen carriages in all. The carriages from Lowestoft were especially crowded with visitors that day, all going to the town’s flower show. Amongst the crowd were the Reverend Henry Stacey and his wife who were returning home. Sergeant Major Frederick Cassell and Sergeant Robert Ward who were serving members of the West Norfolk Militia had been away on the fishing trip on the Norfolk Broads. Also amongst the train passengers were Robert Ward, who had been in the Coldsteam Guards before joining the West Norfolk Militia, together with his wife Elizabeth and their four children. Then there was John Betts, a 29 year old employee of the Great Eastern Railway Company who had been given a half day off to take his wife, Elizabeth, and two sons to the seaside. Passengers and train proceeded along the double track to Brundall, where the train normally waited on a loop to the single line to allow the scheduled express train through before carrying on its final stretch of its journey.
Back at Thorpe Station, Alfred Cooper, night duty inspector for the last 15 years and of blameless character, arrived for duty at 9pm; by 9.15pm he noted that the express train from London was seventeen minutes late. In such cases, it was usual practice for a telegraph message to be sent from Wymondham station to alert Norwich of any train delays of at least fifteen minutes; none had been received. Punctuality was known to be poor and the London Express was more often late than on time. The night inspector, Alfred Cooper was, again, not a happy man.
He mentioned the delay to the Norwich Thorpe stationmaster, William Sproule, who replied: “All right, we’ll get her off.” Cooper hurried off thinking Mr Sproule meant him to send up the Brundall train. But the stationmaster intended no such thing – he wanted to send the express to Yarmouth. Cooper rushed to the station telegraph booth where he asked the clerk, 18-year-old John Robson, to prepare a message for Brundall. Railway rules dictated that such messages must be signed before despatch; however, Cooper’s usual ‘custom and practice’ was to leave some messages unsigned and let the telegraph clerk send them. The young clerk, Robson, assumed this was such an occasion and tapped out and sent the wire at 9.26pm. It read:
“Send the mail train up before the 9.10pm down passenger train leaves Norwich – A Cooper”
The stationmaster at Brundall was William Platford who had been in charge there for eight years. On that particular evening he was assisted by his twelve year old son, who regularly sent and received telegraph messages for his father. When the telegraph from clerk Robson at Norwich arrived, apparently signed by Alfred Cooper. Two minutes later the train pulled out of Brundall station and three minutes after that, at around 9.31pm the London express left Norwich on the instructions of Mr Sproule. A fatal minute elapsed before Cooper saw the express steam out. A witness at the time stated:
“Cooper then left his office. He could not have been there for more than two minutes. A few minutes afterwards, at 9.23, the witness heard the down express run in under the arcade. In 8 minutes, at 9.31, he saw the train start again while standing at the door of his office. He went in there again and heard, some few minutes after, a sharp click of the wicket opening at the telegraph-window. He wondered and listened, and heard something about the mail. He rushed out and said, “What about mail?” Cooper was then standing against the telegraph-window………. he had the appearance of a man paralysed and said “I have ordered it up,” or “the mail up”, the witness was not sure which; he was so unstrung that he hardly knew what took place. He felt for Cooper so much that he could hardly speak to him……..”
It was also reported at the time that the Inspector’s reaction to such a shock was for him to shout at Robson, “Have you ordered up the Brundall train?”, to which the clerk replied that he had. Cooper immediately ordered him to send another wire to Brundall to stop the train. Both he and Robson waited anxiously while Brundall took the message and replied. That reply starkly stated “Mail gone!”
Apparantly, Cooper had also demanded of the clerk as to why he had sent the first telegraph requesting for the mail train to proceed when he had expressly told Robson not to. The clerk claimed that he had reminded Cooper that he had told him (the clerk) to send the message – if Cooper hadn’t, then why had he asked the clerk to cancel it!
No one will ever know how the fatal misunderstanding between Inspector Cooper and the telegraphist Robson arose and a further explanation, set out in an old letter that came to light many years later, would have muddied the water even more. It was from a Mr H O L Francis, a railwayman working on the Yarmouth section of the Great Eastern Railway network in 1874. In 1931 he wrote to a railway inspector, Oswald Cook of Cromer and his letter put the blame for the accident squarely on the clerk, Robson.
“I had been on the Yarmouth section a few days before the mishap. I knew the guards concerned, with the Norwich inspector Cooper and Parker – also the telegraphist Robson. This latter person caused the accident by sending on to Brundall the unsigned message handed him by Inspector Cooper – ‘send the mail train up’ which Mr Cooper told him not to send till he came to him again. When Cooper saw Inspector Parker start the down express he went to tell Robson to send the message after an interval to allow down express to reach Brundall. To his horror he found the unsigned message gone. Robson saying he did not hear him say: ‘Wait till I come and sign it’.”
Whatever the facts and actual sequence of events, the end result was the same and there was nothing that the drivers, John Prior and Thomas Clarke, could do to avoid the crash. Its inevitability within minutes caused panic at Norwich Station where everyone had realised that they were powerless and there was no way of communicating with either driver or stopping the trains beforehand. According to eye witnesses, Cooper had frozen with fear, realising the consequences of his actions.
Thomas Clarke was driving the London Express train that evening, alongside him was fireman Frederick Sewell. Thomas, who was keen to make up lost time and believing that the Yarmouth mail train was waiting at Brundall, opened up the steam regulator. Coming the other way was the mail train with it’s diver, John Prior, also eager not to delay the Norwich train any further than necessary, building up considerable momentum. It was unlikely that Prior would have seen the approaching lights of the express train for there was a slight bend on the track at Postwick and there would not have been enough time to apply the brakes. The outcome was catastrophic. In the darkness and pouring rain both trains collided head at 9.45pm, just east of the bridge over the river Wensum and within 100 yards of the Thorpe Gardens public house, now the ‘Rushcutters’. Local people described the noise as being like a ‘thunderclap’ and ‘a massive peal of thunder’ with one eye witness saying:
“The engines reared up into an almost perpendicular position , and the carriages mounted one upon the top of another, and gradually sunk down into an altogether inconceivable mass of rubbish and ruins. Carriages were piled one on top of the other; others had been thrown on their sides and had rolled some half dozen yards away from the line”.
In fact, the first few carriages of both trains were ripped apart as they ploughed into the twisted wrecks of the locomotives; the momentum forcing the other carriages to rear up on top of one another. Some carriages split in two and some had the roofs torn off. Further witnesses stated that the highest most carriage was some 20 or 30 feet above the ground, teetering precariously. The drivers and firemen of both trains, John Prior, James Light, Thomas Clarke and Frederick Sewell had been killed instantly.
Darkness descended when the impact extinguished all the carriage lamps. One national newspaper described the scene as a “ghastly pyramid formed of hissing locomotives, shattered carriages and moaning, in some cases dying, passengers”. There had not been time for the drivers to turn off the regulators with the result that the steam was still emerging for some time afterwards. Those who could, scrambled out of the wreckage with many suffering from head wounds, having been catapulted across the carriages. All around was a scene of devastation, people were dead or dying. Villagers who had heard the crash rushed down to help. Dr Peter Eade, who had been in the first class carriage on the Lowestoft section of the mail train managed to crawl through the opening and out onto the marshland. Although he was cut about the face, he immediately rushed to assist those who were injured.
Black, one of the brake van guards, was thrown across the carriage but picked himself up, grabbed a lantern and clambered out. Although hurt, he insisted on carrying out his duty and made his way to the wooden rail bridge, which crossed the River Yare and where five or six of the Norwich carriages had come to a stop. Inside the carriages there was panic and confusion with terrified passengers 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 urged them to stay where they were until rescued. Another of the van guards, a man named Read, staggered back along the line to alert Thorpe station of the disaster.
Back in Norwich, emergency procedures were already underway, supervised by the Station Master. A train was prepared to take men and equipment to the accident and cabs sent out to fetch every available doctor. 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, fuelled 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. Some comments from witnesses appeared in the local Press:
“In a corner lay the corpses of a man, a woman and a pretty little child, not more than four or five years old. On the opposite side were the mortal remains of a woman who appeared to be nothing but a chaotic mess of clothing.”
“Between these bodies lay the wounded, and the smile that continually overspread the features of one poor young woman as she looked up into the face of her nurse was a thing never to be forgotten. She seemed to be dying.”
“Another young woman next to her was evidently suffering acutely, her piteous groans giving ample testimony of this fact.”
A girl’s leg was amputated at the scene of the tangled wreckage!
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 2.30 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 there 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. The eminent Bungay botanist, Dr Bransby Francis, was another victim. They were people from all walks of life.
Surprisingly perhaps, there were some lucky escapes. One young couple had moved from the lead carriage, as they didn’t like the company in the front carriage and one young woman was thrown clear through trees into a nearby garden and suffered only a few cuts and bruises. Another was a young man sitting in one of the other carriages who escaped without a scratch or bruise, although his carriage had been pulled up into the air as the engines collided. The mail guard, who was in his van at the time of the crash, despite being bruised and shaken and the van smashed like a matchbox, picked himself and his bags up and succeeded in getting them to the post office in a cart. Refusing to go to hospital he was persuaded to return to his home in Yarmouth in a carriage.
Alfred Cooper and John Robson were arrested and immediate investigations conducted. 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 on to 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. It was noted that the Thorpe accident could have been far more serious had it occurred just a hundred feet closer to Norwich. 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.
Nothing seems to be known of Alfred Cooper after he had been sent to prison. From facts brought up during his trial it would appear that he was a man who had a history of mental health problems, although he was judged to have been of sound mind and sober at the time of the accident. Was it a momentary lapse in concentration or a serious error of judgement? Whatever the reason, the outcome was one of the worst railway accidents in Britain.
It seems right that this tale should end at the graves of the driver and fireman of the Great Yarmouth mail train, John Prior and James Light. They were buried side by side in a corner of the Rosary Cemetery in Norwich.
Footnote: Ironically, the company back then had recognised that the single line between Norwich and Brundall needed doubling and had laid a second line beside it which was awaiting Board of Trade approval – and surprise, surprise, it was duly approved a few weeks after the Thorpe crash and brought into use. There is a plaque commemorating this crash in Girlings Lane, off Yarmouth Road, which is very close to the site of the accident.
This accident which is known as the Thorpe Railway Disaster, 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. In particular, it led to the introduction of the Tablet System, where an interlocking token must be secured before a train may proceed along a single track:
Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet system is a form of railway signalling for single line railways used in several countries; it was first devised in Great Britain by engineer Edward Tyer after the Thorpe rail accident of 1874, which left 21 people dead. It was used in New Zealand for close to 100 years until June 1994. The system used a hard disk called a tablet, a form of token.
The purpose of the system was to use the tablet as a physical guarantee to the traincrew that their train had exclusive right of way on the single line section. Without this they could not proceed beyond the section signal which protected entry to the single line. With advances in electrical locking of the lever frame within the signal box, the tablet instrument also electrically locked the section signal lever. This was marked with a white stripe on the red background.
The Tablet System is still in use, although the disappearance of the semaphore signal, and the closure of many signal boxes (where the tokens used to be exchanged) means that an electronic system of token exchange is now widely employed. The safety record of the railways is based on the fail-safe principle. It was the proud boast of the M&GN Railway (that ran almost entirely in the county of Norfolk) that during the 80 years in which it was in operation it never killed a passenger.
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4 thoughts on “Thorpe Railway Disaster – Revisited!”
A variation on the tablet system, I believe, is still used in India. It was an extremely reliable system, fool but, sadly not idiot proof. It failed twice, both on the Cambrian Railways – once in a snow storm when possibly snow caused a short circuit allowing two goods trains to enter the same section from either end. The other disaster at Abermule, between Newtown and Montgomery strangely had echoes of the Thorpe collision in that gross negligence and incompetence allowed the driver of a Newtown bound local to proceed, holding the token for the Montgomery to Abermule section he had just traversed, towards Newtown, directly into the path of a London bound express. The resulting carnage was similar to that at Thorpe.
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Thank you for your response and interesting addition, all of which are welcomed!
After sending it I remembered that in L T C Rolt’s account of the tragedy, in his book ‘Red For Danger’, he recorded that the two locomotives were so badly damaged it was impossible to deduce the positions of their regulators. (Those at Abermule were totally destroyed so I imagine, from one of your illustrations, the Thorpe engines would also be. ) However, he stated, on the express engine, it’s tender handbrake was found screwed hard down. So somebody had sufficient time, courage and devotion to duty to stick to his post to the very last. In the words of The History Guy, they deserve to be remembered.
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Thank you again!