New book chronicles one of the most tragic rail collisions in history

 The Three Tuns on the River Yare next to the railway bridge.

The Three Tuns on the River Yare next to the railway bridge. Copyright Norfolk County Council. - Credit: Norfolk County Council.

Much has been much written about what was described by the Court of Enquiry as “the most serious collision between trains meeting one another on a single line of rails.”

The  “deafening peal of thunder”  which shook Thorpe St Andrew claimed the lives of no less than 28 people and injured many more.

Thorpe is a community which is passionate about its history – good and bad – and the events of September 10 all those years ago have been told by various groups and historians over many years.

One of the residents is Phyllida Scrivens and it is her new book concentrating on the heroes, victims and survivors on that fateful night and in the days following, which is the latest topic for discussion.

It is different. It is moving. It is thoughtful… taking us back to the scene of the carnage and introducing us to the people involved.


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Every class of Victorian Society was travelling that night. The rich and the poor. The old and the young.…all with a story to tell.

Then there were the residents, the rescuers and doctors who rushed to the scene to save as many lives as they could and take people to hospital.

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The idea for the book came about after Phyllida, who lives close to the scene of the accident, heard historian Nick Williams speaking about the disaster .

She had already written local bestsellers such as  Escaping Hitler, about Joe Stirling, and The Lady Lord Mayors of Norwich, and the more discovered about the crash… the more she wanted to know.

So, with support from Nick, Thorpe History Group, Brundall Local History Group, Dale Wiseman, descendants of the victims and others….she got to work.

That was more than two years ago.

Much research, non-fiction narrative, along with informed speculation and dramatised events, all come together to pay tribute to those who lost their lives – before just names on a list.

And the extraordinary exploits of the rescuers and the medical teams called into action on the awful night.

The crash scene as portrayed in The Illustrated London News on September 19 1874. 

The crash scene as portrayed in The Illustrated London News on September 19 1874. - Credit: The Victorian Picture Library

The cause of the accident was a momentary misunderstanding between the night Inspector and young telegraph clerk at Norwich Station which resulted in the crash…and a prison sentence.

Two large steam engines, the main train from Great Yarmouth and the express from Norwich, smashed into each other at the wooden bridge over the River Yare.

Twisting and screeching the carriages whiplash into the air taking the 220 passengers with them….this was hell.

Now the full story of that crash, plus the inquests, court cases and compensation claims which followed is told in this  compelling read.

“My aim was always to honour the memory of these poor souls involved, revealing the lives behind the list,” says Phyllida.

Consultant medical staff at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital in 1871

Consultant medical staff at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital in 1871. Top row, left to right: Sir Frederick Bateman, William Cadge, Thomas Crosse, Peter Eade. Bottom row, left to right: Edward Copeman, W P Nichols and G Firth. - Credit: Norfolk and Norwich Hospital

The book starts with a chapter on the opening of the Yarmouth and Norwich Railway in April of 1844 before moving on to the disastrous events some thirty years later at what was known as “Thorpe Next Norwich

Those who lost their lives included people from across  East Anglia… Aldeburgh, Beccles, Blofield, Beccles, Castle Acre, Ely, Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, Lowestoft and Norwich.

While the official figures at the time said 25 people died, Phyllida, believes she had found three more who lost their lives as a result of the crash.

Among the survivors were two men who became leading Norwich citizens.  Sir Charles Gilman (1834-1911) and Sir Peter Eade (1825-1913).

Peter received slight injuries while Charles was ill for a long time before finally recovering. Both were knighted by Queen Victoria for their good work helping others in many different ways.

The Great Thorpe Railway Disaster 1874: Heroes. Victims. Survivors by Phyllida Scrivens is published by Pen and Sword at £19.99. It will be officially launched at Jarrolds in Norwich on Thursday September 30 when she will be discussing the book with author Pete Goodrum who wrote the foreword.

Norwich Thorpe Station in 1863. 

Norwich Thorpe Station in 1863. - Credit: Norfolk County Council

Among the passengers that night were:

Auction house heiress, 18-year-old Ellen Ramsdale.

A Norwich dentist.

A group of Masons travelling home following a dinner at the Assembly House, Norwich.

A 28-year-old seamstress, daughter of a shoemaker, who spent her days working in a stinking, dark and cramped loft.

A draper from Aldeburgh.

Two Norfolk militia men on a fishing trip.

Sweethearts, planning their wedding. They were separated at the scene. One would die while the other survived.

Brothers from King’s Lynn, both fish merchant.

A harness maker from the Rows in Yarmouth, whose father was a “Fire and Brimstone” minister from Claxton, near loddon.

A couple recently moved to Norwich after a lifetime of service in Beccles.

The mystery man whose identity was revealed by his monogrammed shirt, found in his suitcase at a Yarmouth hotel.

And  many more…

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