The filthy night when two trains collided

MAINTO THE RESCUE: helpers extricate the dead and wounded from the mangled wreckage.Picture: COLMAN

MAINTO THE RESCUE: helpers extricate the dead and wounded from the mangled wreckage.Picture: COLMAN AND RYE LIBRARIES OF LOCAL HISTORY, NORWICH - Credit: Archant

RESIDENTS of the Great Yarmouth area live in what is almost a railway-free zone. Drivers on the Acle New Road spot the occasional rail-car, sometimes only a solitary single unit, alongside them but that is the sad extent of it.

SCENE OF CARNAGE...rescuers struggle to free survivors by the light of track-side fires.Picture: COL

SCENE OF CARNAGE...rescuers struggle to free survivors by the light of track-side fires.Picture: COLMAN AND RYE LIBRARIES OF LOCAL HISTORY, NORWICH - Credit: Archant

I could be wrong, but I doubt if any conventional trains comprising carriages hauled by locomotives travel beyond Norwich, even to ferry summer holidaymakers. Goods trains might well be non-existent, too. At any rate, I have spotted none in recent years.

And to think that well within the lifetime of many of us living hereabouts, Yarmouth had three main termini (South Town, Beach and Vauxhall), with only the latter remaining, just...

Hinterland villages also had staffed stations, and there were several unmanned convenience halts. Now they are but memories, and younger folk might be surprised to learn that there was once a Gorleston North Station and a Links Halt, to name but two as examples.

The rail network provided straightforward and economical travel throughout the nation before roads improved and charabancs and private cars became a viable alternative.

CLEARING THE DEBRIS: the wreckage is removed after rescuers were positive that all the casualties an

CLEARING THE DEBRIS: the wreckage is removed after rescuers were positive that all the casualties and bodies had been recovered.Picture: COLMAN AND RYE LIBRARIES OF LOCAL HISTORY, NORWICH - Credit: Archant

Statistics might well prove that nowadays, road users are more likely to suffer accidents than their rail counterparts, but a railway collision or derailment could result in one big casualty toll because of the numbers on board a train.

Sadly, a Yarmouth train was once involved in what was, at the time, Britain’s second worst rail disaster in terms of deaths, its effect exacerbated by the fact that emergency services were primitive, response times sluggish, and preparedness near non-existent.

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This happened at Thorpe, this side of Norwich, when two trains on the single-line track collided head-on, resulting in the death of 27 passengers and crew and injuries to at least 73 others. Next month marks the 140th anniversary of that 1874 tragedy.

The Thorpe calamity occurred six years after 33 died in a rail crash in Wales; within three months of the collision on that Yarmouth-Norwich line, 34 perished and 69 were hurt in a crash in Oxfordshire.

From contemporary accounts, the Thorpe accident happened at 9.45pm on a filthy night, with rain sheeting down. It involved the 8.40pm mail train from Yarmouth to Norwich which joined up at either Reedham or Brundall with its counterpart from Lowestoft before steaming on towards the city. Heading in the opposite direction, already a quarter of an-hour late, was a heavy express from London which had come from Norwich and was bound for Yarmouth.

As it was only a single-track line, the usual practice was for the mail train from the coast to use a diversionary loop at Brundall and halt there to allow the express to pass through, then resume its journey by rejoining the line to Norwich Thorpe Station.

But there was a simple but horrific procedural confusion, the misinterpretation of an ambiguous message about priorities, resulting in both trains steaming towards one another on the single line in darkness, one ramming into the other with tremendous force and deafening noise opposite Thorpe Gardens – now the site of the Rushcutters public house and restaurant between the old main Norwich road and the riverside.

According to the Eastern Daily Press reporters covering the crash: “We are informed that the train was despatched from Norwich without any authority and that a few minutes afterwards the officials knew what would happen and were utterly powerless to avert the terrible collision with all its frightful consequences.”

The express from Norwich dashed into the oncoming train “with a fearful velocity,” they wrote, “the terrible force of the collision causing in a moment of time a scene of wreck and ruin such has seldom been witnessed at the most horrible of railway accidents that have taken place of late years in this country.

“The engines when they met...must have reared up into an almost perpendicular position, and the carriages mounted one on the top of another and gradually sunk down into an altogether inconceivable mass of rubbish and ruins.”

One estimate claimed the wreckage was three storeys high.

The newspaper report stated: “The inhabitants of the hamlet of Thorpe, hearing the frightful crash, rushed into the open air notwithstanding the fact that the rain was coming down in torrents, and the sight which met their view on arriving at the scene of the catastrophe was appalling.

“The groans of the injured passengers and the frantic shrieks and appeals for help which proceeded from those who were uninjured and still within the carriages were heart-rending in the extreme.”

There was astonishment and relief that so many passengers had escaped injury. If the collision had occurred 100 yards closer to Norwich, “the loss of life would have been far greater, and the disaster more hideous in its character, as it must have happened just on the narrow bridge crossing the river directly opposite the Thorpe Gardens under which circumstances the inevitable result would have been the hurling of the trains into the river.”

Doctors and other medical staff locally were called by rail officials to the scene to help.

Dr Eade, a passenger on the train from Lowestoft, “at once did all he could to alleviate the agonies of his fellow sufferers” despite his severely cut face and being badly shaken. Another doctor on the train, Dr Francis, was too dangerously injured to help.

Special trains delivered the dead and wounded from the scene to Thorpe Station, the survivors then being transferred to hospital or taken to their homes, depending on their condition.

The “sickening spectacle” was even worse at Thorpe Hamlet itself. In an inn room “lay the bodies of four dead persons, but they were not alone. On hastily-constructed temporary beds lay some half a-dozen horribly maimed and disfigured sufferers whose groans went to the hearts even of the medical men.

“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.

According to the EDP: “Extricating victims from the debris was extremely difficult, and many were those who aided in this arduous and disagreeable – not to say, dangerous – work. Bystanders could repeatedly hear the heart-rending cries, groans and sometimes low moans of those beneath the mass of rubbish.”

On either side of the line large bonfires were lit, fuelled by pieces of wreckage, to aid the searchers in the dark.

One victim was so entangled in the twisted wreck that he could not be extricated for hours, despite the fact that he could be heard and seen.

The dead and injured included Yarmouthians, both passengers and railwaymen. Among those killed instantly were both locomotive drivers, John Prior and Thomas Clarke, and their firemen (John Light and George Freeman) plus a guard on the London express. Over 20 bodies were discovered — others died later from their injuries.

Among the dead was a family of three, John Betts, of Yarmouth, his wife Elizabeth and their six-week-old son.

Ironically, the section of the line where the calamity occurred was in the process of being doubled; the second track had already been put in place alongside the existing one laid when the Norwich-Yarmouth line was built, but was awaiting official Board of Trade inspection and approval before it could be used.

Also, four years later, rail engineers perfected the tablet device that would have eliminated the possibility of two trains being on the same single-line stretch.

Two of the operational staff at Norwich Thorpe Station were later brought before Norwich Assizes, accused of manslaughter; one was jailed for eight months by the judge but the other was acquitted.

The Great Eastern railway company paid £40,000 in compensation, a huge figure in those days.