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The untold story of the night a Great Yarmouth railway disaster was narrowly avoided

PUBLISHED: 07:00 16 June 2019 | UPDATED: 21:16 17 June 2019

Locomotive fireman Alf Watker senior, third from left, was on the footplate when his engine was in danger of plunging into Breydon Water in 1929. Second from left in this post-war shot is his brother, Edgar Watker.  Picture: Alf Watker

Locomotive fireman Alf Watker senior, third from left, was on the footplate when his engine was in danger of plunging into Breydon Water in 1929. Second from left in this post-war shot is his brother, Edgar Watker. Picture: Alf Watker

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Is today's feature about a potential railway catastrophe averted in the nick of time 90 years ago a newspaper scoop, hitherto unpublished except in a specialist magazine?

The Breydon Swing Bridge opens to let the Yarmouth pleasure steamer Resolute to pass through. The £38,000 viaduct opened in 1903 to carry the Beach Station to Lowestoft railway line over Breydon. Picture: Mercury libraryThe Breydon Swing Bridge opens to let the Yarmouth pleasure steamer Resolute to pass through. The £38,000 viaduct opened in 1903 to carry the Beach Station to Lowestoft railway line over Breydon. Picture: Mercury library

That 1929 near-disaster was officially hushed up for half a-century until featured in a 1979 M&GN Bulletin for enthusiasts of the railway which had a terminus at Yarmouth Beach Station.

Its writer, ex-Yarmouthian Mike King, of Lowestoft, says the Mercury published his feature around the same time!

However, in a detailed hand-written letter 89-year-old Alf Watker, of Sturdee Avenue, Yarmouth, declares: "As everything was done to keep it secret as much as possible, I have always thought, 'I'll bet Peggotty has never had a chance to add this to his big pile of Yarmouth history'.

"So at last I have got the pen and paper out to tell you a piece of history very few people know about."

Serene! Breydon Swing Bridge provides a back-drop as a boat glides by in the foreground. The structure was demolished in 1962. Picture: Mercury librarySerene! Breydon Swing Bridge provides a back-drop as a boat glides by in the foreground. The structure was demolished in 1962. Picture: Mercury library

Alf, who loves reading about local history ("especially when bridges are mentioned"), believes the recollections of his father - who was heavily involved in the drama - merit my attention.

He writes: "It was only the determination of an M&GN engine driver that prevented a disaster at the old Breydon Swing Bridge. I was very young but heard all about it many times because my father was the fireman on the train involved."

On a pitch-black evening at Beach Station, driver Fred Wells and fireman Alf Watker backed their engine on to a train known as the Leicester to haul it onwards to Lowestoft.

The first on the foot-plate to see the swing bridge signal was the fireman because the driver's view was momentarily obstructed by the Caister Road signal box.

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Alf told Fred it was green, so the driver opened the regulator to gain a bit of speed - but then braked hard for an emergency stop.

When a startled Alf asked what was wrong, Fred replied that the green signal changed to red just as they passed it, then kept turning to red and green alternately, all within a few seconds.

"I don't like it," the driver declared. "It'll take more than a green to tell me it's safe to cross that bridge, so I'm stopping here."

When the train had come to a halt, Alf alighted and hurried back to the telephone on the signal post to inquire if the duty bridge operator, George Skippen, could provide any explanation.

Mr Skippen "could not believe his own ears" when informed about the alternating red and green lights, ordering Alf to remain stationary "because I've got the bridge wide open and a ship will be coming through any minute!

"You should never have had a green anywhere in this section - they should all be on red."

My correspondent continues: "Fred now knew he was correct to realise that green as well as red could mean danger, and it was only Fred and his determination that saved a train and its passengers from a watery grave in Breydon."

An investigation found that three faults had developed in the signalling system, continues correspondent Alf Watker. At the inquiry attended by his father and Fred Wells, the engine driver "was told he should be highly praised."

The writer recalls: "My father used to say that if they were asked anything about it, they were told, 'It is all being put right and to keep quiet about it', the obvious reason being the big drop in the number of passengers if it got too widely known to the Press and public.

However, Mike King reports that while gathering information about the drama for his M&GN Bulletin feature in 1979, he met Alfie Watker - and his brother Edgar - who supplied him with the details.

"Yes, it was kept secret for some reason - even Beach station-master George Lake did not know of it until Alf told him long after they had both retired," adds Mike.

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