Fifty Years Ago Today: Disaster in South London

Discussion in 'London and the South East' started by Roadkill, Dec 4, 2007.

  1. Roadkill

    Roadkill Well-Known Member

    The railway line from Lewisham to London Bridge joins the main line just west of St John’s station. Just before it does, as it curves round for the junction, it goes over a bridge which is arranged on a pattern of plain girders jutting out on either side. Look at it, if you ever go that way. It looks a bit temporary, contrast to the big, ornate iron bridges elsewhere in the area. In fact temporary is exactly what it was supposed to be. Behind it is a sad but interesting piece of local history.

    I’d heard of the Lewisham train crash before, through general reading on railway history, but I started to get interested in it recently for two main reasons. Firstly, I only live a few miles from where it happened and I use that stretch of railway on occasion. My boss remembers the accident quite clearly: a classmate of his lost his father in it. Secondly, I came across the online Railways Archive, a superb resource where all sorts of documents related to the railways are available for download, including the official report on Lewisham. I also read the Metropolitan Police file on the rescue effort, in the National Archives. I did think about doing a more serious piece of research into it, putting ads out in the local and specialist press seeking interviews with those involved, and hopefully writing the results up for an article. I don’t have the time for that, but I’ve written this short piece anyway as a bit of narrative, which I enjoy writing, and in the hope that people with an interest in London history, or in railways, will find it interesting.

    * * *​

    Wednesday 4th December 1957 was cold, and south-east England was blanketed in fog. In London it was especially thick: it usually was, given how much coal was burned domestically, in industry and on the railways, where several thousand steam engines were still in use. Trains slowed to a crawl; signalmen, unable to see them, became confused about which services they were dealing with; services ran out of order, and everything ran late. On that day, the fog became thicker still and the disruption grew worse as darkness fell and the temperature dropped nearly to freezing.

    Crowds of people waited for trains at all of the main London stations. Among them were those waiting at Cannon Street for the 4.56 to Ramsgate. Its coaches sat in Rotherhithe Road sidings but the engine booked to haul the train, ‘Battle of Britain’ pacific no. 34066 Spitfire, was badly delayed on its journey up from Stewart’s Lane shed, waiting for delayed trains to clear its path, and it was 4.45 before it was backed onto its train. It finally arrived at Cannon Street at 5.55, already an hour late, at which point driver William Trew and fireman C.D. Hoare of Ramsgate took over from the crew who had prepared the train. Trew was concerned that because of the delay the water was getting low and arranged to stop at Sevenoaks to top up the tender, which would lose yet more time. He was anxious to make as good a run there as possible. Finally, at 6.08pm the train pulled out of Cannon Street, with more than 700 people packed into its eleven coaches. Most were returning home from work, travelling to Tonbridge, Ashford, Folkestone or Ramsgate. Trew drove cautiously, running through London Bridge at about 30mph and then, with clear signals, the train headed out towards New Cross.

    Between New Cross and St Johns, the line runs through a brick-lined cutting, in which the fog was particularly thick. The crew of the 5.05 to Hastings, running 40 minutes late, found it hard going. Running at 35-40mph, the fireman had to leave off firing and lean out of the cab on the right to see the signals. These had been placed on the right of the line, because when the signals were set up in the 1930s, most of the engines used there were right-hand drive. Most introduced since were driven from the left, and ahead of the cab the boiler, and sometimes the exhaust, obscured the driver’s view. They picked their way cautiously through, and found the fog a little better as the line climbed out of London.

    Motorman J.B. Skilton, driving the 5.18 electric train to Hayes, had fewer problems. He sat in a warm, enclosed cab with a panoramic view through the windscreen and no boiler ahead of him. With him were an engine crew, driver J.A. Crane and fireman D.T. Nash, travelling home after their shifts had finished. They helped him to spot the signals. Nevertheless, visibility was down to twenty yards or less in places and he had to drive gently through signals at caution until he came to St Johns. There the line curved around to the right, under the bridge carrying the Lewisham-Nunhead branch, and just beyond that a signal at red. He slowed to a halt at the signal, and put the brakes full on to hold the train on the rising gradient. Presently, as the signal stayed at red, he got out of his cab and telephoned the signal box to alert the signalman to his presence. The signalman misunderstood him: in the fog, he had mistaken the Hayes train for the one ahead, and was holding both whilst the confusion was resolved. Perhaps Skilton was concerned for the 1,500 passengers packed into the ten coaches of his train. But there was nothing he could do and, assured that his train was protected by the signals behind, he returned to his cab and waited.

    Behind him, Trew had more difficulties. The ‘Battle of Britain’ engines were large and powerful but had long boilers that could make sighting signals difficult at the best of times. On adverse curves or in thick weather it was particularly difficult to see, and to make matters worse Spitfire was one of the class built with a narrower cab for negotiating routes with especially tight clearances. Trew was reduced to peering through a narrow spectacle glass alongside the boiler, or putting his head right out of the window. Hoare assisted with spotting signals as far as New Cross, but then went back to firing, keen to get up a good head of steam for the climb up out of London. Trew did not ask him to help with signals any further.

    No-one will ever really know what happened next. Trew, aged 62, was an experienced driver who knew the route and the signals. He never managed to explain exactly what he did see. Initially he claimed he saw the yellow lights of the two signals between New Cross and St John’s: later he said he never saw them at all. He was expecting a clear run from New Cross, with green signals all the way as usual: perhaps he just assumed that was what was happening, fog or no. Maybe he did not realise quite how thick the fog was. Either way, he drove his train as if the line ahead were clear, although a bit more slowly than normal because of the poor visibility. The next thing that came into sight was the lights of St John’s station. As the train ran into the station, Trew closed the regulator for the curve ahead as was his usual practice. Hoare leaned out to the right, looking for the signal at the end of the platform. As it came into view, he saw it was at red. He shouted a warning to Trew, who threw the brake handle into the emergency braking position, but even as he did so, he realised that the train was going far too fast to stop. To Trew, it seemed that the train even accelerated a little. And there, beyond the signal, were the lights of another train.

    No 34066 and its 400-ton train crashed into the back of the Hayes train at about 35mph. The brakes of this train were fully applied so, instead of being pushed forward, the force of the impact was absorbed by its coaches. The rear driving cab and guard’s compartment were completely destroyed, killing the guard. Ahead, the coupling between the eighth and ninth coaches broke under the strain, buckled downwards and bent in the headstock of the eighth coach. This formed some sort of ramp, up which the front of the ninth coach climbed. Its heavy chassis ploughed all the way along that of the eight coach, scraping away its light sheet-steel body, compartments and passengers, and crushing it all up against the seventh coach before it toppled over to the right and fell onto the lineside, an unrecognisable heap of twisted metal. Thirty passengers in that coach died. Even worse was happening behind, however, as the sudden stop forced the first coach of the Ramsgate train into the tender of 34066, and they both burst out to the left. The coach landed on its side, but the tender slammed into one of the bridge supports and knocked it out of place. Within a second or two, the bridge buckled and 350 tons of steel collapsed onto the train below, completing the destruction of the first coach and crushing the second and half of the third coaches almost flat. Thankfully, the driver of a train about to cross the bridge saw in time that it had fallen and managed to stop short.

    Skilton felt the jolt and realised he had been hit from behind. He climbed down and telephoned the signalman again to say he had been hit, and then walked back. The jolt had felt fairly minor, and in the fog he could not see the extent of the damage: only when he got towards the rear of his train and saw the ninth coach on top of the chassis of the eighth, and the pile of wreckage next to it, did he realise how bad it was. He ran back along the train, asking for assistance from any passengers with first aid experience. His footplate passengers, Nash and Crane, also walked back to help. Crane climbed onto the footplate of 34066, and there he found Hoare lying on the floor with a broken hip. Trew was still in the driver’s seat, physically uninjured but in shock. Crane asked what had happened, but he could get nothing out of Trew: he took him off the footplate and sat him on the lineside to get some air, and then he and Nash shovelled the fire out of 34066 and smothered it in ballast so as to prevent the firebox overheating. Then they turned to the rescue effort.
  2. Roadkill

    Roadkill Well-Known Member

    The first call to the emergency services was made a minute or so after the accident, by a couple living beside the line, Reg and Sybil Hough, who heard a ‘tremendous crash’ and then, even from their flat 60 yards away, cries for help. The ambulance service was already on alert because of the weather, and a passing ambulance arrived at the scene only five minutes later. By 7.15, more than 100 police, 19 ambulances and the fire service were in attendance. In the fog, coordination of the rescue work was difficult, especially since the emergency services lacked walkie-talkie radios: the site was difficult to get to from the road and working under the collapsed bridge was difficult and dangerous. The emergency services were assisted by the WVS and the St John Ambulance Brigade, and nearby householders who provided tea and meals for rescue workers and survivors, and allowed first aid posts to be set up in their homes and themselves helped to give first aid. Many survivors were horrifically injured; hundreds more sustained minor injuries, and several people were trapped in the crushed coaches under the bridge.

    The first casualties arrived at hospital just before 7pm, but it was nearly 11pm before the ambulances could be stood down. By then, Miller hospital had reported that it could take no more casualties, the mortuaries there and at Lewisham were full and a temporary one had been established at Ladywell swimming baths. There was talk of taking some of the injured further away, to Dulwich or St Giles’s hospitals, but this was decided against because of the weather and the heavy, rush-hour traffic. Then there remained only the grim task of removing the bodies and personal effects from the wreckage. In the crushed remains of the carriages under the bridge, several of the victims were unrecognisable, identifiable only by driving licenses. In all, 90 people died and another 109 were seriously injured.

    The lines out of London Bridge to Kent were all closed by the accident, except for the North Kent line via Greenwich. Trains services were already disorganised by the fog, and after the accident there was chaos. Police had to be called to Charing Cross, where ten thousand people were awaiting trains, or even information, and many people were stranded in London overnight. It was several days before the lines could reopen, once the wreckage had been cleared and the remains of the bridge cut up and removed. Nine days later, a temporary bridge was erected, which ‘will serve until a new permanent bridge can be constructed.’ Fifty years later, it is still there.

    The official report into the accident put the blame squarely on driver William Trew. He knew that conditions were poor and that he would have difficulty seeing signals, especially given the engine he was driving, and he had failed to look for them himself or to ask his fireman to watch out. He was tried for manslaughter in April 1958, but the jury could not reach a verdict and the trial collapsed. At a second trial in May, he was acquitted. By then, he had already had a nervous breakdown. Trew made some grave mistakes, but arguably British Rail’s failure was far worse. After the Harrow and Wealdstone crash in 1952, when 112 people died in a 60mph double collision, they had been criticised for their tardiness in developing a system for warning the driver of adverse signals head, and applying the brakes automatically if he did not. Such systems were already in use on some railways before nationalisation: ten years on, little had been done to introduce them across the railway network and two major crashes, both of which automatic warning systems could have been prevented, had left 200 people dead. If any good came out of the Lewisham disaster, it was that British Rail speeded up development of what became known as AWS. It is still in use now, although slowly being superseded by more sophisticated systems. The accident also led to a modernisation of the Met’s Central Casualty Bureau, which is still mobilised after any major incident.

    Unlike at Harrow and Wealdstone, where sightseers descended on the station to stare at the thirty-foot pile of smashed carriages and mangled steam engines, the wreckage under the bridge at Lewisham was difficult to get to, and there was comparatively little to see. There are comparatively few photographs of the scene, and little has been written about it. With the fiftieth anniversary, however, that has changed a bit. A memorial service was held in Lewisham on Sunday, and a plaque has been unveiled at Lewisham station. A book has also just come out, and the local newspaper has run a series of articles, including interviews with people who remember the accident. Disasters always hold a morbid fascination, but if that encourages people to stop and think about what’s happened in their area in the past and how things have changed since then, I think that’s a good thing.
    Slo-mo, marty21, clicker and 2 others like this.
  3. zuszsa

    zuszsa dazed and confused

    Thanks Roadkill - that was really interesting. I use that line from time to time and I had noticed the temporary bridge, but had no idea that there had been a crash of such magnitude
  4. Crispy

    Crispy The following psytrance is baṉned: All

    Fascinating - and horrific - story. Thanks for that RK. I reckon editor'd put that up on the main site.
  5. Roadkill

    Roadkill Well-Known Member

  6. kyser_soze

    kyser_soze Hawking's Angry Eyebrow

    Maybe worth starting a sticky thread for posters to put up local historical stories in TPH? I reckon it could be interesting...
    Pickman's model likes this.
  7. Andy the Don

    Andy the Don Wise men say only fools..

  8. oneflewover

    oneflewover Following "The Tigers"

    Thanks for posting that. The report into the accident is fascinating, especially the recommendations section.

    Auto train stop is mentioned and considered too expensive in a cost/lives analysis. It took until Southall and Ladbroke Grove happened before any real momentum was applied to it being fitted. Glad to say in one guise or another it is now fitted across the railways.

    Some time ago I heard a signals engineer speaking of Rules and Regulations, he was able to equate each change in the rule book to an accident/incident that had occurred. It may take some time, but the Railways do learn.
  9. Roadkill

    Roadkill Well-Known Member

    It's TPWS that's now being installed across the network. AWS has been in use since the 50s. The Lewisham crash led to its installation being speeded up, but it wasn't made compulsory for 40 years - it was treated as an aid to the driver's vigilance, rather than a mandatory safety system. One of the big issues around the Southall crash in 1997 is that the AWS wasn't working (and the more advanced ATP system was installed but not in use), so the driver was driving by sight alone.
    Pickman's model likes this.
  10. bluestreak

    bluestreak HomosexualityIsStalin’sAtomBombtoDestroyAmerica

    Fascinating work Roadkill. I enjoy your writing style too.
    Pickman's model likes this.
  11. oneflewover

    oneflewover Following "The Tigers"

    That was one of the guises I was referring to. However it would not have made any difference at Southall, as you rightly say, due to it being physically linked to the AWS. Ladbroke Grove would have been prevented by its fitment.
  12. May Kasahara

    May Kasahara thoughts start with a laser sound

    That is really interesting, thanks Roadie. To my shame, I used that line every day for years to get to work and never knew anything about this, nor even noticed the temporary bridge.
  13. hipipol

    hipipol Peckham Wry

    Temprory Bridge

    The bridge now spanning the main London Bridge - Kent line is in fact the third to cross it. The first below carried the line from Farringdon to Greenwich Park

    This maps from 1886

    When the line closed in 1927 it was decided to divert the line to Lewisham and a new bridge, the one that was destroyed in the 57 disaster was built
    Seems never to have been particularly "lucky"site
  14. Dj TAB

    Dj TAB Mr Whippy

    Good Work!
    Pickman's model likes this.
  15. oryx

    oryx Sitting on the bock of the day

    Very interesting (though harrowing) stuff. I had never heard of this crash before - perhaps I've taken more notice as it's the 50th anniversary, & I now live in the borough.
  16. lang rabbie

    lang rabbie Je ne regrette les gazebos

    I suspect the only group of people who regularly learn about the Lewisham disaster are law students, because of the importance of the case of Chadwick v British Railways Board in developing the caselaw of the tort of negligence in Britain.

    Mr Chadwick was a man who lived closed to the accident scene and worked through the night to help by crawling under the wreckage to aid and comfort those trapped. Some time afterwards he had to be hospitalised because of the anxiety attacks he suffered as a result of the event (what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder). It took ten years until 1967 for his right to receive damages to eventually be agreed by the courts.

    I suspect as they revise the bare details of the case, and how it differs from other legal precedents, precious few of those law students have any feeling for what the full horror of the events of that night were like.
    muscovyduck likes this.
  17. zoltan

    zoltan Transnistria festishist

    My ex manor.

  18. agricola

    agricola a genuine importer of owls

    Good post
  19. Pie 1

    Pie 1 The fuck did I do?

    Cheers Roadie.
    Heard this story on Robert Elms' show some time ago. Very interesting.
  20. tippee

    tippee Banned Banned

    Fog repeaters & automatic train stops is all I can say...:rolleyes:
  21. HackneyE9

    HackneyE9 Well-Known Member

    If you're interested in the Hither Green crash, the former editor of the Daily Mirror (when it was a bit more respectable) Richard Stott cut his teeth, so to speak, on it as a local reporter in Kent, and has a chapter on it in his autobiography 'Dogs and Lamposts'.

    Stott died a few months ago, and the chapter on the Hither Green crash made clear he found it very upsetting as one of the first on the scene. Not sensationalist at all - well worth digging out.
  22. David Haynes

    David Haynes New Member

    The following account was produced by a friend who was involved in the crash. He has no internet access, so I looked for a good place to post it. This would appear to be a good place for this to survive him. I offer it as is. If people are unhappy with this as it's final resting place please feel free to ask me to remove it.

    Attached Files:

    Maggot and editor like this.
  23. oryx

    oryx Sitting on the bock of the day

    That's a very moving account. :(

    As a well-written eyewitness account it deserves a wider audience - no disrespect to Urban but possibly in a railway history archive.
  24. bromley

    bromley ...isn't as good as Lewisham.

    Apologies for changing the subject, but which iron bridges in the area?
  25. peter robison

    peter robison New Member

    50 years ago I was a 20 year old London Bobby. I was attending a first aid course in Bromley police station when we heard that there had been a train crash in Lewisham. The fog was so thick the van driver could not see 5 feet in front of him. Two of set off on our bicycles and to the crash site, it is something I have never forgotten. It was as described above. We were carrying badly injured people on whatever we could find for stretchers, for most of the night my partner and I used a broken step ladder to get people to the ambulances. The entire swimming pool was filled with bodies which we had to identify from their personal belongings.
  26. Maggot

    Maggot The Cake of Liberty

    It is now 60 years ago.
    Slo-mo likes this.
  27. Puddy_Tat

    Puddy_Tat lumpen proletaricat

    the SE London 'running past' blog has done a piece this week about it - here
    Maggot likes this.

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