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.