Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Bullhouse Railway Accident

As you may remember the first accident to befall the railway around Penistone involved a cow, and while the accident was undoubtedly bad for the cow no one else was killed. Unfortunately many of the people involved in the first major accident weren't so lucky.

On the 16th of July 1884 the 12:30pm express train from Manchester London Road to London King's Cross, operated by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway and driven by the experienced Sam Cawood (at this point he had been driving main line passenger trains for 12 years) had passed through the Woodhead tunnel and at 1:21pm was was running downhill towards Penistone passing the signal box at Bullhouse Colliery when, without warning, the locomotives crank axle snapped. The driver immediately applied the brakes bringing the locomotive to a stand 517 yards further down the line, unfortunately the driving wheels, now no longer held in place by the axle, had spread outwards causing the track to distort.

The train that day consisted of MS&LR locomotive number 443, coupled to a Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC) horsebox, a Great Northern brake van, three Great Northern composite carriages, another Great Northern brake van, an MS&LR third-class brake carriage, two MS&LR composite carriages, an MS&LR third-class carriage, and finally an MS&LR brake van. The coupling between the locomotive and the horsebox held, but the coupling between the horsebox and the rest of the train failed and as the vehicles derailed on the distorted track they ran down an embankment before breaking up in the fields and road below the railway.

Just as with the previous accident a lot of this information comes courtesy of an article in The Illustrated London News published ten days after the accident:

A terrible railway accident, by which above twenty persons were killed and twice that number injured, took place on Wednesday week at Bullhouse Bridge, near Penistone, midway between Manchester and Sheffield. An express-train of the joint traffic system of the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire and of the Great Northern Company, which had left Manchester at half-past twelve at noon, broke the axle of its engine, and the carriages behind were thrown from the bridge or embankment into the road below, a depth of about 16ft. They were turned upside down and broken, some were smashed to pieces, and half the passengers suffered, nineteen being taken dead out of the wreck of the train. Three others died after removal to Manchester. Among those killed were several ladies--Mrs. Coates, widow of a clergyman in Lancashire; Mrs. Stower and Mrs. Spencer, of Boston; Mrs. Edelstein, of New York; Miss Tetlow, of Bolton-by-Bolland; Mrs. Rawlings, of Redditch; and Mr and Mrs. Shorrock, of Darwen, who were on their way to a family wedding in London. Mr. Bromley, mechanical engineer, of Victoria-street, Westminster, and Mr. J. P. Woodhead, consulting engineer, of Manchester, were also killed. The Queen sent next day a message to the Mayor of Manchester, expressing her sympathy with those who are still suffering, and with the families of the dead. Our Illustration shows the scene of the disaster, with part of the remains of the train. It appears that the train was going at a speed of nearly fifty miles an hour, down an incline of one in 124, and round a curve of half a mile radius. The axle of the engine had been properly examined at Manchester, but the crack in the steel could not then be detected.
The Illustrated London News, 26th July 1884
Not only was the accident newsworthy enough for an article, but as you can gather they also included an illustration; in fact they devoted a full double page to illustrations. Firstly to really help us understand how the accident unfolded and where the carriages ended up they included a useful map:


Their main illustration was, however, this fantastic panoramic view of the accident site:


It wasn't just The Illustrated London News who thought the accident worthy of an illustration, as The Graphic, published on the same day, also included illustrations of the accident site.


Personally I prefer the panoramic view from The Illustrated London News; The Graphic's illustration reminds me more of the style of drawing you would find in a modern graphic novel. Regardless of style both images seem to agree in most of the details, right down to the number of air vents on the top of the carriages! Given that the images do agree to such a large extent, I'm assuming that they were both drawn from photos taken before the carriages were removed from the road; these two being prime candidates.


We are quite lucky in Penistone, in that there are actually quite a lot of old photos of the town, surrounding countryside, and memorable events that are quite easy to come by. Most of these photos were taken by Joshua Biltcliffe and sold as postcards from his shop in the centre of Penistone. Now I don't know for certain that either of these photos are by Joshua Biltcliffe but given the style of the postcard backing that would be my assumption, at least for the left hand photo; the right hand image came from the Railways Archive, but if anyone comes across an actual copy of the postcard please let me know. Regardless of who the photographer was we can see that the newspaper illustrations really are quite accurate.

On the 27th of July, just a day after the newspaper articles appeared, the official report into the accident was presented to the Board of Trade. The report, assembled by Major F. A. Marindin, runs to twenty pages and provides a huge amount of extra detail.

The first thing to note from the report is that the death toll had risen to 24 with J. W. Poole having died on the 30th of July and Miss Totlow on the 6th of August -- these dates are after the report was written and so I assume were added before it was collated into the accident return book which deals with all accidents in the nine months ending on the 30th of September 1884.

Locomotive number 443 was a 4-4-0 designed by Charles Sacré (referred to now as a Class D12 locomotive). Unfortunately I can't find a useable photo of number 443, but I've included a photo of number 440 which is of the same class; also note how this photo compares well with the locomotives depicted in another of The Illustrated London News' drawings. At the time of the accident the crank axle, which had been fitted in May 1883 and been checked thoroughly at overhaul in October of 1883, had successfully completed 50,776 miles without incident. The report seems to have been very thorough, including testing of the composition of the metal crank axle and expert testimony which suggests that the breaking of the crank axle alone wouldn't normally have resulted in such a large accident; 247 crank axles had broken during 1883 without any serious accidents occurring. In this incident the major problem was the broken coupling in combination with the curve the train was negotiating. Once the carriages became disconnected from the locomotive and left the damaged rails they naturally moved in a more or less straight line, down the embankment, rather than following the curve of the railway.

The reports main criticism was, however, reserved for the braking system in use on the train. The problem was that Sacré had fitted the D12 locomotives with a simple Smith vacuum brake. In a Smith vacuum brake, an ejector on the locomotive creates a vacuum in a continuous pipe along the train, allowing the external air pressure to operate brake cylinders on each vehicle. This is a cheap system to build and maintain, but has a major weakness; if the locomotive becomes detached from the rest of the train, or if the vacuum pipe is ruptured in anyway, then the brakes stop working. In the conclusion to his report Major Marindin summarises this aspect of the disaster as follows (note that the report uses break instead of brake throughout as was apparently customary):

Now, while I do not believe that any break which exists could have actually stopped the train on the falling gradient in the distance available, and could thus have averted the disaster, yet it is beyond question that a quickly-acting and powerful continuous-break ought in this distance to have so reduced the speed that the consequences of the accident would probably have been far less fatal ... if the train had been fitted with an automatic-break, which would have remained on when the parting took place, it is probable that four or five vehicles would, by its continued action and the consequent reduction of speed, have escaped with comparatively little damage.
Unfortunately for the MS&LR this wasn't the first time that the brakes fitted to their trains had been called into question:

The value of a break having rapid action, and above all, automatic action, in such a case as this, can hardly be contested; and although the Board of Trade has, as yet, no power to insist upon the adoption of a continuous-break possessing these qualities, yet I would remind the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company that this is the second emphatic warning which has been given to them within the last six months as the need for automatic action in the breaks used upon their line; the previous instance being on the 6th February 1884, when after a carriage had left the rails when running at high speed near Dinting station, the vacuum-break pipe was severed, the break became useless, and the carriage was dragged along off the rails for over 350 yards further than it would have been if the breaks had remained on, at the imminent risk of falling, and taking with it the carriages behind it, over a viaduct 100 feet in height.
Amazingly, after such a rebuke, it took another three years and a stern reminder from the Board of Trade, before the MS&LR started to update their locomotives to automatic vacuum brake systems.

While the early years of the railways saw many accidents, few resulted in such a large loss of life. In fact, only four previous accidents (assuming I can trust this Wikipedia page) had resulted in more deaths:
In all these accidents, however, there was either human error, or the deaths were the result of something other than the accident itself (a resulting fire or the train falling into water leading passengers to drown) and as such there was someone or something to blame. In this accident though there was no clear fault -- it was simply a random accident (an alternative braking system would have helped but wouldn't have prevented the accident).

If you consider the random nature of the accident along with the exposure it was given in the newspapers you can maybe imagine why, three years later, it was used as a way of introducing the randomness of death into a religious tract, with the title Suddenly! An Incident of the Penistone Railway Accident being a good way of attracting a readers attention.


  • Frederick William Naylor Bayley, editor. The Illustrated London News. 26 July 1884.
  • The Graphic. 26 July 1884
  • George Dow. Great Central, Volume Two: Dominion of Watkin, 1864-1899. Ian Allan, 1962.
  • Gerald Nabarro. Steam Nostalgia: Locomotive and Railway Preservation in Great Britain. Routledge & Kegan Paul Books, 1972.
  • Railway accidents. Returns of accidents and casualties as reported to the Board of Trade by the several railway companies in the United Kingdom, during the nine months ending 30th September 1884, in pursuance of the Regulation of Railways Act (1871), 34 & 35 vict. cap. 78; together with reports of the inspecting officers of the Railway Department to the Board of Trade upon certain accidents which were inquired into.

5 comments:

  1. A good bit of research Mark.
    I wonder how the detected cracks then. I suspect parafin and Talcum powder.
    The illustrations are excellent. What a mess!

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    1. The report quotes George Woolstencroft the foreman in charge of the erecting shops at Gorton

      The mode of examining a crank-axle is as follows: The whole surface is carefully examined by eye, and if I can see any flaw of the smallest description I fix the crank on a pair of wheels upon the rails of a road in the shop. I then scotch the wheels, and get the heaviest pair of wheels I have, and run them along the rails as far and as fast as possible against the pair of wheels fixed to the crank which I want to try. If it stands that test I consider it is all right. This particular crank did not require this test, because there was not the smallest flaw visible

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    2. Thanks Mark. It only goes to show that we all make mistakes.

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  2. Interesting. For my book I did a lot of research into some Victorian train crashes. I must hunt out the book I bought (in the loft) and let you have it some time. Naturally I'll keep my eye open for the card.

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