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Northamptonshire & Bedfordshire Life – August 1976, by Robin Jenkins
Train Crash 1898

The first week in September 78 years ago was
A Black Week on the Railways of the Nene Valley

The first week of September 1898 began badly and ended in disaster for the Midland Railway in the Wellingborough area. The last of the awful occurences of that week was at Irchester.

At about 9 p.m. on Tuesday the sixth of September 1898, a Wellingborough goods train stopped at Irchester to pick up a wagon. This job required the detachment of the locomotive. The stopping place was on a steep slope so that if the guard neglected to put on the brake the train could easily roll back down the hill. That is exactly what happened, due to either the guard's forgetfulness or to brake failure. The 38-wagon train careered back towards Wellingborough, past the Irchester junction signal box where the guard realised the danger of a serious accident. A Rushden passenger train was coming up the line. The guard contacted the Wellingborough South signal box, and the Rushden train was diverted with great alacrity from the up line to the down line. With only seconds to spare a disaster was averted.

Only the previous day there had been a fatal accident at Castle Ashby station. James Drage of Bozeat, although 81, was working for a Mr. Roberts of Easton Maudit. On the fifth of September 1898, he was fetching milk from Castle Ashby and needed to cross the track. A train arrived at ten minutes to eight just as poor Drage was on the line. He was unable to hear the warning cries of bystanders, and the train hit him, killing him outright.

On Friday of the same week a shunting operation at Finedon went wrong. A train was being shunted backwards too fast. It overshot and smashed into the stopping blocks. The brake-van overturned and the track was damaged. Luckily no-one was hurt and the wreckage was soon cleared by a breakdown gang.

At precisely the same time as the mishap at Finedon, an express from St. Pancras, bound for Manchester was speeding into Wellingborough.

In Wellingborough Midland station, two boys were playing on a large platform truck. The down platform was almost deserted as a slow train had just arrived on the other side. A postman removed the truck to a recess in the platform and went to unlock some gates. Turning round, he was horrified to see it slowly roll to the edge and topple onto the track. The arrival of the express was imminent. Even so, the postman and two railway men leapt down and tried to lift the truck clear. There was no chance.

Driver Meadows of the express was looking out from his cab, locomotive Number 1743, as his train turned the bend to speed through the station. In the moon­light he saw something wrong ahead of him. A lamp was being waved. He jammed on the brakes but there was no hope of stopping in so short a distance. The truck disintegrated as the train hurtled into it. The engine left the lines, rolled to the left and smashed down a signal standard. The tender broke loose and lurched to the right. The luggage van and two third class carriages careered on, scraping their sides open on the hind part of the locomotive. The first of the passenger vans was empty, but the next one, constructed in compartments, was telescoped and tipped upside-down, killing four passengers. Many were injured; and to add to the horror of the scene, flames began to leap from the coach.

Imagine the scene and the dazed spectators: the two boys cowering in the entrance lobby by a weighing machine; Postman Smith taking refuge at the back of the platform; an auctioneer named Smeathers shielding his little boy; and various station staff. The foremost three coaches of the express were wrecked. Screams and groans were coming from the third one, the wreckage of which was on fire. The end and side of the next one, a dining car, were smashed, but like the rear coaches, it remained on the track.

Cool judgement soon prevailed, and with remarkable speed everything that could be done was done. By telegraph to the next signal boxes along the line, the station was blocked to further traffic. The Midland Station in Wellingborough was and is some distance from the town centre. In 1898 there was telephone contact with the Hind Hotel, and by this means the emergency services were alerted. The Fire Brigade was summoned by the ringing of a fire bell, and the burning wreckage was quickly dealt with. Medical teams arrived with their equipment, and began to help the injured.

Two prominent Wellingborough brewers, Mr. D. Dulley and Mr. Campbell Praed offered the use of their carriages to convey the injured passengers to hospital; and they and several other townsfolk offered to accommodate victims in their homes.

Trains could still negotiate the station by using the goods lines. The clearing up of the wreckage went on all night illuminated by the light from bonfires made of wood from the wrecked coaches. Passengers from the stricken train were first carried forward the same evening to Leicester. Pathetic scenes were witnessed on the platform the following morning when as many of the injured as could safely be moved were taken on to their homes. Passengers with their heads enveloped in heavy bandages, arms in splints, and otherwise bearing traces of their terrible ordeal, were lifted or helped into trains. One poor woman had two swollen black eyes and bruised lips.

Including both the footplatemen, the deaths in this disaster numbered six. Many were seriously injured, but no-one at the time counted all those who received treatment. A contemporary estimate was sixty.

Incredible though it may seem, only a week later, a deliberate attempt was made to derail the same Manchester express near Irchester. A fence post and a crow bar were placed across the track in its path, but the train pushed these aside, suffering only dents and scratches. This incident was only one of five attempted derailments in the area during the week after the disaster. Newspapers described the person responsible as "the fiend". A hundred detectives failed to deter him, and every night he struck at trains on the St. Pancras line. Finally a Wellingborough man was arrested, found guilty of attempted wreckings, and sentenced to fourteen years penal servitude.

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