One of Britain’s worst railway disasters took place in North Wales 150 years ago when runaway wagons crashed into a crowded express train near Abergele.
The Irish Mail was an express service from London Euston to Holyhead, where many passengers embarked on ferry boats to Ireland.
The train, which was known for its speed and was the only one to carry a name at the time, frequently carried some of the country’s wealthiest and most influential people on their way to their country estates in Ireland.
On August 20, 1868, the Irish Mail was hauled by Prince of Wales, one of the London and North Western Railway locomotives. It hauled a guard’s van, a travelling post office, a luggage van and four passenger carriages from London.
After arriving at Chester at 11.30am, four extra passenger carriages were added to the front of the train. Chester was an important junction and more passengers joined the train.
Later, as the express was approaching Abergele about five minutes late, a goods train was busy shunting wagons into sidings at Llanddulas.
Normally, this would have been completed before the express passed through. On this occasion, however, six goods trucks and a brake van which had been left secure on the main line during the operation somehow came free and started rolling down the incline towards the oncoming express.
A sweeping curve in the track prevented Arthur Thompson, the Irish Mail driver, from seeing the trucks before it was too late. He could not have received any warning of the impending disaster as there was no telegraph connection between the local stations at the time.
Although he ordered the fireman Joseph Holmes to apply the brakes while he shut off steam and put the engine into reverse, it was too late.
The inevitable collision was made much worse by the fact two of the wagons were loaded with paraffin barrels which exploded on impact.
The resulting collision caused the engine to career up, with the tender somersaulting over the locomotive.
Thompson jumped clear but was struck by wreckage and was so badly injured he died two months later.
Before his untimely death, he was able to tell railway officials his train was travelling at about 30mph when he saw the wagons approach.
The engine, tender, guard’s van and the first three passenger carriages were instantly enveloped in dense smoke and flames, which soon spread to the fourth carriage and the front of the leading post office van.
This prevented any immediate attempt to rescue the occupants of the carriages, who all died along with the guard in the front guard’s van and the locomotive’s fireman.
Although badly injured, Thompson was able to uncouple the last six carriages of the train and they were towed away before the flames could reach them.
In the first class carriages just behind the locomotive were Lord and Lady Farnham, travelling with their servants; the Rev Sir Nicholas Chinnery, Lady Chinnery and Judge and Mrs Berwick. All lost their lives. The remainder of the victims were travelling in the second class carriages.
The Marquis of Hamilton, one of the passengers from the rear coaches, said he saw flames leaping 20 feet high, spreading in every direction.
Farm workers and quarry workers formed a bucket chain to fetch water from the sea 200 yards away to put out the fire in these carriages.
In all, 33 people were killed and were so badly burned it was impossible to recognise them. The final official tally was 10 males, 13 females, and 10 unknown.
All the remains were buried in a mass grave in Abergele Churchyard on August 25, 1868. Today a memorial to the dead can be seen in the cemetery.
The inquest, held soon after in the Bee Hotel in Abergele, concluded their deaths were due to manslaughter.
An investigation found the goods train had two brakesmen, but both men had dismounted to take part in the shunting operations.
The wagons did not have their own brakes applied, and so were held solely by the brake van.
A set of loaded wagons were “loose shunted” with such force as to jostle the brake van and release its own brake, and the wagons moved off towards Abergele.
No-one was able to catch up with it in order to board it and reapply the brake, as the runaway wagons disappeared out of sight around the curve.
The next thought was to reverse the engine towards Abergele and retrieve the wagons, but this intention was quickly overtaken by the succeeding events.
A trial cleared the brakesmen but the railway company was criticised for the lack of rules and regulations governing the shunting of wagons when express trains were due to pass by.
Following the accident, rules were tightened and new procedures introduced.
Source : DailyPost