The Signal Box, which most of us remember at Wolverton and up and down the line, was quite a late invention in the history of the railway. Early signalling depended on railway policemen, who patrolled a 2 1/2 mile section of the line, and signalled by flags whether it was safe for a train to proceed.
Occasionally there were accidents.
One such occurred at Wolverton on the evening of June 4th 1847. A mail train, bound for Liverpool, pulling 19 coaches, collided with some stationary coal wagons. The fault seemed to lie entirely with the signalman. The policeman, named Fossey, was stationed at the Blue Bridge, where presumably he was visible to the engine driver as he waved his flag and displayed the light which said the line was clear. On this occasion Fossey hoisted the flag and then wondered if he forgotten to move the points. He seems to have panicked, and ran 50 yards to hurriedly switch the points. Unfortunately he had it right the first time and when the train came through the driver found himself on a siding, heading for stationary coal train. All efforts were made by the driver to shift into reverse and by the guard to apply brake, but they could not avoid disaster. A collision was inevitable.
The engine and tender, and the footplate men, were more-or-less fine, but the fourth and fifth carriages came off the rails, crashed into each other and splintered. Seven passengers lost their lives.
The Coroner’s inquest was almost immediate. He travelled to Wolverton on Monday and opened proceedings at 12 o’clock. There was an impressive series of witnesses, eye witnesses and many senior officials of the l&NWR – Captain Huish, the General Manager, Mr Bruyeres, the superintendent of the London to Birmingham line, Mr McConnell, Superintendent of the Wolverton Works, a representative of the Board of Trade, and various legal counsels, including an unnamed ‘legal gentleman’ to act for the signalman, Fossey.
The hearing lasted 9 hours, during which time the essentials of the accident nd its aftermath were disclosed. Frederick Parker, assistant locomotive superintendent at Wolverton, took a lead role in trying torescue the accident victims, and he commandeered jacks and machinery and men from the works to try to unravel the wreckage.
Fossey, it turned out, had some form. He was relatively new to the job, but it was felt, after tuition, that he could handle the job. However, he had diverted an excursion train into the same siding on an earlier occasion. For this he was reprimanded and fined one shilling. John Bedford, superintendent of the police, was of the opinion that he had learned from his mistake and no further action was required.
The passengers who were killed in this accident were all men, and all from the middle class, which tells us something about travellers at that period. Ordinary working people did not have the time or money to travel, except at weekends, and fares at this time were still beyond the reach of most.
Mr John Simpson Sherrat was formerly secretary of the Lichfield and Birmingham Railway Company, Mr T Makinson was described as a graduate of MKagdalen Hall, Oxford, Mr J Clifton was a silk mercer, Mr J B Rattray was from the firm of Keay and Rattray, iron founders of Dundee, Me Miller was secretary of the Ragged School in London, Mr Cope was a 20 year old young man on his way to Wolverhampton and Mr Henry Smith, another young man on his way to Birmingham