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

More accidents from the age of horse and carriage

Road travel was still a risky business in the 18th century, as I have noted in other posts.

The Northampton Mercury  of December 8th 1783 reported on this Coroner’s inquest:

On Monday 24th November, an Inquisition was taken at Sony Stratford, Bucks, before James Burham, Gent. His Majesty’s Coroner for the said County. On view the body of James Connelly, a Sailor, one of the Passengers in the Basket of the Liverpool Stage Coach, who, being intoxicated with Liquor, fell out of the Basket, of which Fall he languished about 20 Minutes, and then died. The Jury brought in their Verdict, Accidental Death.

As I remarked in an earlier post, the term “dropping off to sleep” actually originates in such accidents, where a drowsy slumber might catch the seated occupant unawares with a headlong plunge to injury or death.

This report from the Northampton Mercury of Saturday April 19th 1788, describes another, less fateful accident.

On Sunday morning last, about Three o’clock, Banks, the driver of one of the Chester coaches, by a sudden Jolt of the Carriage, was thrown from the Box, near Stony Stratford, by which Accident both his legs were broke. The Horses went on with the Coach through Stony-Stratford and brought it safe to Old-Stratford, notwithstanding they passed a Waggon on the Road, without the Passengers knowing Any Thing of the Accident.

I don’t know when the crash helmet was invented, but in 1790 we were a long way off from such an invention. Deaths from falling off or being tossed off a horse were almost commonplace. This is not the only example.

From the Northampton Mercury 30th October 1790

On Wednesday the 20th instant an Inquisition was taken before James Burham, Gent, his Majesty’s Coroner for the said County, on view the Body of one John Adams, who, as he was retiring home from Stony Stratford visitation, fell from his horse and fractured his skull, of which fracture he languished about two days and then died. Verdict. Accidental Death.

A beer dray crash in 1915

In 1915 the Newport Pagnell Brewery was still a going concern and on February 1st of that year two men, Job Griffin and Henry Stanton, set out with their dray loaded with barrels for delivery to Bradwell, Wolverton and Stony Stratford. Their vehicle, interestingly, was steam operated.

On the way back to the depot at 1:30 pm., presumably having completed deliveries to Stony Stratford, the vehicle skidded on the  rise going up from Creed Street to the bridge going over the former railway line, now McConnell Drive. The report described the road surface as “greasy” but it does not say what was on the road to cause the skid. As the vehicle was not loaded down with heavy barrels the back wheels went out of control and the lorry crashed into the corrugated iron railings on one side of the bridge.

The vehicle crashed down some 20 feet onto the railway line pinning the men beneath the wreckage.
When the crane arrived to lift the wreck they found Henry Stanton already dead and Job Griffin with serious injuries. he was taken to Northampton Hospital where sadly he died four days later.

An inquest was held into the accident later at the North Western Hotel. Griffin had a reputation as a careful and experienced driver and no fault was found.

Accidents from the 18th Century

Here are some reports of accidents from the 18th century. This is about the time that newspapers started to publish and therefore these stories are a matter of record.

This first accident describes the accidental death of a woman who was riding on one of the horses pulling the coach. This was a common enough practice; in order to take more passengers, people were placed on top of the coach and a light person, such as a woman, could be placed on one of the leading horses. The report doesn’t say why she fell off but it was not uncommon for people to fall asleep on a tiring journey – and this is where the term “drop off” to sleep originates.

On Monday last a young woman on a journey from St. Albans to Cheshire, to see her mother, who was ill, riding a horse belonging to a stage-waggon, fell backward off the horse, between Fenny and Stony Stratford, and the wheels of the wagon running over her, killed her on the spot.
Derby Mercury 1st November 1754

Here is a similar story, with an equally tragic outcome.

Wednesday night was buried one of the outside passengers who fell off one of the early stages that went through the town the preceding morning, and at day break was found dead with his skull fractured; the coachman he went with did not miss him until he came from the next stage, by whom we hear that he was a half pay officer and lived at Stony Stratford.  Stamford Mercury 8th May 1766

And to show that sink holes are not new.

On Thursday last some men digging in a stone-pit, in Whittlebury forest in Northamptonshire, the ground fell in, whereby one was killed and the others much bruised.

More early Railway Accidents.

One of the first and unfortunately tragic consequences of introducing a heavy machine able to move at speed was that it took some time for people to become aware of the danger. Here are some reports from 1839, the first year of continuous operation of the London and Birmingham Railway. there were many more, but I have only included those that involved Wolverton

Yorkshire Gazette Saturday 14th September 1839

On Sunday night the mail train for London left Birmingham at its usual time, and proceeded with safety until near the station at Wolverton when a sudden outcry was raised that someone had been run over. The engineer immediately stopped the engine, and the guards ran back, when one of the stokers was found lying across the rails literally beheaded. It is supposed that the unfortunate man, while on the look out, must have slipped off the tender, and the wheels of the train passed over his neck.

The Champion Sunday 15th September 1839

We regret to state that another dreadful and fatal accident occurred on the London and Birmingham Railway on Monday morning last. It has been endeavoured to keep the matter strictly secret, but from the enquiries our informant has instituted the following particulars have transpired: – It appears that on Sunday night the mail train for London left Birmingham at its usual time, and proceeded with safety till near the station at Wolverton, when a sudden outcry was raised that someone had been run over. The engineer stopped the engine, and the guards ran back, when a dreadful sight presented itself, one of the stokers being found lying across the rails literally beheaded. It is supposed that the unfortunate man must have slipped off the tender, and the wheels of the train passed over his neck. The body was removed to Wolverton, where it awaits a coroner’s inquest. The above is, we understand, the third accident on this railway within eight days, a man at the commencement of last week having his foot torn off by a train; and on Friday last, at the Wolverton station, Inspector Watts was crushed in a most dreadful manner, death terminating his sufferings almost immediately.

Coventry Herald Friday 5 April 1839

An accident took place on the line of the London and Birmingham Railway, near Wolverton, on the morning of Saturday week, in consequence of which a man named White, an engineer in the employ of the Company, sustained injuries of an extensive and distressing nature. It appears that White had been entrusted to bring a train from Birmingham station to Wolverton, where he ought to have taken it on the opposite rail and there left it. On the contrary, however, he kept it on the same line upwards of two minutes after his arrival. Before he had quitted the up-train from Birmingham was observed approaching at full speed, leaving White no time to get out of the way. The consequence was, before ay check could be put on the speed of the up-train, it came into violent collision with that in which White was. The force of the concussion caused the engine to be detatched from the tender, which in its progress was turned off the rails and precipitated over the iron bridge into the canal that passes under it. White was discovered lying on the bank of the canal below the bridge, with one of his arms severed from his body, and his right thigh shockingly lacerated, besides having received several other severe contusions. Medical aid was procured, and amputation of the arm close to the shoulder was deemed indispensable. The train proceeded without any inconvenience save slight damage to one or two of the  carriages by breaking the windows.

The Champion Sunday 20 October 1839


The mail train from the north on Monday morning was thrown off the rails about a mile from Fenny Stratford, in consequence of running over two cows. The travelling post-office was much injured, and the horse box, in which the great portion of the mail bags are deposited, was nearly broken to pieces, as well as another carriage. An engine and a second class carriage were immediately sent for the conveyance of the mails to London, where they arrived two hours and forty minutes after the proper time. In consequence of the travelling office being broken, all the letters for the towns between Wolverton and London, and for the post towns on the line on each side the railway, were unavoidably brought on to London, from which place they were again dispatched by day mail to their destination. Fortunately the two clerks and the guard employed in the travelling post-office escaped without injury.

1862 – Fatal Accident at Wolverton

The Times, Wednesday, Feb. 26th 1862


An inquest was held on Tuesday morning at the Ratcliffe Arms, Wolverton, before Mr. John Worley, coroner for the County of Northampton, to ascertain the circumstances attending the death of Mr. Edward Oliver, a cattle dealer, who lost his life by a collision which took place on the London and North Western Railway on Saturday evening last. Two other persons were also seriously injured, and are now in the Northampton General Infirmary. John Labrum said he was a guard of a special cattle train on the night of the accident. They left Rugby at 9:58 pm., and on arriving at Hanslope point they slackened speed, knowing a goods train was in front. As they turned the curve he saw the red signals on at the Wolverton station. The driver of the train shut off the steam, and he put on his break. It was then 11:30, and on turning round he saw a train coming up. He immediately jumped out of his break and ran back, waving his hand-lamp to and fro, also putting down fog signals. Three hundred yards back he met the train; it was a coal train, proceeding at the rate of 15 miles an hour. He believed the steam was shut off. The man Oliver was taken up quite dead, and two other persons with him in the same carriage with him were severely cut about the head, and also much bruised. The cattle train had its proper lamps at the tail of the train, which was visible half a mile off. John Pike, pointsman at Hanslope, deposed that the coal train passed about eight or nine minutes after the cattle train. His danger sign was on, but the driver did not appear to take any notice. He did not slacken speed. Neither the driver nor fireman seemed to be looking out. Mr. Edward Robinson, travelling inspector on the railway, said that if the engine driver had been looking out when he got past the curve beyond the Hanslope point he would have seen the tail lights of the cattle train in sufficient time to avoid the collision. Anthony Tomlinson, the engine driver, volunteered a statement that after getting through the cutting past the Hanslope point he saw the tail lights of a train ahead, and he shut off the steam, put on the break, and reversed the engine, but “she quickly flew into fore gear,” and in a few seconds the collision took place. The coroner summed up, and the jury, after a long deliberation, returned a verdict of “Manslaughter” against Anthony Tomlinson, the engine driver of the coal train.

A few points here. There appear to be many more safety measures in place  after the accidents of the early years. Trains now carry a guard van at the back to try to forestall shunts from the rear. Obviously it did not work in this case because the attention of the driver in the coal train was elsewhere. Accident continued on the railways, but they became more infrequent as the years passed and safety improved.

The Radcliffe Arms is still much in use at this period, but it was north of the canal where the Wolverton Park is. Access was properly only from the Old Wolverton Road, but many of the pub’s customers must have come from Wolverton over the railway bridge to reach it. I wonder that there were never any reported accidents here.

The Deodand

Until today, I had never come across the word deodand. If I had lived in the first decade of railway development I might have seen it regularly. The deodand, which means something given to God, was frequently in the news when railway accidents were common.

The experimental nature of the technology and the lack of awareness of the dangers of speed led to a number of railway accidents, many of them fatal. The problem that juries found was that there was no mechanism in law at the time to award compensation to victims of accidents, so they settled on the medieval precedent of the deodand to meet the need. Under this law, the thing that caused the death could be seized by the Crown, sold, and the money donated to the Church – given to God. Later, a cash payment in compensation was acceptable. In the case of railway accidents, the locomotive was seen as causing the death and was therefore forfeit, or usually a monetary amount set at the value of the locomotive.

In November 1840 at Harrow a waggon had apparently derailed in the late afternoon. The immediate stations along the line were notified and people began efforts to clear the line. At about 5 o’clock, a goods train, hauled by two locomotives (as was the practice in those underpowered days) was coming towards the accident on the up line. The first driver, Brown, shut down his power on seeing the red light but the second driver, Joseph Simpson, merely stepped it down and still maintained forward power. The rain collided with the one in front which was in the process of pulling the obstructing waggon out of the way. Brown survived the crash but his fireman, Dawson, was caught under the wheels while jumping for safety and killed, and apparently Simpson was also killed while jumping for safety. His fireman survived.

After several days of hearings, the jury, which had also listened to evidence from John Bedford of Wolverton, Superintendent of Police, that Simpson had not previously been a negligent driver in any way, found Joseph Simpson guilty of the murder of William Dawson. Simpson, being already dead, could not be hanged for murder; however, the jury set a deodand of £2,000 against the value of the two engines.

The tailpiece of this story is that the agent of Lord Northwick, Lord of the Manor of Harrow, appeared, in a piece of monumental cheek, to claim the £2,000 deodand for himself on the basis of a charter issued in the time of King Stephen. The judge very curtly told him that he would have to make his case to the Exchequer and would hear no more.

In 1846 an Act of Parliament which properly dealt with compensation awards was passed, consigning the deodand to history.

Another accident near Wolverton in 1840

Here is another story from The Times archive. This accident was not the result of a crash but a fire and gives us a glimpse of the curious early practice of securing actual road coaches to a flatbed waggon. Thus passengers could travel by coach to a station, have the coach mounted on the waggon, travel in the coach by steam train, and continue their journey by road to their final destination. Here is the story:

The Times, May 4, 1840


On Thursday evening last an accident, which was likely to have terminated seriously but for the activity and exertions of the Company’s servants and others, occurred to the mail train down, which leaves at half past 8. The following are the particulars:- Thursday being magazine night, a portion of them, in addition to the passengers’ luggage was placed on the top of the first class North Union carriage. When passing between Leighton Buzzard and Wolverton the guards perceived flames issuing from the top of the carriage just mentioned. The breaks were immediately put on, but, the wind blowing from the north east, and the train going at an accelerated speed, this portion of the line being on the decline, the flames got ahead before the engine could be stopped. So soon, however, was that accomplished, the passengers, ten in number, were assisted out of their perilous situation, and happily without any injury. Some of the property is saved, but a much greater proportion of course destroyed. The cause of the fire can only be conjectured, but it is presumed to have originated in a spark from the engine penetrating the tarpauling (sic), or lodging immediately under it.

I don’t think these rickety arrangements of transporting a road coach, complete with passengers, lasted too many years after 1840. For one thing the railways were able to build rolling stock of their own, and as speeds increased, a coach held down by chains may not have been the safest arrangement. In 1840, trains had a maximum speed of 30 mph – in practice about 25 mph – three times the speed of a horse-drawn coach, but not too fast by later standards.