A Want of Discipline: Abergele, 1868

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    Up until the grouping of 1923 the London and North Western Railway, whose principal route was what is now called the West Coast Main Line from Euston as far as Carlisle, was the giant of British railways: indeed, at one time it was the largest commercial undertaking of any sort in the world. It was also, in its origins, one of the oldest, incorporating as it did both the first ever inter-city railway, the Liverpool and Manchester, and the first main line to be built out of London, the London and Birmingham Railway. For both these reasons it claimed the title of the Premier Line. But none of that gave it immunity against sustaining in 1868 the worst accident that had happened up to that time on a British railway, eclipsing the Clayton Tunnel collision of seven years earlier. And in circumstances of particular horror.

    In the nineteenth century the railways revolutionised the way we lived, as goods (and people) were moved around the country on a scale and at speeds never before imagined. Nearly everything went by rail, and nearly every station had a goods yard with sidings and unloading facilities, a situation that persisted well into the twentieth century. They were serviced by what were known as pick-up goods trains: local trains which trundled along the line stopping at every station to drop off or pick up wagons as necessary, an operation that often involved quite a bit of shunting.

    At 12.05pm on 20 August 1868 such a train arrived at Abergele, between Rhyl and Colwyn Bay on the LNWR’s main line along the North Wales coast to Holyhead. It spent about ten minutes shunting before setting off for the next station to the west, Llanddulas, where it was to be shunted to clear the line for one of the North Western’s most prestigious trains, the Irish Mail. It reached there at about 12.24.

    There were only two sidings at Llanddulas, and there were already some wagons in both of them, so there wasn’t room to shunt the train in its entirety. There was, however, enough room to back the train onto one siding, divide it and then back the front half into the other siding. With the Irish Mail on its way, this is what should have been done. The LNWR rulebook said that ‘goods trains, when likely to be overtaken by a passenger train, must be shunted at stations where there are fixed signals at least ten minutes before such passenger train is due.’ The Irish Mail was due at Llanddulas at 12.39, fifteen minutes after the goods train got there, so there were only five minutes to spare. But the stationmaster in his wisdom decided that if they were going to have to divide the train anyway they might as well do a bit of shunting to make the necessary wagon exchanges while they were at it. Even though there was precious little hope of getting the job done in five minutes. The men at Llanddulas would need to look lively.

    The last six wagons and the guard’s van of the goods train were uncoupled and left standing on the main line. Furthermore, although each wagon had its own handbrake the goods train’s two brakesmen (as guards were usually called then) didn’t take the time to put them on, applying only the brake in the guard’s van to hold the wagons on the slight incline back towards Abergele before hurrying off to help with the shunting, leaving the wagons unattended. The signals were correctly set at danger to protect them, but signals were going to be of no use in the situation that was about to unfold.

    If you are shunting in a hurry there is a technique known as fly shunting that can save a bit of time. Instead of propelling wagons all the way to where they’re wanted the engine gives them a shove, leaving them to roll along under their own momentum while it gets on with the next bit of shunting.

    And the men at Llanddulas were in a big hurry. The senior brakesman instructed the driver of the goods engine to fly shunt three wagons from the sidings towards the wagons standing on the main line. He did so with such vigour that they fetched up against the standing wagons with a thump. The impact was hard enough to snap off some of the teeth on a cogwheel in the brake mechanism of the guard’s van, releasing the only brake holding those wagons. They began to roll back towards Abergele.

    The junior brakesman ran after them in an attempt to put some brakes on, but the wagons were moving too fast and he hadn’t a hope of catching them. Seeing this, the senior brakesman told the engine driver to give chase. It was an idea born of desperation and panic. A moment’s thought would have told him that, lacking any sort of coupling that could automatically engage on contact, the engine’s crew would have no way of stopping the wagons even if they did catch them. Worse, he was sending a locomotive wrong-way down a track along which an express was expected at any moment.

    Fortunately this rash adventure was nipped in the bud. Before the driver could set his engine in motion he saw the junior brakesman walking back from where the runaway wagons had disappeared round a bend in a steep-sided cutting, signalling him to stop. He had heard the sound of a collision beyond the cutting.

    The Irish Mail, consisting of a guard’s van, four passenger coaches that had been added to the train at Chester, two Post Office vehicles, a luggage van, four more passenger coaches and another guard’s van, passed through Abergele at about 12.39, running five minutes late. A few minutes later it was approaching Llanddulas at about 40mph when its driver, Arthur Thompson, saw some wagons emerging from the cutting ahead. At first he thought they were on the other line, but he was soon disabused. The wagons were coming to meet him on his own line, and they were only two hundred yards away.

    As was regrettably normal in those days, the Irish Mail’s only brakes were handbrakes on the engine’s tender and on the guard’s vans, but the crew did what little they could to slow the train, Thompson shutting off steam and his fireman screwing down the tender’s handbrake. Shouting ‘For God’s sake, Joe, jump! We can do no more!’ Arthur Thompson jumped off the engine. Joe hesitated, and Thompson heard him cry out as the wagons piled into their engine.

    The slight incline and the tender brake had slowed the Irish Mail to about 30mph, and the wagons were moving at no more than 15mph. The heavy locomotive shielded the carriages from the worst of the collision. But one disastrous chance turned this minor, if regrettable, incident from mishap into catastrophe. The last two wagons of the runaway, immediately in front of the guard’s van, were carrying 1700 gallons of paraffin oil. In wooden barrels.

    The barrels shattered, and oil went flying all over the front part of the Irish Mail. It ignited instantly, and within seconds the engine, the guard’s van and the first four coaches were fiercely ablaze, with flames and smoke rising twenty feet into the air. The heat of the fire was so intense that no one could get near enough to make any attempt at rescue. Not a soul survived from that part of the train. Thirty-three people were incinerated where they sat. No one else suffered more than slight injuries.

    It’s hideous to contemplate, but there was one small mercy. Witnesses remarked wonderingly on the total lack of any signs of life in the blazing coaches. Not a movement was seen; not a sound was heard. Though this doesn’t seem to have been appreciated at the time, the almost certain explanation is that all the people in those coaches were very quickly asphyxiated as the conflagration sucked all the oxygen out of the air, and so escaped experiencing the worst of their fate.

    The immediate cause of the accident, as the enquiry concluded, was negligence by the brakesmen who left wagons unattended on the main line without taking sufficient precautions to secure them, and then instructed the goods engine’s driver to fly shunt more wagons onto them. And most of all by the stationmaster in charge, whose rash decision, in breach of the rules, to shunt on the main line so soon before an express was due set up a situation where risks were going to be taken to save time. But the reporting officer, Lieutenant-Colonel F C Rich (all railway accident enquiries at this time, and for many years after, were chaired by officers from the Royal Engineers), found much else to criticise.

    The sidings at Llanddulas had never been approved by the Board of Trade and their restricted capacity was unfit for purpose. Rich recommended that another siding should be laid down long enough to take any goods train likely to be shunted there, so that no shunting would ever need to be done on the main line.

    He also criticised the way in which a potentially dangerous load was being conveyed with no precautions in an ordinary train, but it was another eleven years before legislation was passed to regulate the carriage of such loads on the railways.

    He thought that a timetable that allowed a slow goods train to occupy the main line and be shunted aside so close to the time an express was due to pass was ‘much to be condemned,’ that the LNWR was ‘extremely careless… as to the safety of passenger trains on their main lines,’ and that its supervision of its operating staff was very lax. The root cause of this accident, he said, like most others he had reported on, was ‘a want of discipline’ and the failure of the railway company to enforce its own rules. He added this scathing comment:

    ‘I fear that it is only too true that the rules printed and issued by railway companies to their servants, and which are generally very good, are made principally with the object of being produced when accidents happen from the breach of them, and that the companies systematically allow many of them to be broken daily, without taking the slightest notice of the disobedience.’

    These perceptive words were well ahead of their time in 1868. It wasn’t until the rise of modern safety culture that such issues were given the attention they deserved.

    Lastly, Rich was at pains to point out that such failings were far from unique to the LNWR. He considered it to be no worse than other railways, and better than many. That only went to show that there was still a lot to be learned about the safe operation of railways.

    If you’re interested in getting it right, the place names are pronounced like this:
    Abergele: Abber-GELL- y
    Llanddulas: starting with that double-L sound which there is no easy way of rendering phonetically in English, and which everybody but the Welsh has such trouble with, Llan-THEE-lass.


    Fascinating, Richard. Rich’s words may have been ahead of their time, but that serves to emphasise how persistent the root causes of these disasters are. We still do it, even with our modern safety culture. Sadly, there are forces working to erode what gains have been made. The “Health & Safety Gone Mad” slogan may not belong to a formal campaign; it’s worse. It’s rapidly becoming associated with common sense. So we will go on having Challenger disasters, Ladbroke Grove rail crashes and, yes, inadequate sidings at some future Llanddulas.


    Thank you for this post, Richard. I didn’t know the Manchester-Liverpool route was the first intercity connection. My WIP features the Manchester Ship Canal in the 1930s. I believe, though I haven’t checked my notes, that the Port of Manchester docks had the largest private railway system in the country at that time.

    Thank you for the pronunciation guide! One of my few skills, although it can hardly be called that, is knowing how to pronounce a fair bit of Welsh. When younger, I had Welsh-speaking flatmates. My partner also speaks the language a little and puts me right when I go wrong.


    Ath: ‘Herald of Free Enterprise’, Grenfell Tower…

    Libby: When we first moved to Wales we did a Welsh language course for a couple of years. It’s a hell of a hard language to learn (for example, there are at least a dozen ways of turning a singular noun into a plural and there are no hard and fast rules, so you have to remember each noun’s plural individually) and I’ve forgotten a lot of it, but I do pride myself on being able to pronounce the names I see on signposts. I wince when I hear English people pronouncing that well-known place in Snowdonia, Betws-y-Coed, as ‘Bettsy Co-ed.’ The correct pronunciation is ‘Bettooce-uh-Coid.’


    Well-written and informative blog, as always. Thank you.

    I love seeing Welsh words and working out how they might be pronounced. I knew how to pronounce Abergele because my grandmother, father and aunt were evacuated there during the war, and Gran used to speak of it.

    Many years ago, the law firm I worked at acted for a client buying a snooker club in Wales. Chepstow, I think. Anyway, I just adored the Welsh word for snooker – snwcr. Now, that would be guessable, at least. In today’s paper was a picture of a police officer. Had his jacket not had “police” written underneath, I would never in a million years have been able to guess what “heddlu” means.


    That, of course, is because, while ”snwcr’ is one of the many words the Welsh have borrowed from English and re-spelt (rather entertainingly) phonetically in Welsh, ‘heddlu’ (hethly) is a real Welsh word. But the Welsh for policeman is ‘plismon’, and for policewoman – wait for it – ‘plismones’.

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