Chaos and Catastrophe: Radstock, 1876

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    Railway accidents have many causes. Sometimes the fault is with the hardware: the signalling, the track, the trains themselves. More often one or more people make mistakes, through pressure of work, a moment’s lapse of concentration, or sheer negligence. But the Radstock collision of 1876 on the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway was, fortunately, pretty much unique in the history of British railways in the scarcely credible depths of irresponsibility and incompetence that caused it. The story would have been farcical had it not ended in tragedy, with the deaths of fifteen people. The working practices of the railway were so dodgy, its equipment so inadequate, and the staff concerned so unfit for their duties that the wonder is not so much that an accident happened but that one hadn’t happened sooner.

    The root cause of this sorry state of affairs was that the railway was bankrupt, with no money to pay for decent equipment or properly trained staff. The Somerset and Dorset Railway had been formed in 1862 by the amalgamation of two smaller railways, but was in financial difficulties from the outset because its cross-country line from the Bristol Channel coast at Burnham-on-Sea to the South Coast at Hamworthy (now a suburb of Poole) wasn’t generating enough traffic to make the railway viable. In 1874 the company took a gamble by sinking more money into building an extension diverging from its line at Evercreech northwards to Bath to join up with the Midland Railway. By tapping into the traffic of one of Britain’s busiest railways and providing a link from the industrial Midlands to the South Coast, it was hoped to generate enough extra traffic to pay for the extension and usher in a new era of prosperity for the S&D.

    It was a desperate gamble, make or break. Unfortunately, it turned out to be break. The new line crossed the Mendip Hills and needed plenty of expensive civil engineering works. The company had to put itself so far into hock to build it that, even though the anticipated big increase in traffic did indeed materialise, it wasn’t enough to save the S&D from financial meltdown. In 1876 the railways it met at its two ends, the Midland and the London and South Western, got together to take it over jointly (mainly to stop the Great Western from getting hold of it), and it became known as the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway. At last there was the money to run the railway properly, but less than a month after the takeover, before the ramshackle line’s new owners had had time to make any significant inroads into the prevailing chaos, came the Radstock accident.

    Late in the evening of 7 August 1876 a northbound train is approaching Radstock, about eleven miles south from Bath along the new line, which is single-track. It has been a busy day on the Somerset and Dorset, for it’s Bank Holiday Monday, and no less than seventeen extra trains have been run to carry all the people intent on having a day out. This train is one of them, hastily laid on because the scheduled train couldn’t accommodate all the people returning from a day out in Bournemouth.

    Coming towards it in the opposite direction, a southbound train is nearing Wellow, the next crossing place on the line, about four miles further north. This train isn’t even supposed to be carrying any passengers. It’s an empty stock working to return the carriages to their overnight stabling place, but Bath station was crowded with people trying to get home after attending a regatta, and large numbers of them have piled onto it anyway.

    On a single track railway the time interval train working still widespread on Britain’s railways, with all its vagueness and uncertainty, simply won’t do, for safe operations depend on precise knowledge of the whereabouts of every train. The line is worked on the absolute block principle, in other words only one train at a time is allowed onto any stretch of line between two passing places. Any variations to the trains’ scheduled crossings at these passing places, from such causes as extra trains or late running, are dealt with by telegraphed train orders from a control centre in Glastonbury.

    Halfway along the single-track section between Wellow and Radstock, at Foxcote, there is a signal box. Its only intended purpose is to control the points and signals for a spur line serving a colliery, but at busy times the S&D has got into the habit of using it as a block post, that is to divide the Wellow-Radstock section into two sections so that trains can be sent off from Wellow before the train in front has reached Radstock, and vice versa. But Foxcote isn’t, and can’t be, a proper block post for single-lime working, because there is no passing track there. The procedure is a breach of the Board of Trade’s single-line working regulations, which the company has given a solemn undertaking to abide by – otherwise it wouldn’t have been given permission to open the new line at all. Foxcote’s signals aren’t supposed to be used to space out trains on the main line, only to protect the spur line points.

    This potentially dangerous situation is exacerbated by the ramshackle nature of the communications set-up. Foxcote signal box doesn’t even have a telegraphic link to the Glastonbury control centre, so it can’t receive train orders and the only information it gets about extra trains or any other variations to the timetable is what the signalmen at Wellow or Radstock see fit to impart. Wellow and Radstock, the official ends of the section, can communicate with Glastonbury, but not directly with each other, only via Foxcote – which, let us remind ourselves, can’t speak with Glastonbury. So, for example, if an extra or late running northbound train arrives at Radstock and the signalman there is in any doubt as to whether it is safe to send it on to Wellow, he can’t ask his colleague at Wellow if a southbound train has entered the section. He can only send a message through the signalman at Foxcote, who doesn’t get any briefing about late or extra trains and probably won’t know what on earth he is talking about. It doesn’t take a genius to spot the potential for confusion and misunderstandings.

    As if all that wasn’t bad enough, on this busy night the entire section has been left in the hands of three half-trained, unsupervised youths. The telegraph clerk at Radstock, who has the important job of receiving the train orders from Glastonbury and dispatching the trains in accordance with them, is an eighteen-year-old by the name of Herbert John. His opposite number at Wellow, Arthur Hillard, is only fifteen. Furthermore, James Sleep, the Wellow stationmaster, has decided he’s done enough work for the day – he come on duty at 5.00 this morning – and has taken himself off into the nearby village of Midford for a drink, presumably failing to see why he shouldn’t have a bit of fun on the bank holiday like everyone else. Hillard has been left in charge of the entire station since 6.30. He has been working since 8.00am, and Herbert John at Radstock since 6.30am.

    And in between, alone in the signal box at Foxcote, is another fifteen-year-old, Alfred Dando. He’s not exactly ideally suited for the job of signalman: he was put in charge of this signal box after just one week’s training in the one at Radstock, even though he can barely read or write and isn’t even strong enough to pull the signal levers. The drivers have got used to seeing his signals showing a vague indication somewhere between clear and danger, but in the night-time that doesn’t make a lot of difference. The company is so strapped for cash that it hasn’t given him enough oil to light the signal lanterns.

    You could hardly make up a more cock-eyed way of running a railway if you tried. It would be funny if lives were not being put at risk.

    In the control centre at Glastonbury. Caleb Percy, the superintendent, has been having a hard time all day sorting out where all the extra trains are to pass on the single line, his job hampered by poor telegraphic communications. Now he is tearing his hair out trying to find out the whereabouts of the northbound train from Bournemouth and the southbound train from Bath. The last he has heard of either train was when Bath advised him that the southbound train had left over an hour late at 10.23. Since then both trains might have vanished from the face of the earth for all he knows.

    He repeatedly asks Arthur Hillard at Wellow where the down special (the southbound train from Bath) is. He can’t get anything out of him at all until 11.13, when the fifteen-year-old replies ‘Over T.’ What is Percy to make of this? He tries again. This time the reply is ‘Up is on from T.’ What the hell?

    Percy gets even less sense out of Herbert John at Radstock.

    ‘Where is down special?’
    ‘Don’t know.’
    ‘Where is special/’
    ‘Where is special/’
    ‘Do you refuse to answer my question?’
    ‘Don’t know.’

    When asked at the enquiry why he gave Glastonbury such nonsensical and obstructive answers, John will claim that they have often done the same to him. Apparently, getting his own back for the slights he believes he has been receiving is more important to him than the safety of the passengers and the train crews.

    By now Caleb Percy is in despair. How is he supposed to arrange for the trains to cross if he can’t find out where they are? As it turns out it doesn’t make a lot of difference, because matters are about to be taken out of his hands.

    John Hamlin, the driver of the northbound train, has already passed six trains by the time he reaches Radstock . He has done this without any timetable to guide him, without any written orders, and with only one verbal instruction since he left Bournemouth. So maybe he isn’t too concerned when Herbert John, without authority and without troubling himself about where the train from Bath is, sends him on towards Wellow.

    Hamlin is aware of Alfred Dando’s deficiencies, and he approaches Foxcote cautiously. Shortly before midnight the train comes to a halt at the signal box, where Dando is using the only means available to him of communicating with the trains, a hand-lamp waved out of his window. He has no idea what train this is, but he sees no reason why he shouldn’t offer it forward to Arthur Hillard at Wellow.

    That’s because he doesn’t know that Hillard has already sent on the train from Bath. Not only has Hillard also acted without orders and without knowing where the other train is, he hasn’t even followed the most basic procedures of block working: asking the next signalman along the line if the line is clear and alerting him that the train is coming. Alfred Dando has been left in the dark in every sense.

    And, incredibly,, only six minutes after despatching the southbound train and without hearing any news of it, Arthur Hillard now accepts the northbound train into the same section. Dando gives permission to proceed and Hamlin puts on steam and moves off. What Hillard thinks he is playing at is anybody’s guess, but the result is sadly inevitable.

    It doesn’t help that the driver of the southbound train misses the unlit Foxcote distant signal in the dark. He does somehow spot the home signal, but by then the northbound train is already in sight and it’s far too late to stop. The two trains collide head-on in the darkness, a couple of hundred yards north of Dando’s signal box, and fifteen people are killed.

    The accident, though bad enough in all conscience, wasn’t quite as bad as it might have been because the northbound train had only just started from rest, but that was the only gleam of light in the darkness of this woeful catalogue of cock-ups. The enquiry found it hard to apportion blame to any individuals, even Arthur Hillard whose actions were mainly responsible for the collision, when the railway’s whole organisation was rotten from top to bottom. The staff on duty that night could hardly be expected to do their jobs properly in an environment of such chaos and fecklessness, with so little experience and with inadequate training and no supervision. ‘Railway working under such conditions cannot, whatever the system employed, be expected to be carried on without serious accidents,’ concluded Captain Tyler, the chairman of the enquiry.

    The new owners quickly set about reforms and improvements, including a programme of doubling much of the single track, and there was never another serious accident on the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway, though there was another farcical incident at Foxcote almost exactly sixty years later. Fortunately, this time it remained farcical, for though there was quite a lot of damage no one was hurt.

    A shunting engine was standing on the main line facing south with a few wagons attached, when its crew saw a northbound goods train coming towards them. Seeing its crew jump off, they realised that it had overrun the signals and wasn’t going to stop, so the shunting engine’s driver put his locomotive into reverse and put on steam in an attempt to outrun the runaway. Then they realised that it was now moving very slowly, so the driver jumped off and ran forward to the goods engine, climbing into its cab and bringing it safely to a halt.

    So far so good, but the shunting engine’s fireman had mistaken his driver’s intentions and jumped off too, leaving the engine in full backward gear with the regulator wide open. The driver, who must have been congratulating himself for his quick thinking and resourcefulness, now had to watch his locomotive running away towards Bath at rapidly increasing speed, pushing its wagons before it. By the time it reached Wellow it was doing over 50mph. At Midford the wagons derailed on a set of points and ran amok, felling telegraph poles, demolishing the signal box and creating all sorts of other havoc, but the engine stayed on the track until it was finally derailed a few miles further on.

    At the grouping of 1923 the Midland became part of the London Midland and Scottish Railway and the London and South Western became part of the Southern, so the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway remained a joint undertaking and kept its identity. Even after nationalisation it retained enough individual character to become a magnet for railway enthusiasts in the nineteen-fifties and early sixties. It was much mourned when it succumbed to the Beeching Axe in 1966, and is still remembered with nostalgia.


    It’s really hard to believe that somebody could send deliberately ridiculous/obstructive messages like Herbert John when lives were at stake (and I know he was only 18). That said, it’s a level of managerial incompetence and hubris that almost defies belief. Sadly, as the years go by it’s clear that more than cream floats to the top.

    Another great blog, Richard!


    With such a litany of abysmal systems, irresponsible staff and wayward practices, it’s a wonder that a lot more than fifteen people weren’t killed. Not that that’s any consolation. The people who ran the show ought to have gone to prison for a very long time


    There was, of course, no such thing as corporate manslaughter back then. But I did hear that after one Victorian accident (not this one) where the driver was charged with manslaughter, Punch published a cartoon showing a policeman collaring the driver and a director walking away, with the caption ‘Yes, you’ve got one. But you ought to have got both!’

    As for ‘more than cream’ floating to the top, yes, I can think of two very conspicuous examples right now…


    Incredible! Fifteen year olds in charge! Great blog.

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