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Remembering the Charfield railway accident 90 years on

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Today marks the 90th anniversary of the Charfield rail disaster.

In the early hours of October 13, 1928, the Leeds-to-Bristol mail train collided with another at Charfield station and in the ensuing fire 16 people lost their lives.

Here the Gazette recalls the story of the disaster as told 40 years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the crash.

Over the years Gazette reporters and photographers have covered many stories of national importance . . . but none which have made quite as much impact as did the Charfield rail disaster of October 13, 1928. Ironically the disaster coincided with the Gazette’s golden jubilee celebrations.

First newspaper man on the scene of the disaster was the Gazette’s editor/proprietor Mr F G Bailey.

Although there have been far worse disasters, the Charfield rail crash and fire has continued to hold the public’s imagination. The story has been told again and again and it has been the subject of television and radio programmes. There has also been a touch of mystery, with stories of a woman in black and two child victims who were never claimed or identified.

It was 90 years ago that the arrival of a passenger train ten seconds early caused sixteen deaths in a horrific blaze that gutted coaches and their occupants.

Passengers were travelling on the night mail train between Leeds and Bristol. It steamed at 60 miles per hour towards sleepy Charfield village as a 51-wagon goods train was shunting backwards into a siding. Just another ten seconds and the goods train would have been clear, but Lady Luck was looking away that night.

For some reason never fully explained or understood, the mail train roared past a signal at red and crashed into the goods train. Unfortunately the mailtrain was one of the older types still lit by gas (electricity was then taking over for trains illumination). and gas cylinders were hung beneath the front coaches. This gas ignited on impact, and the massed wreckage became a funeral pyre within seconds.

As the train hurtled towards Charfield through patchy fog, most of the passengers were asleep.

In the Charfield signal box signalman Henry Button accepted the mail train from the Berkeley junction and put the signal to red. This should have halted the train until the goods train was off the line.

But driver Henry Aldington and his fireman Frank Want read the distant signal as green, and continued on their fateful journey.

The engine and tender of the goods train were still on the line as the mail train hit them.

Desperate efforts of the goods s train driver to clear the line were defeated by ten fateful seconds.

The mail train crashed into the goods tender, and ploughed off the line into another goods train – luckily empty – passing on the up line.

The mail train landed on its side among the smashed wagons, and hot ashes from the firebox spat over the line.

Three coaches behind the engine telescoped falling against the brick bridge immediately above the the line.

The impact was so great that passenger James Gaston was thrown through the roof of his compartment to land, seriously injured, on the bridge road.

Minutes later he was found by villagers. He died in hospital.

The gas pipes fractured, and ashes from the firebox set the gas alight; the shattered coaches were turned into a horrendous funeral pyre.

Aroused by the noise of the crash, and the screaming of the dying and panic stricken passengers, villagers rushed down to the cutting.

They found flames leaping from carriage to carriage, where passengers were trapped.

In a battle of time against the flames, villagers, railwaymen, and passengers who had escaped unscathed made frantic attempts to free those trapped in the wreckage.

“Some of the passengers were trapped by their arms and legs, and implored us to cut off their limbs to save them from the flames,” said Harry Long, of Charfield.

Louis Huntley was returning to Penzance with this wife and widowed sister. He was in the second coach.

“I fell into a mass of struggling people. I told my wife to jump and she did, but my sister was trapped from the waist down and it was if she was held in a vice.

“I heard the cries of trapped women in the next compartment, and was able to free them. My sister was crying ‘Please free me’ and I stuck at it until the flames were only two or three feet away and I had to leave her to die . . .”

“I was knocked out by a blow on the jaw and came to, to hear screams,” said Mr. Holman Brooke, who was accompanied by his intended fiancee, Hilda.

“I found myself lying on top of the wreckage crying out for Hilda but there was no answer.

“I crawled on my hand and knees along the top of the wreckage until some men brought me down by ladder.”

Within 20 minutes flames were leaping 40 feet above the cutting. It took five hours before fire engines from Gloucester, Bristol and Stroud managed to get the flames under control.

But it was much later before anyone could face the grisly task of recovering the bodies.

The Railway Tavern, near the bridge, was turned into a first-aid station.

More than 30 people were treated for minor injuries and 11 gravely injured people were rushed to Bristol Hospital.

Relatives came to Charfield to identity the bodies. The charred remains could only be identified, for the most part, by rings, watches, cigarette cases, and in one case a piece of distinctive shirt.

Only eight bodies had been identified at the inquest, four days latter Mr H J Beale, solicitor for LMS, told the court: “There seems to be no detail missing to make this one of the most distressing cases for many years.”

The charred remains of two children, one aged about five and the other between 12 and 17, were found. In spite of nationwide publicity, no one ever claimed the remains.

In 1937 a young woman from London claimed the bodies were those of her two young brothers.

Strangely enough, her claim was never followed up.

From 1929 to the 1950s a mysterious woman in black was a regular visitor to the grave of the two unknown.

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