Dead cattle and human tragedy: a double railway accident

In September 1867 a dreadful railway accident occurred on the Peak Forest line which joined Manchester and Buxton and ran through New Mills Station (see our picture TR149).

The Illustrated London News of 21 September 1867 reported: ‘It was a double accident. In the first instance, a collision occurred between a cattle train and a ballast train in the Peak Forest tunnel. The greater part of the cattle train was detached by the shock and sent rolling down the inclined road for miles until it came into collision with an express passenger train and the latter in its turn, was impelled backwards some miles further till a change of gradients bought it to a standstill.

‘It was between five and six in the evening when the cattle train going from Liverpool to Birmingham entered the tunnel at Chapel-en-le-Frith. It was a very heavy train of 25 trucks, containing about 1,000 head of sheep and cattle. A ballast train had preceded it into the tunnel on the same line of rails, and, according to rule, the signalman at the Chapel-en-le-Frith end should allow no second train to enter till a signal from the southern end announced that the first train had passed out. The signalman, however, negligently allowed the cattle train to pass into the tunnel, which is a long one, and when it had reached the midst it dashed into the ballast train, which had been stopped to unload.’

The ballast train, consisting of ten wagons and eight men, was standing in the tunnel around a quarter of a mile from the Buxworth (known then as Bugsworth) entrance. Some fifty or sixty navvies were throwing ballast onto the railway when the heavy cattle train ran into the ballast train. The cattle train consisted of the trucks full of beasts, a 3rd-class carriage in which eight cattle drovers were travelling, and a brake van; it was drawn by two powerful engines, which were thrown off the rails – one of them was partially buried in the wreck of the ballast train.

None of the navvies was injured by the collision, but the daughter of a blacksmith, Martha Vaines of Dove Holes, who happened to be sitting in the brake van of the ballast train, was killed instantly. The little girl had missed her train at Buxworth and had received permission to ride in the brake van from there to her home. The van was broken into pieces, and three or four of the ballast wagons were thrown off the line and damaged. Both lines were blocked with debris.

The ILN report continues: ‘The coupling chain which had attached the foremost truck or wagon to the nearest engine was broken off, and immediately after the collision the whole cattle train, without the engines, was again in motion in the contrary direction to that which it had come … Before [the guard and the drovers] had quite realised their position in the darkness, they found themselves rapidly nearing the entrance of the tunnel again. The return to daylight enabled them to perceive that … the train was rolling backwards down the incline, gaining speed as it went. One of the men called to the rest to jump for their lives, and he and two or three of them did so, including the guard.’ (Two of these drovers sustained severe head injuries).

‘The other men, five in number, clung to their places and were fated to be sufferers by the second collision, which occurred after the runaway trucks had travelled back, a distance of more than eight miles, at express speed, passing through the Bugsworth station. A little short of New Mills station the second collision occurred, by the meeting of the cattle trucks with an express train from Manchester … It had passed New Mills station in safety, and through a tunnel about 200 yards further … On emerging from the tunnel the driver [Edward Cooper of Buxton] found a signal against him, and, as the rules require the speed to be moderated at this point had no difficulty in stopping his train.’

Neither he nor the signalman knew the nature of the danger that threatened them. The guard ran to the front of the train to ask the cause of the stoppage, and Mr Lofts, the stationmaster, was about to step up on the engine with the same object, when he observed the cattle train coming towards them round the curve on the same line at a speed of about 40 to 50 miles an hour. The stoker jumped off the engine and ran with the guard and Mr Lofts out of the way. Cooper bravely threw the engine into reverse and turned on full steam, hoping to minimise the unavoidable collision. But before the passenger train had gone back six yards, and as Cooper was jumping clear, the cattle train struck it. The scene was described as appalling. The funnel, dome and other projections on top of the express engine were swept away by cattle trucks which were at once piled upon it.

One or more sheep were pitched out of the cattle train upon the engine, which fortunately stayed on the rails and gradually drew backwards out of the mass of debris that had been thrown against it. The guards van and passenger carriage attached to the cattle train were completely smashed. Twelve or thirteen of the cattle trucks were wrecked, lifted off their wheels, and their woodwork so torn that they looked like a mass of firewood. A large area became one vast heap of twisted metal, broken timber, and dead and dying cattle. Buried beneath it all was Cooper, the driver of the express, who was severely injured – he later recovered. Of the five drovers who had stayed on the cattle train, four were killed – the one survivor had his foot cut off by the wheels of a truck.

Meanwhile the driverless express train, ‘with its freight of frightened passengers,’ had gained extra impetus from the collision as it backed away from the cattle trucks, ‘and was propelled down the incline at a tremendous rate.’ The New Mills station master telegraphed Marple and Romiley, and at Marple it was sent on another line so that it might not meet an advancing train. It was at length bought to a standstill when ascending an incline near Romiley. Some of the passengers were found to be severely shaken, but none was hurt.

Men were quickly employed to clear the line and remove the cattle; thirty sheep had been killed and twenty more had to be destroyed. Eight bullocks had also been killed, and others so seriously wounded that they had to be slaughtered. Men worked all through the night by the light of large fires to clear the lines at New Mills and within the tunnel, but such was the damage that only one line was ready for use the following day.


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