‘If the trucks had been thrown off the line they would have been dashed into the bridge’: an East End train disaster narrowly avoided

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In mid June 1888, in what was to become a dreadful late summer and autumn of terror in the East End, a young man appeared at the West Ham Police court accused of an act of willful damage that might have caused a localized tragedy.  Henry William Fox (19, and a described as a labourer) was put in the dock to answer a charge that he, and some persons unknown, had placed a large piece of wood on tracks of the railway that served the Victoria Docks.

Robert Clayden, a signalman on the London and St Katherine’s Dock Company railway, testified that at 4 o’clock on Friday 15 June he had been in his box when he noticed Fox and three other men ‘playing around’ on the tracks. They had a large section of wood made up of two scaffold planks bolted together to make about a foot square. They had eased this onto the tracks, just after a bend and before a sharp decline. Claydon stated that, in his opinion, the driver of the next train (due in 30 minutes) would not have seen the obstruction in time to apply the brake.

The signalman immediately left his box and ran off to apprehend the trespassers, shouting ‘do you want any help there?’ The quartet scattered but deciding that Fox was the most responsible Clayden pursued and captured him with the help of a dock constable, Henry Kimpton. Inspector Hamilton was shown the obstruction before it was removed and Fox was taken away to be charged.

In court Fox’s defense – conducted by a Mr Willis (jun) – the bench was told that it was a case of mistaken identity; Fox was one of four others and he wasn’t the person responsible for blocking the railway. His solicitor applied for bail, which was refused, as the case ‘too serious’.

On 22 July Fox appeared at the Old Bailey where the case against him was heard before a jury. Claydon was the first witness and explained that his job was to control the swing bridge that served Bridge Docks. The planks used to block the line were those deployed in the painting of ships at dock. When not in use, as this one wasn’t, they ‘lie about in the dock and are washed about by the water’ he told the court.

He said that when he asked Fox and his friend s if they wanted ‘any help’, the accused told him to ‘Go and f— yourself’. At this Claydon blew his whistle (to frighten them off) and clambered down from his box. A chase then ensued and Fox was arrested, question by the dock inspector (George Hamilton) before being handed over to PC William Richardson (280K) of the Met. Fox’s maintained his defense that it wasn’t him but someone else and said he’d been in the area because he was looking for bird’s nests.

One of the company’s drivers, John Sherlock, took the stand to tell the court that 10-15 trains used that line every day and agreed that the position of the timber would have made it impossible for any driver to stop in time.

‘The curve is sharp’ he explained, ‘if the trucks had been thrown off the line they would have been dashed into the bridge’.

Fortunately the quick action of the signalman had averted a disaster and almost certain loss of life. Fox was young and was given a good character. As a result the judge went easy on him: he was sentenced to six months at hard labour.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 17 June, 1888]

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