‘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]

A Scots Grey is charged…

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Lady Elizabeth Butler, Scotland Forever, (1881)

A porter at Shoreditch station was walking along the platform when he saw a man on the tracks. It was about 10.30 at night and the passenger was running down the slope at the end of the platform on to the rails. The porter called out a warning and when this was ignored he quickly ran to alert the signalman so he could stop the incoming train.

The man on the tracks was behaving reactively, jumping and running between the lines and he only stopped when he saw the train approaching. Fortunately for him the driver was able to halt the locomotive just in time just as the young man threw himself of it.

The porter helped the man up from the track and it soon became obvious that the man was drunk. He was arrested by a policeman and held overnight in the cells before being taken before Mr Hannay at Marlborough Street Police court the next day.

The man gave his name as John McIntyre and appeared dressed in his army uniform as a private in the Scots Grey, he was charged with being drunk and disorderly and with attempting to take his own life. McIntyre was too old to have been involved in the famous charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo (so famously rendered in oils by Lady Elizabeth Butler just a few years after this incident) but many would associate him with the heroism of his regiment. He denied trying to kill himself but admitted being drunk and out of control, so much so that he couldn’t remember anything.

The magistrate  (perhaps mindful of McIntyre’s military background) was sympathetic and accepted that his actions had been merely stupid not suicidal. As a result he fined him 10s. The soldier didn’t have the money to pay his fine however, and so the gaoler led him away to start a default sentence of seven days in prison. Hopefully that was the end of his troubles and he could return to the Greys.

Two years after the private’s personal disgrace the Greys were renamed  as the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys), making the nickname they had enjoyed for so long official. McIntyre may never have seen battle since the battalion enjoyed 50 years of peace between the Crimean War and the second Anglo-Boer War in 1899. If he had gone to the Cape then John may have seen service in the relief of Kimberly and the battle of Diamond Hill. By then he would have been an old trooper, and perhaps – in 1875 – he was simply sick and tired of the tales of heroism told by veterans of Waterloo and the Crimea, and bored at having nothing much to do. If you signed up for glory and all you got was barrack room banter, endless parades and drilling, and mucking out the horses perhaps we can understand  his drunken brush with death.

[from The Morning Post, Friday 22 October, 1875]

A quick-thinking signalman saves an impatient commuter at Swiss Cottage.

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Anyone who travels regularly on London’s underground and overground railway system will have seen people risking injuring themselves and others by rushing to catch trains just before the doors close. People get shoved, bumped into, pushed aside and generally manhandled as impatient commuters attempt to barrel their way through crowds or squeeze onto carriage as the closing ‘beeps’ sound to announce ‘this rain is now ready to depart, mind the closing doors’.

Sometimes the late arrival gets stuck in the doors, which open and close again while the assembled passengers glare at them. On more than one occasion I’ve heard the driver (often with heavy sarcasm) offer a few words of advice for the future to whomsoever has just boarded his or her train.

We’ve all done it and we’ve all seen it done.

George Sorrell was tired and his wife was unwell. In fact she was ‘dangerously ill’ and after a very long day at work for the General Omnibus Company (14 hours in fact) all George wanted to do was get home to her. So when he arrived at Swiss Cottage station late one evening and saw a train departing he ran to catch it.

The doors then were manual and swung open so he reached up and grabbed the handle and hauled himself aboard. However, the train was moving and he got stuck half in and half out. This was perilous because in a matter of seconds the train would enter a tunnel and the bus employee risked being thrown from the carriage and mangled under its wheels.

Fortunately for him a signalman had noticed him and the danger he was in – apparently it had been become all too common for commuters to risk life and limb in this way – and rushed out of his box and pushed Sorrell bodily into the compartment and safety.

At the next station Sorrell was reprimanded by the guard and asked for his name and address. George gave a false address in Chelsea but the company were persistent and eventually traced him. He was summoned to appear at Marylebone Police court in September 1873 where the charge against him – that ‘of entering a train in motion’  – was heard by Mr Mansfield, the sitting police magistrate.

Mr Gooden, the chief inspector leading the case, explained that incidents of this type were becoming commonplace and so the railway company had decided to prosecute each and every one, in an attempt to deter passengers from carrying on with this dangerous behaviour.

The magistrate listened to Sorrell’s excuse but agreed with the railway that this needed to be stopped before anyone was killed. He also noted that the defendant had put the company to considerable expense and trouble by lying about where he lived. So he fined him 10with an additional 2costs and sent him on his way with a flea in his ear.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 08, 1873]

PS. Swiss Cottage underground station had opened just 5 years before George Sorrell had his brush with death. It was the norton terminus for the Metropolitan and St John’s Wood Railway so Sorrel would have realised that his ride into central London was disappearing fast. A new station opened in 1939 so the one he used closed in 1940 and the old station building was demolished 20 years later.