Scene of the extraordinary accident in the Welwyn tunnel, Great Northern Railway

Scene of the extraordinary accident in the Welwyn tunnel, Great Northern Railway. Source: Illustrated London News 1866. [Click on the image to produce a larger picture.]

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A railway accident of a strangely complicated nature took place, on Saturday night, in the Welwyn tunnel, on the Great Northern line, twenty-two miles from King’s-Cross. A train of empty coal-waggons was going down the line, about midnight, when some defect in the engine brought it to a stop in the middle of the tunnel, which is three quarters of a mile long. A Midland Railway goods-train, which came down the line soon afterwards, was allowed, by some neglect or mistake of the signalman, to enter the tunnel, without waiting for the signal that the tunnel was clear, as is prescribed by the ordinary regulations of the Great Northern line. It ran into the coal-waggons with tremendous force. The guard of the first train, Joseph Ray, was killed on the spot; John Rawlings, a man who was with him in his break, was so mangled and mutilated that he died on Wednesday morning; and the engine of the second train, with several of its waggons, was thrown across the up line, so as to block that which had previously been unimpeded. Scarcely had this second mishap occurred when a Great Northern up goods-train arrived, and, dashing into the engine and waggons of the Midland train, which were lying across its line, completed the disaster. In a few moments it was discovered that the engine of the Great Northern train had turned over, and that the goods and waggons of the Midland train had become ignited from the burning coal and cinders of the engine furnaces scattered about. Both drivers and firemen of all the engines had escaped either unhurt or with but slight injuries, and, having signalled to the nearest stations, both up and down, they took up the body of Hay, which was lying, crushed and mutilated, near the ruins of his break; they next took care of Rawlings and of a third man, Looey, guard of the up train, who was also severely injured. By this time all three trains were on fire. A message was telegraphed to Mr. Seymour Clarke, the general manager of the line, who resides at Hatfield, and a large number of men were employed to get out what waggons they could, but the suffocating character of the smoke, and the heat of the fire from the ruins of the carriages and merchandise, prevented their efforts being very effective. Although there was a force of 200 men, under Superintendent Williams, collected at two o'clock in the morning, they could not approach the seat of the conflagration. Thirty-six carriages or trucks, of which thirteen belonged to the Midland, were burning in the tunnel. Frequent explosions, with discharges of smoke and flame, besides the fierce heat, made it impossible for the men to enter. They bad no supply of water, and it was therefore resolved to let the fire burn itself out. It oontinued to rage all Sunday, without any intermission till six o'clock in the afternoon, when it had become sufficiently reduced to enable the men to enter the tunnel, led by Superintendent Williams with the Hatfield engine, lent to the company by the Marquis of Salisbury; and, a supply of water having been obtained, the engine was set to work, as the ruins were still burning. In the mean time the whole of the traffic had been carried on along the Hertford branch and the Cambridge branch, via Royston and Hitchin, of the Great Eastern Railway. It was not till nine o’clock in the evening that the tunnel was cleared. The work of removing the wreck was carried on under the direction of Mr. R. Johnson, the engineer of the line, with a force of about 450 navvies and fitters, and labourers working in relays. The entire scene of ruin was confined to a space of about 100 yards in the centre of the tunnel. Our Illustration gives a view of the mass of broken trucks and carriages. The men attacked this at each end, working away with picks and crowbars, and carrying off large portions of the wreck. As they made their way towards the centre of the mass they found the fire still smouldering, and as this was immediately under a shaft the draughts of air which it supplied ever and anon fanned the dying embers into a flame. Then was brought into play the powerful fire-engine, worked by fourteen sturdy navvies and supplied with waterfront tenders brought to tbs spot by cautiously-guided engines, whistling and screeching as they approached the scene of operations. They were dragged op by other engines and two powerful 10-ton or 12-ton cranes, one at each end. To them, by chains and tackling, were made fast such heavy gear as men without machinery would be powerless to move, and then the ponderous mass was slowly dragged out of the tunnel. In this way, after hours of well-directed labour, the line was at length cleared; the engines and tenders were set upon their wheels once more; the remains of the trucks were safely got out; the fragments of springs, of bolts, of nuts, of twisted rails, of tala-graph-wire, of wheels, of screws and crowbars, and ooke and ooal, and other articles, were removed, and the line was open that night for the passage of goods-trains only; but Mr. Johnson took care to make a minute inspection of the tunnel before permitting passenger-trains to traverse it. The sides and roofing of the tunnel are composed of fire rings of brickwork, and as the injury done to the bricks appears to be only superficial, the safety of the tunnel is not endangered.

An inquest on the bodies of the two men killed was held on Tuesday at the Cowper Arms, Welwyn, by Mr. Sworder, Coroner for that division of Herts. The evidence showed that tbe stoppage of the first train was occasioned by the bursting of a pipe in the engine. The signalman at Welwyn, James Bradford, had telegraphed to Knebworth, the station at the other end of the tunnel, at 11.36 p.m. to ask if the line was clear, and swears positively that he received for answer the word “Yes.” On receiving this answer he exhibited the "all right” signal, and shortly afterwards admitted the Midland train, laden with provisions and oorn, which ran into the train of empty coal-waggons in the tunnel. Joseph Harding, the signalman at Knebworth, swears also most positively that the answer he gave to the inquiry whether the line was clear was "No.” To this discrepancy the accident is clearly due, and as the two signalmen directly contradict each other, “the jury would not take on themselves the responsibility of attributing blame to either.”

Related material


“Collision and burning of three trains in a tunnel.” Illustrated London News. 48 (16 June 1866): 589-90. Hathi Trust Digital Library version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 23 December 2015.

Last modified 23 December 2015