This 1860 Railway Disaster Made Some People Afraid Of Train Travel

by Mimi Matthews


“Great injury was done after the engine ran up the platform. The brickwork was swept away, and a large portion of a wall was thrown down; in fact, one carriage was thrown completely through the platform wall by the violence with which it was hurled over the line.” – The Era, 26 February 1860.

On 20 February 1860, at seven o’clock in the morning, a passenger train belonging to the Eastern Counties Railway left Cambridge heading for Tottenham station in London. The train was quite full and, as it approached the station, it was travelling at a speed of thirty-five to forty miles per hour. The 26 February 1860 edition of The Era reports that, at approximately 10:20, “the train began to oscillate in a peculiar manner.” It was then that the passengers heard a loud crash as the train derailed. It ran off of the platform, hurtling through the brickwork with such violent force that one of the railway carriages was “thrown completely through the platform wall.”

Some passengers managed to escape from their carriages. Others were not so fortunate. The 21 February 1860 edition of the Morning Post reports that Mr. Barber, a young fireman on board, was “smashed to pieces,” while the engine driver, a gentleman by the name of William Rowell, was both crushed and scalded when water and steam discharged from the upended boiler. Rowell also suffered a severe head injury. The Era relates that “from the moment he was taken from beneath the engine he never for a single instant recovered his consciousness.” Rowell would expire from his injuries later that evening, leaving behind a wife and several small children.

railwaystationThe Railway Station by William Powell Frith, 1862

Removing the injured from the train was both a lengthy and a very delicate undertaking. The Morning Post states that, in order to extricate the passengers, the carriages first had to “be broken into fragments.” Once removed from the wreckage, the injured were then either “conveyed into the waiting rooms at the station” or carried to nearby taverns on makeshift stretchers fashioned from boards and ladders.

Among those fatally injured was Mr. Stokes, a miller from the market town of Saffron Walden who had been travelling in a first-class carriage. After being removed from the wreckage, he was conveyed to the White Hart Inn. According to the Morning Post:

“He was in an insensible state, dreadfully injured, and never rallied, apparently dying without much agony.”

Another fatally injured passenger was a man named Mr. Satchell. Described as being a hatter from Fenchurch Street, he was also taken to the White Hart Inn where he later expired from “the dreadful nature of his injuries.” In the end, the derailment would claim the lives of seven passengers who either died at the scene or shortly thereafter.

firstclas copyFirst Class by Abraham Solomon, 1855

Non-fatal injuries ranged from crushed legs and dislocated hips to bruises, burns, and compound fractures. One gentleman named Mr. Manston, a miller from the town of Hoddesdon, suffered a compound fracture of the left leg which was so severe that he was forced to undergo an amputation at a neighbouring tavern.

Mr. J. B. Owen, the secretary of the railway company, happened to be on the platform at the time of the crash and was able to peruse the wreckage. The 26 February 1860 edition of Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper quotes an excerpt from Owen’s official report in which Owen identifies the possible cause of the derailment. He writes:

“On looking about for the cause of the accident, I observed that the tire of one of the leading wheels was off the wheel, broken in several places, and with appearances which indicated a flaw of some extent.”

The Morning Post reports that railway officials would later confirm Owen’s findings, determining that the derailment had been caused by “the breaking of the tyre of the left leading wheel of the engine.” Though tragic, it was believed to be purely accidental.

The Tottenham railway disaster was not the first derailment of the Victorian era, nor would it be the last. I focus on it in this article because it is mentioned briefly in my upcoming Victorian romance novel, The Lost Letter. In the aftermath of the derailment at Tottenham station, one of my characters forbids his wife from travelling by train. This reaction is not wholly unreasonable in light of the catastrophic nature of the crash. People were shocked and frightened and, though a horse and carriage was not really much safer, an overprotective spouse might temporarily consider it a better option than a runaway locomotive.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted here with permission.

Top image: First Class – The Meeting: ‘And at First Meeting Loved’ by Abraham Solomon, 1855.

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