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Mysteries of the 1928 Charfield Rail Crash

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October 2012

At the October meeting of the Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society, Alan Hamilton spoke about the unsolved mysteries surrounding the Charfield rail crash of 13th October 1928, in which 16 people were killed.

The accident occurred at around 5.20 a.m. A goods train was being shunted off the main line to make way for an oncoming mail express. However, the manoeuvre was not quite completed before the express train arrived, going at speed, and collided with the goods train. The momentum of the engine carried it under the bridge, but the passenger carriages piled up against it. The situation was made worse by the fact that the carriages were gas-lit, and the accident caused the gas cylinders to rupture and the gas to ignite. The four wooden carriages rapidly became an inferno, and the heat from the blaze impeded rescue efforts.

One of the mysteries which has never been entirely resolved concerns how the train had ended up on that stretch of track at that time. Either it must have passed through several signals set on red, or the signals must have been set on green. The driver of the express asserted that the signals had been green; indeed, after escaping the train he went up to the signal box and demanded an explanation. However, the signalman’s instruments said that the signals were set on red. What is more, the signals did not operate independently from the points, and with the points set against the oncoming express so as to allow the goods train to be shunted into the siding, the signals would automatically have been showing red unless the mechanism was damaged or they had been interfered with. In the event, the subsequent investigation into the accident concluded that the red light had been showing.

How, then, did the driver pass several “danger” signals? It was a misty night, but visibility had not been reduced to the level at which “fogmen” were sent out to set warnings, and the driver did not claim that he had been unable to see the signals. Mr Hamilton suggested that the most likely explanation is that the driver (who had made the journey a number of times before, and was also late and trying to make up time) simply saw what he was expecting to see – a green light. Whether this is the correct explanation will probably never be known.

Another mystery concerns the presence of two unidentified children on the train. The heat of the fire meant that many of the dead could only be identified if they had been known to be on the train but were not accounted for among the survivors, or by reference to items of jewellery. However, according to the Inquest, two young persons were among the dead. A porter who had inspected tickets at Gloucester station (the last stop before the crash) recalled seeing two young persons of “reasonable means” travelling unaccompanied. The children were never identified: no one ever came forward to claim the bodies, although an unknown lady dressed in black used to visit the memorial to the crash victims in St James’s Church, Charfield (also the site of the children’s graves) for many years. There are numerous theories: that they were illegitimate children of a royal dynasty whose existence (and deaths) had to be hushed up; that they had been abandoned by their mother and put on the train; that the bodies were those of two waifs who used to sleep under the railway bridge where the crash occurred; that they were actually adults of short stature (such as jockeys); or that there had been no children, but that two small boxes had been buried containing remains that could not be associated with particular individuals. But there is no definitive answer. The mystery remains.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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