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‘The bodies of the dead are fearfully mangled’ — the Round Oak railway disaster

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: July 23, 2009

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OUR region was once criss-crossed by dozens of interweaving railway lines, serving the villages and towns, and the hundreds of wharfs, pits, foundries and factories that made the Black Country the industrial heartland of the nation. Today the majority of these lines have closed and been taken up, their stations no longer open to passengers or traffic. The stations at Round Oak and Brettell Lane, Brierley Hill are just two of those stations closed down as the railways declined.

Today they are a distant memory but around 150 years ago their names were on the lips of the everyone in the country, etched in infamy as the the site of, in the words of the official government report, “decidedly the worst railway accident that has ever occurred in this country”. On the evening of 23rd August, 1858, a train, overcrowded and packed with day-trippers, pulled into Round Oak station.

The rearmost carriages broke away and hurtled down the steep incline, back towards Brettell Lane, smashing into the train that was following.

14 were killed as a result and dozens were horribly injured in the crash.

The next day the Birmingham Daily Post reported on the tragedy, under the headline ‘Frightful railway collision near Dudley.

Twelve lives lost’. We reprint that report in full as it gives a vivid account of the events of that day: “The most serious catastrophe that has ever occurred on a railway in the Midland district took place last night (Monday) on the Oxford, Worcester, and Wolverhampton line, between Round Oak and Brettell Lane Stations, a few miles beyond Dudley. By it eleven persons were instantaneously killed, another died a few hours afterwards, several more were so severely injured that t h e i r r e c o v e r y i s despaired of, others are maimed for life, and a great number were more or less injured.

The accident took place under the following circumstances: Yesterday there was ‘a very cheap Sunday school excursion to Worcester.’ A special was announced to leave Wolverhampton for Worcester at 9.15, ‘calling at all stations for the express purpose of conveying the teachers and children of the various schools to Worcester and back.’ Fares “The fare from Wolverhampton and Stourbridge and all intermediate stations to Worcester and back was one shilling for adults and sixpence for children; from Hagley, Churchill, Kidderminster, and Worcester it was 8d for adults and 4d for children; and from Droitwich and Fernall Heath 6d for adults, and 3d for children. This extraordinary low rate of charges naturally attracted a large number of passengers, and by the time the train arrived at its destination it had been augmented to 45 carriages, computed to contain nearly 2,000 passengers. The return train was announced to leave Worcester at 6.15pm.

Those having charge of the arrangements determined to divide the train, and instead of having one monster train propelled by two engines, to have two trains drawn by one engine.

“Accordingly, about 25 minutes after six o’clock, the first train left Worcester station. It consisted of 29 carriages, closely packed with passengers; and was followed in a quarter of an hour by the second train consisting of 16 carriages.

Each train called at all stations, and all went well with the first until its arrival at Round Oak, which took place about 8.05. There, either just before the train arrived at the station, which is situated on a steep incline, or when it was put in motion to leave the station, twelve or thirteen of the last carriages became detached from the former part of the train by the breaking of the coupling of two of the carriages, and rolled back down the incline towards Brettell Lane with ever increasing velocity. The guard who occupied the van at the extremity of the train applied his break with all the force of which it was capable, but its power was insufficient to check the retrograde motion of the carriages, which soon attained a very high rate of speed.

“On arriving at the Bug Hole, a little more than half way to Brettell Lane, they dashed into the second excursion train, which as before stated, was despatched from Worcester only 15 minutes after the first, and being a lighter train, naturally gained upon it during the journey. The driver of the second train perceived the carriages running back upon him down the incline, and had nearly succeeded in bringing his train to a stand at the time of the collision, thus considerably mitigating the severity of the crash. But as it was the consequences were fearful. The guard’s van and the carriage next to it were split to matchwood, and the second carriage escaped little better. The guard jumped out before the collision occurred, and escaped without injury; but the effect upon the passengers crowded in the two shattered carriages was dreadful. The scene that ensued it is impossible to describe.

Agonies “Fragments of the crushed and broken carriages, mutilated human forms, some still in death, some writhing in their last agonies, other seriously but not fatally hurt, shrieking with pain and terror, were commingled in a general melee, hardly distinguishable amid the darkness and the dust occasioned by the collision.

The terrified passengers who escaped without serious injury, ran hither and thither in bewilderment, and for a time none knew what to do. A few of the more self-possessed, however, speedily bestirred themselves to render all possible assistance to the unfortunate sufferers, and remove them from t h e w r e c k t h a t bestrewed the line, and messengers were despatched for medical and other aid.

“It was soon apparent that the loss of life was l a m e n t a b l y g r e a t .

Eleven lifeless forms were discovered amongst the rubbish, in addition to many frightfully mangled and disfigured.

As speedily as possible the latter were conveyed on stretchers, furnished by the shivered coaches, to the various hotels in the neighbourhood; and the next duty attended to was the removal of the dead in like manner.

“Many of those only slightly injured proceeded onwards by the train, and it is probable that a complete list of the casualties resulting from this sad affair will never be obtained.

“The removal of the wounded was effected under the superintendence of Mr Wall, assistant to Mr Norris, the company’s surgeon at Brierley Hill, who was first upon the ground; but other medical men soon arrived, and took charge of cases at the inns, to which the sufferers were conveyed.

Amongst these were Dr Walker, Brierley Hill, and Mr Horton, assistant; Mr Osborne and Mr Harding, of Stourbridge; Mr Tomlinson, from Mr Freer’s; Mr Evans, from Mr Giles’s, of Stourbridge; &c.

“Information of the occurrence was instantly telegraphed to Worcester, and about half-past nine o’clock Mr Sherriff, the general manager, with Mr Adcock and Mr W.

Carden, and Mr Everett, surgeons to the company, arrived by special train from Worcester. The two former gentlemen immediately directed their attention to the clearing of the line and preparing it for the resumption of traffic, and the two latter visited the wounded located in the neighbourhood.

“There is a feature in this case which is not presented by railway accidents generally. The train to which the accident happened being a special one from a particular district, all the persons injured, and it is feared all those killed also, but up to two o’clock this morning none of them had been identified, resided within a limited area, within which all the distressing consequences of the calamity are concentrated, instead of being distributed over the whole country as in the case of an ordinary train conveying passengers to and from various parts. The bodies of some of the dead are fearfully mangled, and their identification, except by the dress, will in some cases be difficult.

The features of one poor woman, whose body lies with four others at the Swan Inn, Moor Lane, are wholly undistinguishable, her head being crushed into a shapeless mass. The legs of a man lying at the same place are fearfully crushed, and his head and face shockingly contused.

The gentleman had been expensively dressed, and even in death had the air of a person who has been accustomed to move in superior society. Most of the others appear to have belonged to the working classes. We append a list of such of the casualties as we were enable to obtain particulars of, and have no doubt but in the course of today it will be known who were the unfortunate individuals who were killed.

“We may mention that the particular spot at which the collision occurred is a short distance beyond the junction of the Kingswinford branch railway, in course of formation, with the main line, and that the line was cleared for traffic by 12 o’clock, but little damage being done to the permanent way. From the list appended it will be perceived that all the serious casualties were sustained by persons resident at Princes End, Coseley, Tipton, Dudley, and the immediate vicinity of those places; and with one exception all are adult persons.

Wounds “Elizabeth Hyde, a girl of ten or twelve years of age, slightly injured; Charles Turner, of Bloomfield, Tipton, suffering from injury to the chest, a large scalp wound, and many cuts about the head, fractured ribs on the left side, and perforation and protrusion of the left lung, recovery doubtful; Thomas Brett, of Daisy Bank, fractured shoulder, and injuries to the head and thigh, a serious but not fatal case; and Edward Jones, of Dudley Port, slight injury to the leg, are all accommodated at the Crown Inn.

“Sarah Fisher, of Coseley, slight injury to the chest, is staying at the Royal Exchange.

“Luke Stokes, slight injury to leg; William Skelding, Princes End, injury to tongue and nose; Eliza Lones, Princes End, a girl, suffering from general concussion, a slight scalp wound, and general contusion of knee; Thomas Lones, father of the lastnamed, slightly injured; and Mary Lones, mother of Eliza, and wife of Thomas Lones, sustained a fracture to the collar bone, and injuries of a very serious nature to the chest and abdomen.

All these are accommodated at the Whimsey, Brettell Lane, where three lie dead.

“Lydia Cox, Bloomfield, very extensive scalp wound; Samuel Clark, concussion of the brain, and extensive injury to knee joint, very serious case; and Henry James, Coseley, slight injury in the back; these lie at the Cock Inn, Moor Lane, where are also three dead, two men and a woman.

“Joseph Webb, compound fracture of the left leg and the right toe, very serious case, but expected to recover; William Kendrick, Princes End, fracture of right thigh and left leg, and injuries to the head, dangerous case, but hope of recovery; William Harley, tailor, Dudley, general concussion, not dangerous; and Richard Welsh, scalp wound and internal injuries of a very serious character, no hope of recovery, lying at the Swan Inn, where there are five dead — three men and two women.

“Sarah Ann Whitehouse, of Princes End, injury to the arm and leg, not of a very serious character, accommodated at a house next door to the Swan.

“Haden Smith, Coseley, comminated fracture of the arm, and injury to the back; Sarah Bevan, Coseley Street, Bilston, toe cut off and otherwise uninjured; Mrs Wycherley, sister of Miss Bevan, injury to left leg; and Benjamin Sheldon, injury to the ankles, necessitating amputation of both legs, dangerous case; these lie at Moor Lane House, kept by Mr James Naden.

“In addition to the above there were a great number of persons injured who were conveyed to a distance by their friends. Others proceeded to Dudley by rail, and were forwarded to their homes thence.

“Mr Johnson, of Coseley, who arrived at Dudley Station, appeared so much injured that his recovery was considered doubtful.

Identification “Mr Mooney put on special trains for the accommodation of persons residing on the lines of South Staffordshire and Stour Valley Railways, who were detained by the accident until too late for ordinary trains.” On 25th August the newspaper reprinted its original report and also gave the news of the identification of the victims and further particulars of those injured: “Particular and minute enquiries yesterday tended to confirm the general accuracy of the foregoing statement. In a few minor details it is, of course, incomplete; but in all material particulars it is substantially correct.

The number of killed is correctly stated, and the description given of injuries sustained by those most seriously injured is generally accurate. As we ventured to anticipate, the bodies of all the deceased have been identified.

They are a young man named Francis Mills, a furnaceman at the Bloomfield Iron Works; Joseph Baker, Princes End, ironworker, 35 years of age, single; Edward Matthews, Coseley, puddler; Benjamin Skeldon, of Princes End, baker and provision dealer; Harriet, his wife, and John his son, a young man of 17; Mrs Hildrick, wife of Mr Hildrick, sawyer, of Park Lane, Tipton; Mrs Harley, wife of Mr Harley, tailor, Dudley; Henry Weston, labourer, Princes End, aged 33, single; Richard Moore, aged 30, Princes End; Henry Marshall, aged 36, boatman, Worcester; and Benjamin Pitt, hay and straw dealer. Perhaps the case of the Skeldons is the most melancholy of the foregoing list of casualties.

A sad gap has been made in that family, the husband, and wife, and eldest son, alike falling victims to the catastrophe; and unborn baby also perished with the mother. Mrs Harley had left a young family of children motherless, her husband being amongst the wounded.

Amongst the seriously wounded are Joseph Webb, Princes End, puddler, leg broken and toe amputated, 30 years of age, married; William Kendrick, Princes End, leg and thigh fractured; Richard Wassell, Princes End, serious internal injuries and injury to the head, slight hope of recovery; William Harley, Stafford Street, Dudley, tailor, severely contused; Haden Smith, residing near Christ Church, Coseley, arm broken; Miss Bevan, Coseley Street, Bilston, toe cut off and otherwise uninjured; Mrs Wycherley, sister of Miss Bevan, leg broken.

Postmaster Samuel Clark, external injury to the knee-joint, supposed spinal injury, and paralysis; Lydia Corser, of Burton-on- Trent, serious scalp wound; Henry Augustus James, son of the postmaster of Coseley, injury to back; Sarah Fisher of Princes End, slight injury to chest, progressing favourably; Mrs Mary Lanes, crushed internally, collar-bone broken, and otherwise seriously injured, progressing satisfactorily; Elizabeth Hyde, aged 14. Vicarage Prospect, Dudley, slightly injured; Edward Jones, of Dudley Port, hair-dresser, generally contused; Charles Turner; aged 27, Princes End, hurt seriously in the head and side; Thomas Brett, Daisy Bank, blacksmith, ribs and collar-bone broken, very dangerously hurt, &c., &c.

List “It is of course impossible to present anything like a perfect list of the wounded, most of those who were able to bear removing have been taken to their own homes. We are informed that the surgeons of the Company have visited upward of 70 cases of alleged injury by the accident, and report that more than 60 persons have sustained damage by the collision. It is hoped that no further sacrifices of life may result, although the injuries of some of those who are wounded are so severe as almost to preclude the hope of recovery.

The wounded are receiving every possible attention from the officers of the Company, and neither expense nor trouble is spared in endeavouring to lighten their suffering.” Over the next few days the paper gave regular updates on the condition of the injured. Sadly, two more fatalities had to be reported. Samuel Clark, who broke his back in the accident, died on 31st August. The same day Sarah Rogers of Princes End, a 70- year-old widow who had broken her ribs in the crash but who had taken herself home to recover, also passed away. These deaths brought the total number of fatalities to 14, with around 220 people injured, 50 of them seriously.

The inquest into the deaths of those killed in the accident was opened on 25th August, 1858, at the Whimsey Inn, Brettell Lane. T.M. Phillips was the coroner and Rev J. Bailey, a Baptist minister, was sworn in as the foreman of the jury. His fellow jurymen were James Wheeler, spirit merchant; John Stewart, chemist and druggist; George Ford, newspaper proprietor; Edward Elcock, baker; Thomas Fletcher Rooker, chemist; Edward Samuel Haines, clerk; Joseph Jackson, shoemaker; Benjamin Hammersley, pawnbroker; George Wassell, wine merchant; James Salmon, tailor; Joseph Done, publican; George Chephain, chemist; James Williams, shoemaker; William Holcroft, coalmaster; and William Major Dunn, schoolmaster.

Their deliberations, first at the Whimsey and later at the Bell Inn, Brierley Hill, lasted until October and were reported in detail by the Birmingham Daily Post.

The Board of Trade also sent Captain H.W.

Tyler of the Royal Engineers to investigate the crash, and he also reported his conclusions, after exhaustive experiments at the scene of the disaster, in October, 1858. Next week we shall look at the findings of the inquest and Captain Tyler’s investigation into the cause of the Brettell Lane railway disaster.

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