100 Years On - Has Mystery Of Grantham Rail Crash Been Solved?
Grantham Rail Crash 15th September 1906
A little over one hundred years ago on the 8:45pm Scotch Express from King’s Cross hurtled through Grantham Station, left the rails and smashed through the parapet above Harlaxton Road. The Grantham Rail Crash of 1906 claimed 14 lives. It made headline news nationally and filled the broadsheet columns of the Grantham Journal. A major inquiry and several investigations failed to find the cause of the crash. As years went by the horror of that night drifted into the realms of a mystery, sometimes fanciful, that has become a Marie Celeste of railway folklore.
However, in the past couple of months The Railway Magazine has published extensive research that has produced a solution that transcends ghostly theories, but implies poor working practices, employee error and, in the days of fierce rivalry between railway companies when passenger loyalty could be at stake, the spectre of a possible corporate cover-up. The Railway Magazine editor Nick Pigott suggests that investigators may have missed a crucial piece of evidence.
In 1906, the locomotive Ivatt Atlantic No 276 was only two years old. Driver Fred Fleetwood (pictured), 45, had 18 years’ experience and was familiar with the line between Peterborough and Doncaster. He had driven the locomotive along the track the two previous nights.
Yet at 11:00pm as postal workers stood by their platform barrows stacked high with mail the train failed to stop, jumped the points set against it and ploughed into the bridge parapet. The carriages broke like matchwood - most ending up in Henry Bell’s Yard on Old Wharf Road (today the area of Golding Young’s salesroom).
Doncaster-based Fleetwood’s regular fireman was off sick, so firing for him was Ralph Talbot, 23, a premium apprentice - one of the young elite - to top railway engineer Henry A. Ivatt (after whom Ivatt Court in Grantham is named). He was working his way up with a year’s experience on the footplate. In the crash, Fleetwood, Talbot, a postal worker and nine passengers died instantly. Two more died of their injuries. Thirteen passengers and four railwaymen were hurt. The scene was one of carnage. Fires broke out caused by the gas lighting in the carriages.
The three-day Board of Trade inquiry was held the following week (24th and 25th September) and heard that on this fateful night the train, carrying 50 passengers and postal workers, was described as coming into Grantham “like a roaring bull in full downhill stampede” passing signals and red lights. signals. Thirty one witnesses were called:
Signalman at Grantham South box, Alfred Day, said both the driver and firemen were just looking out of their windows and “did not appear to be doing anything”.
North box signalman Richard Scoffin said all signals were at danger and the interlocking points on the down main were correctly set for the sharp reverse curve to protect a goods train that had just come off the Nottingham branch line.
Passenger Joseph Glaister claimed he was told by a railwayman the footplatemen were “fighting and gesticulating at each other”.
George Henry Pile was the Inspector in charge of Grantham station that night and was standing at the north end of the down platform waiting to meet the train, he was just 150 yards from where the locomotive finally left the rails and plunged down the embankment and witnessed the whole disaster as it happened. At the inquest he stated that the train passed him at forty to forty five miles an hour, he then heard an explosion. He then went to the scene of the crash and instructed the signalman to stop any other train from entering the station. His view of the accident his evidence on whether the train’s brakes were on conflicted with others, he thought that the brakes were not applied although he had admitted that he may have been mistaken. Whether the locomotive was braking has never been established. George’s testimony about the signalling system was less controversial though; it had been suggested by some that the stop signal at the north end of the station was not operating. George testified “I am positive that the North box home signal was at Danger” and the inquiry found no fault with the
The inquiry found nothing. The engine was said to have no mechanical faults. Of course there was a lot of speculation and gossip at the time and numerous theories postulated. Were the men in a trance? Were they fighting?
Research by Keith Hill, Brian White, of the Great Northern Railway Society, based on information from retired station inspector, the late Mr J. Buttery, and backed up by an increasing number of railway historians, suggests the fate of the Scotch Express was sealed the moment it left Peterborough. There, No 276 had been coupled to the train and a 12th carriage added. But in the changeover of engines a tragic error appears to have been made and the vacuum brake hose was not connected. In those days there was a common policy on the GNR of ‘pulling the valve wires’ to release the train brakes. On this night, with the vacuum brake hose unconnected, it left the Scotch Express without brakes to any of its carriages.
Fleetwood, although known to regularly check his brakes, on this occasion apparently didn’t, perhaps trying to make up the eight minutes they were late.
The train hurtled down the 1-in-200 incline towards Grantham. With only the brakes of the engine and tender to slow the speed the train was doomed on the greasy rails.
After the crash the tender handbrake was found to be half on, perhaps indicating a frantic attempt by Fleetwood and Talbot to screw it down … the fabled struggle?
The day after the crash, the Great Northern issued instructions that the practice of releasing valve wires was to stop. Had the company already got an inkling of what had caused it and embarked on a damage limitation exercise?
The brake theory is more than likely the correct explanation of the crash, but nobody will ever know the whole story. That was taken to the grave by Fleetwood and Talbot.
Victim’s Gravestone Rededicated
The gravestone of the only victim of the Grantham Rail Crash to be buried in town has been refurbished and was rededicated on Tuesday. Georgiana Baguley, who was 33 and lived in Doncaster, was travelling home on the Scotch Express. She was a widow and, when no family could be traced, she was buried at Grantham Cemetery. The Lord Bishop of Grantham, the Rt Rev Wellbore McCarthy, conducted the funeral assisted by the Rev Nash, vicar of St Anne’s Church. The Mayor of Grantham also attended.
The gravestone’s refurbishment and rededication service was organised by funeral director Robert Holland when he realised the centenary of the crash was approaching. He asked stonemason Mark Shepherd to restore the gravestone. An inscription saying “A victim of the 1906 Grantham railway disaster” indicating that she was a victim of the Grantham Rail Crash has been added to the back of the stone.
Mr Holland said: “As far as we know this is the only thing anywhere in Grantham that acknowledges there was ever a rail disaster here, which is why we put it on the stone.”
The re-dedication service at Grantham Cemetery was led by Mr Holland and the vicar of St Anne’s Church the Rev Fred Long. Also there were the Mayor of Grantham John Wilks, Mayoress Sarah Wilks and Mark Shepherd.