Sleaford Rail Disaster
On Monday, 15th February, 1937 at about mid-day, the York to Harwich boat train was derailed at the north junction of the Spalding by-pass and Sleaford loop lines. Four men were killed and one seriously injured when the coaches crashed on top of a plate-layers’ hut in which they were having their lunch break.
The following is an extract from a local family’s personal recollection of the events of the day:
A car driver, Mr. Brown, travelling into Sleaford from Ruskington noticed the express train travelling parallel to him, as the line was only one field away from the road all the way from Ruskington. It overtook him and he thought it was travelling unusually fast as it had to branch right at the junction onto the Sleaford loop line. He observed the engine and first carriages turn onto the loop and then, to his horror, saw them part from the engine and crash onto their sides. He drove to the foot of the railway bridge, where he had an unobstructed view, and got out of his car, as did another driver who had just come over the bridge travelling in the opposite direction. They both stood for a few seconds taking in the chaotic scene, then the other man exclaimed: “Come on, let’s go down to see if we can help.”
Mr. Brown looked at the mess, the wrecked carriages and the torn up lines together with the shattered telegraph poles and realised that all lines of communication from the adjoining signal box were cut. He reasoned, quite rightly, that one man could do very little on his own, and that expert help was required. However there was the danger of another train crashing into the wreckage if Sleaford Station was not warned.
So he got back into his car and drove into Sleaford as fast as he could to the railway station. The station master listened to what he had to say and then sprang into action. First he tried to get through on the telephone to the signal box. When that failed, confirming that the lines were down, he rang other signal boxes on the Sleaford side, instructing them not to send any more trains down the line affected. Next he reported to his superiors at head office that an accident of unknown severity had occurred and that he would contact them again as soon as he had assessed the situation. Finally he ordered his assistant station master to notify the police, fire brigade and ambulance services.
Having done all that, he turned back to the car driver and asked: “Mr Brown, would you be willing to take me in your car to the scene of the accident?” Of course Mr. Brown agreed. “Right,” said the station master as they piled into our Flying Standard Saloon, “Go straight through the town with your lights full on and your hooter blowing and stop for nothing.”
Mr. Brown proceeded to do just that and must have caused quite a sensation. When they arrived at the railway bridge the station master made him stop for a moment whilst he quickly surveyed the scene before him. Then he instructed Mr. Brown to drive down the lane to the signal box. For those who now see a different lay-out of the roads due to the new by-pass, this signal box is sited near the loop road which now leads from the Ruskington road onto the west bound carriageway of the Sleaford by-pass.
The station master then left Mr. Brown in the car, asking him to stay whilst he visited the actual scene, where he assessed what assistance was required. He returned after about fifteen minutes and asked Mr. Brown to do a last favour and return him to Sleaford Station. On the way he expressed his thanks and informed him that his prompt action had helped greatly in assuring that rescue operations had been started with the least possible delay.
Mr. Brown did not revisit the crash scene as there was obviously nothing more that he could usefully do, and he was not one of those ghouls who love to look on at a tragedy. It was not until he arrived home at tea time that he learned that the plate-layers’ hut had been demolished. The photograph shows a pile of smashed wood beside the broken carriage bogey, which is all that was left of that hut. That is the end of Mr. Brown’s story, except that he eventually received a letter of commendation from the Chairman of the Board of Directors of LNER thanking him for his assistance.
To give a final few details of this tragedy the engine and tender, although derailed remained upright on the loop line. The three first coaches were turned over and smashed. By a miracle there were only about forty passengers on the train that day and at the time they were all in the dining car at the rear of the train having lunch. The rear coaches remained on the rails so no-one on the train was hurt. The casualties were the poor railway workers who were sitting around a coke brazier eating their lunch. Although four were killed, amazingly one survived, Leonard Riven, who only suffered from concussion and shock.