Clayton Tunnel Accident

In modern parlance the horrific accident that occured on 25 August 1861 would be said to have been "an accident waiting to happen". It was certainly a profound shock to the LB&SCR, as well as to railways in general, and what was further shocking in the Victorian mindset was the fact that the collision ocurred on a Sunday.

Two excursion trains were due to set out from Brighton station ahead of a timetabled 8:30am departure These two were a late-running Portsmouth to London train that had been due to depart Brighton at 8:05am and a Brighton to London train due to depart at 8:15am. In those days the LB&SCR was not known for its punctuality and the erosion of the time intervals between the trains was nothing uncommon. The line was worked on the time interval basis which was quite safe provideing the Rules were strictly obeyed and the interval between trains sufficient for a Guard to protect his train in the event of any incident. Assistant Stationmaster Legg, realizing it was some six minutes after the due departure time of the 8:30 train, sensibly began dispatching them in their rightful sequence as the two excursion trains had a faster schedule than the ordinary train.

Although time interval was used on the open part of the route, the line within Clayton Tunnel was controlled by a block section, worked by a single needle telegraph and protected by a Whitworth automatic revolving banner signal. The automatic part of the title refers to the signal being replaced mechanically when a train ran over a treadle, requiring the Signalman to pull off the signal once more for the following train. In this location there was a Signalman at either end of the tunnel, each working a 12 hour shift, although in order to alternate between day and night shifts it was the practice to work 24 hour shifts on Sundays! On the day in question the south side of the tunnel was signalled by Signalman Killick, whilst at the north end was Signalman Brown.

The first train to pass Signalman Killick was the Portsmouth excursion which passed over the treadle and continued on to enter the tunnel. The "automatic" signal, however, failed to return to danger. Killick noticed this but was immediately confronted by the Brighton excursion train, hard on the tail of the Portsmouth train. This second train passed the signal, which was incorrectly showing a proceed aspect and which once again failed to return to danger. Killick immediately displayed a red flag but, as the train charged into the tunnel, did not know whether or not Driver Scott on Craven 2-2-2 Nº126 had seen it. Scott had seen the flag, and realizing that the flag signal contradicted the Whitworth signal knew that something was wrong and stopped the train in the tunnel. So far, so good, but now things started to go horribly wrong. Instead of staying put, with the Guard protecting the rear of the train, Scott decided to set back and propelled his train back towards the south end of the tunnel in order to speak to Killick.

Killick, though, was in a bit of a panic. Had the Portsmouth train stopped, or had it cleared the tunnel section? Had Scott, on the Brighton train, seen the red flag and stopped? Killick had no idea so telegraphed Signalman Brown who responded that the train (meaning the Portsmouth one) was out of the tunnel. For some reason Killick took this to mean the Brighton one so made the fatal error of withdrawing the red flag and replacing it with a white one, the proceed signal of those times. Driver Gregory of the ordinary passenger train, on locomotive Nº122, saw the white flag and accelerated his train into the tunnel. A few moments later he saw lights ahead, immediately put his engine into reverse gear and screwed down the tender handbrake in an effort to stop his train, but all in vain as his engine demolished the last two coaches of the excursion train, killing 22 passengers (including three children) outright and injuring 177, one of whom later died from the injuries sustained in the crash. The coaches of the excursion train were flimsy, open-sided vehicles which, it was said, actually saved lives as passengers were thrown out into the tunnel rather than being killed in their seats as the engine crushed the coaches.

If the accident weren't bad enough, the subsequent enquiry descended almost into farce. Craven, who had a very bad reputation in the way he treated his men, would defend his department fiercly and on this occasion got away with protesting that Scott's action in setting back his train was quite in order! The Board of Trade inspector, one Captain Tyler, concentrated his attention on the time interval method of working, the Railway put up the case that better mechanical safeguards would be self defeating as they would lead to the men being less alert and emphasized that this accident was caused by the failure of a mechanical safeguard. The south end signalman, Killick, was not held responsible so wasn't charged but Assistant Stationmaster Legg was judged to have acted recklessly in dispatching the trains too close together and was charged with manslaughter. When he appeared at Lewes Assizes though, the jury threw out the indictment. The ultimate blame for the accident was placed on 'Traffic' with Captain Tyler recommending the adoption of absolute block working, and continuous brakes. The Railway did nothing about the recommendation at this time.

The crew of the second engine were lucky in that Driver Gregory sustained minor injuries whilst his fireman escaped injury altogether, and Gregory was commended for his prompt action which no doubt prevented a far higher death toll. The incident then passed into railway history as Britain's worst ever railway accident, until the Irish Mail disaster some six years later.

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This page was created 16 May 2004

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