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Tragedy At Beighton - A Rail Accident: Soldiers on their way to Service

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Alan Rowles
Location of story: 
Beighton, Nr. Sheffield, Yorkshire
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 May 2005

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This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Alan Rowles, and has been added to the site with the author’s permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.


Railway accidents, even relatively minor ones have always been news, and even the derailment of a few wagons will merit a paragraph or two in the national press. However, there are a few exceptions, and the disaster at Beighton on Wednesday, the eleventh of February 1942, certainly comes into that category.

There were fourteen dead and many more seriously injured, yet there wasn’t a word in The Times and other national newspapers of the day. At a time when the war was not going well, such setbacks were not good for morale and were therefore, understated or simply ignored altogether. For example, whilst researching this article and reading through newspapers of the above month, it is interesting to note that whilst relatively minor successes on the war front were given front page coverage, the disastrous fall of Singapore merited only two or three columns, and was hidden away on the inside pages.

It is therefore, not surprising that a major railway accident involving armed forces and resulting in significant loss of life did not feature largely in the media. Consequently, the in depth coverage that I discovered in three local newspapers was unanticipated.

The accident occurred approximately 200 yards south of Beighton station and about the equivalent distance north of the spot where on the 7th of February 1980, Earl Manvers cut the first sod on the Beighton to Chesterfield section of the M.S.&L.

At 9.46 on the evening of February 11th, 1942, a northbound troop train came into contact with a heavy steel plated projecting over the side of a wagon stationed on the Number 1 road in Holbrook Colliery sidings.

The train was fully vacuum fitted and on board, were nearly 400 people, mainly consisting of 195 officers and men from the army plus 170 sailors.

Loading And Shunting The Plate Wagon

The wagon at the centre of the incident had started its fateful journey from Frodingham to West Tinsley at 3.30 a.m. on the day of the accident. Loaded by experienced men at the Appleby-Frodingham Steel Company on the 8th, an examiner passed the wagon before railway staff took charge. Because it was classed as an ordinary load, it did not call for special attention during transit and it was last seen during daylight at Broughton Lane sidings in the east end of Sheffield.

With guard Helliwell in charge, the train left Broughton Lane at 6.05 p.m. On arrival at High Hazels to the east of Darnall at 7.05 p.m., the vehicles for that destination were disposed of in the sidings, the engine was re-attached and with the plate wagon now the second vehicle, the train proceeded to Holbrook where it duly arrived at 8.15 p.m.

Holbrook Colliery sidings consisted of three roads adjacent to the down side of the main line and commencing at the south side of the level crossing at Beighton station. Access to the sidings was generally via the southern Killamarsh end and here, the short train was backed across the down line and into the No.3 road in the sidings. Here, another guard, Leonard Calladine was acting as shunter and he instructed Guard Helliwell to be responsible for controlling vehicles into the sidings. Several shunts were made until only a common user wagon and the plate wagon remained attached to the loco in the shunting neck. The points were then set for No.1 road and Calladine gave the driver the green light to set back, in order to allow him to release the coupling and loose shunt plate-wagon. This was followed by a red light when the train had travelled only a few feet, as he wished to shunt the common user wagon into No.2 without having to reverse the engine. Helliwell was waiting for the wagon between Nos.1 and 2 roads about sixty yards down the 1 in 165 incline from Calladine. At the enquiry, he said that he remembered breaking into a gentle run in order to lower the brake, which he did without difficulty. Subsequently, this aspect of the wagon movements was the one that featured large in the ensuing enquiry. Neither of the two men heard anything unusual as the plate-wagon made contact with other vehicles in No.1 road. As no further movements were required, the engine was released at 9.20 p.m. and Guard Helliwell travelled back down the mainline on the footplate, passing close by the plate wagon in No.1 sidings, but in the darkness, neither he nor the enginemen saw anything amiss. Guard Calladine also finished duty soon afterwards and before doing so, made a tour of the yard, but he had no occasion to pass along the somewhat narrow space between the No.1 road and the down mainline, where by now, the plate was overhanging, otherwise he would doubtless have seen it and the accident may well have been avoided. A goods train followed the light engine along the down mainline at 9.23 p.m., without incident, after which came the troop train.

The Tragic Consequences
The night was fine, but dark and there was a sharp frost as, at 9.56, the Glasgow bound troop train travelling at about 35 M.P.H. and under clear signals, ran down the incline towards Beighton station. As the train passed the protruding plate, the locomotive, being marginally narrower than the coaching stock, missed it. However, some of the handles on the first and second coaches made contact with it. Being three inches narrower, the third coach evaded the obstacle, but the fourth one struck the corner of the plate halfway along its side causing it to rotate further and cut more deeply into the fifth. The plate then embedded itself into the side of the sixth coach to a maximum depth of six feet.

As all this was happening, a freight train went by on the up line, striking a section of protruding woodwork from the sixth coach of the troop train. It was fortunate that it didn’t go by a few moments later when injured men would have been on the track.

Joseph Chadwick, the driver of the mineral train, said that he heard a loud crash and that something had struck his engine. He stopped at Killamarsh to report what had occurred and he found bits of wood and cushion stuffing on nearly every wagon. On the troop train, the driver, fireman and a guard had no indication that anything was untoward until a damaged vacuum pipe automatically brought the train to a standstill.

On board the train, a strange situation ensued with many in the front and rear coaches unaware that anything was amiss, but in the centre portion, it was a scene of chaos and carnage. Eleven soldier had been killed, nearly forty badly injured and many more trapped inside the wreckage.

Rescue In The Dark

Roused by the sound of the crash, people in the neighbourhood were quickly on the scene and led by Stationmaster Edgar Allan, rapidly formed rescue parties. Among the first to arrive was a group of miners who were returning from nearby Waleswood Colliery on the pit bus. They were approaching the level crossing when the accident occurred. They offered their services, acting as stretcher-bearers; those who were able, rendered first aid. For the first few minutes, everyone toiled in total darkness, but limited illumination was soon to be forthcoming. The spectacle was a grim one as rescuers fought to save lives amid the dim light provided by torches and lamps.

More assistance arrives as members of the local St John’s Ambulance Brigade, Red Cross, Home Guard, A.R.P. and Civil Defence began to work tirelessly throughout the night. Two local G.P.s Dr. De Dombal from Beighton and Dr. G.R. Lipp from Killamarsh worked magnificently throughout the night, assisted by first aid parties and eventually, doctors and nurses from Sheffield and Chesterfield.

It was later revealed that all of the sailors escaped injury, but 14 of the soldiers lost their lives and 35 others were severely injured. Eleven of the dead were taken to the station waiting room, which served as a temporary mortuary, whilst the other unfortunate servicemen died on their way to or at Sheffield Royal Infirmary. Local residents helped, rescuing those who were trapped in the wreckage; in many cases, providing a bed for the night.

Stories were told of fortunate escapes and brushes with death. “We did not see or hear a thing,” said a soldier who was in the carriage in which a number of people were killed, “we only realised there had been an accident when the train stopped.” A soldier said that he and five colleagues were just settling down to get some sleep when they heard what sounded like something being dragged along the corridor. There followed a terrific crash, the lights went out, glass flew everywhere and the corridor caved in. A man said that he owed his life to the fact that he had changed seats during a card game. There was a man who died in the arms of another soldier with these words on his lips: “The navy is too late this time chum.”

Throughout the night, the local L.N.E.R workers played a prominent part in the rescue effort, with men whose shift finished at 10 p.m. The damaged train was reversed into Beighton station where the extent of the damage could be more easily assessed.

The Inspecting Officers’ Conclusions

The inquest took place at Beighton Miners’ Welfare Club and was presided over by Mr. F.D. Worthington, the Chesterfield District Coroner. The court stood in silence for a few moments and the inquest was duly adjourned. The subsequent enquiry cast more light on the incident. Carried out by Mr. J.L.M. Moore, the Inspecting Officer for what in 1942 was called the Ministry Of War Transport. The report concluded that the movement of the plate occurred during the loose shunting at Holbrook. Tests made with a template vehicle proved that the load could not have been overhanging the plate wagon by more than 1’2” between Broughton Lane and Holbrook without fouling a retaining wall and this wall as not marked in any way. The force of the impact was governed by the two main factors: the speed at which the shunting was carried out by Guard Calladine and the application of the brake by Guard Helliwell. There was independent evidence to confirm that Calladine shunted with caution and was borne out by the fact that he made the shunt within 20 yards without having the engine reversed. On the other hand, both brake levers were found to be on their respective rests after the incident, pointing to the fact that Helliwell did not apply the brake.

The tests proved to the Inspector’s satisfaction that the brake was, for whatever reason, not applied on the night of the incident. He also considered the possibility that a faster shunt was made but stated that although the plate shifted considerably further on that occasion; it was not necessarily proof of this. He explained that a wagon would run more freely at the end of a journey and that the plate would slide more readily under frosty conditions.

“Responsibility for the incident rests with Helliwell,” stated Mr. Moore, “he is over 60 years of age and apparently, not over alert either in mind or body. The extent of the blame, if any, must not be judged by the results,” said the inspector. A man controlling wagons into sidings in such circumstances has to consider in just a few moments during which the vehicle is within the light of his hand lamp, its speed, the type of brake fitted and what is required of him to ensure that it comes to rest at the desired point.

Mr. Moore stated that he hesitated to criticise Guard Helliwell unduly for his failure to apply the brake on this occasion although he felt that a younger and more active man would have checked the vehicle. He also pointed out that owing to Holbrook yard having been in existence for a considerable time, the clearances between No.1 siding And the main line were not in accordance with modern practice and had there been the full 9 feet, the incident would not have occurred.

The Inspector’s Recommendations
Apart from establishing responsibility for the incident, the tests had the added advantage of revealing the surprisingly slight impact required to move the plates and the consequent risk incidental to this method of loading. It was agreed that there was no practical means of making secure, loads carried in this manner and there was no alternative but to recommend the immediate discontinuance of the existing practice. The representatives of the L.N.E.R. agreed with this view and not only were orders to the effect issued throughout the company, but advantage was taken of the meeting of the R.E.C. Operating Committee on the following day to pass on to the representatives of the companies, the circumstances of the incident and the steps to be taken to guard against a recurrence.

In Conclusion
The pure accident — one caused by fate alone, is rare on the railway. Invariably, human fallibility is responsible and so it was at Beighton. A method of transporting large metal sheets that was fraught with danger, a siding with insufficient clearance between it and the main line, and the failure to apply a wagon brake during a loose shunt, all combined to produce a major collision.

It may seem to be a paradox, but it is hardly an exaggeration to say that incidents such as the one at Beighton have helped to make Britain’s railway network one of the safest in the world. The goal may be unattainable, for precautions, no matter however painstaking, can never be proof against catastrophe, but from a disaster such as Beighton did and will continue to come a safer future for our railways.

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