More than 90 were killed and 173 were injured in the St John’s, or Lewisham rail tragedy of 1957. The huge number of dead, allied to the 112 killed in 1952 at Harrow and Wealdstone, might have forced the crisis-afflicted Government of Harold Macmillan to act – but the recommended safety system was still not installed 40 years later when seven people died at Southwell. TOBY PORTER recalls the 1957 tragedy, which residents want to mark with a new plaque.
Tony Jones’s dad missed his train on December 4 1957. Like every evening after work, the civil servant sprinted from his bus to Charing Cross railway station to catch the 5.18pm to Hayes to be at home with his family as early as possible.
This time, the dash was just too much. He uttered some expletives and decided to catch the next one. It was a piece of luck which saved his life.
That train was one of three caught in a crash in Lewisham which killed 90 people and injured almost double that number.
His son Tony recalled on the 50th anniversary: “Since 1955, my father, a civil servant had worked in Kensington and travelled home each night by bus and then train.
“For the previous two years, regular as clockwork, he would catch the same train even if it meant running from the bus stop to Charing Cross railway station.
“On December 4, he was again running for his train – and for the first time he suddenly stopped running and said to himself ‘Blow it – or words to that effect – I’ll just get the next train’.
“His usual train, which he missed that evening, was the 5:18pm to Hayes which minutes later was involved in the crash outside St Johns railway station where 90 people were killed. Being a creature of habit he was never sure why, on that night, he acted out of character. We’re just grateful that he did.”
Melvyn Newell also told the BBC: “I was 16 years old waiting with my mother for my father to return home for the evening meal. We lived in Newquay Road, Catford. That night my father telephoned from Charing Cross railway station to say there were many crowds and he would try to board the Hayes train, but it would be a fight to get on.
“My mother and I heard about the crash at Lewisham on the radio. We knew that the Hayes train was involved and would have been the train my father would have taken. We heard nothing more from my father and for many hours we thought the worst.
“He arrived home at midnight having had the Charing Cross platform gates closed against him. Taking the next train, which had come to a standstill near St Johns railway station, the passengers were eventually informed of the accident and left the train to walk along the lines.
“With all public transport in chaos, my father had walked home. He described the scene of the accident with stretchers being carried down the embankment to Thurston Road in thick fog. He gave assistance.
“As a commuter to London for many years, and travelling now weekly to the City, every time I pass the ‘temporary’ bridge steelwork at Lewisham erected after the accident. It remains unchanged to this day. I carry the memory of this disaster and a close feeling for those who lost their lives and were injured.
“As a direct result of this accident I avoid travelling in either the front or rear portions of trains.”
That crash was one no one saw – literally, because of the thick fog.
The 4.56pm steam train from Cannon Street to Ramsgate crashed into the back of the 5.18pm to Hayes.
In 1957, the stationary trains were each protected in the rear by a bright colour light signal. This should have been enough to prevent danger.
A rear end collision at slightly under 35mph by a steam train into an electric multiple unit was always likely to cause a number of fatalities in the rear coaches of the electric train. But the location of the crash caused far more casualties.
The viaduct carrying another line overhead was hit. The steel bridge collapsed crushing several compartments and their passengers.
The 3,000 passengers involved were mostly Christmas shoppers. Rescue workers
picked their way through parcels wrapped in colourful paper.
By morning, there was hardly a home in the area with sheets or blankets left – residents gave all they had to the rescue workers.
Flats and houses sheltered the injured, even though Pathe News reported: “It is a working class area, with little to spare. But no one held back on this terrible night. Our cameramen who have filmed battlefields, say this is one of the most gruesome tragedies they have seen.”
The electric commuter train from Charing Cross to Hayes was stopped by a red light. The last carriage was under the rail bridge carrying the Lewisham to Nunhead line.
The delayed Cannon Street to Ramsgate train, was hauled by the steam loco Spitfire. Drivers, on the left, had to ask their fireman to lean out on the right to read the signals.
Driver W J Trew didn’t do so, and failed to spot two yellow ‘cautions’ approaching St Johns.
He did see a red signal at the far end of the platform and braked, but Spitfire was still travelling at 35mph when it hit the back of the stationary Hayes train at 18.20pm.
The Spitfire hit the Lewisham-Nunhead bridge, which collapsed onto the first three coaches. Above, a quick-thinking driver managed to stop his train just in time to prevent it tumbling into the gap, onto wreckage below.
It was believed that 49 of the 90 deaths in the Ramsgate train were caused by the collapse.
Driver Trew was blamed and tried for manslaughter. The jury failed to agree a verdict and at retrial he was discharged owing to severe stress-induced mental illness.
British Rail was criticized for not speeding up the installation of the Automatic Warning System (AWS) which would have set off an alarm in Trew’s cabin at the first yellow and then slammed on the brakes to prevent the crash.
This had been called for after the catastrophic Harrow & Wealdstone crash five years earlier, but was still not mandatory when the Southwell rail crash happened 40 years later.
Donald Corke, driving the Dartford service travelling just behind the collided trains, said: “As we came on to the bridge, I suddenly noticed the metal girder on the bridge bending upwards towards the carriage.
“I immediately thought the bridge must have fallen down, and applied the brakes. “I wasn’t scared, I just had to get on with stopping the train.
“When I looked down over the bridge, the fog was so thick you couldn’t see anything. There wasn’t a sound coming from the wreck – you could hear a pin drop.”
He unveiled a plaque outside Lewisham railway station in 2003 commemorating the tragedy.
‘I know of no other bridge to have collapsed this way’
St John’s rail-over-rail bridge being removed four days after the collision at 6.20pm on December 4, 1957The accident report mainly concentrated not on the bridge, but on factors such as the weather, the good working order or otherwise of the signals, the interviews and recollections of those involved and the subsequent brake tests.
There is a sentence on the first page of the report by Brigadier Langley (Royal Engineers), which said: “At first it was difficult to assess the magnitude of the disaster in the fog, but as the true situation became known, the emergency services were deployed at increasing strength, and many doctors and nurses arrived.”
Since Harrow & Wealdstone the NHS, and the Ambulance Service, had shifted to plan for more effective care and decision-making at the scene. This had begun to come into play at St Johns.
The problem of visibility from the cab of a steam engine was not really addressed despite, incredibly, steam engines still being built at the time.
Dense fog would become much less of an issue in future with the coming of natural gas and the benefits of the Clean Air Act a few years later. The age of steam trains and their sooty smoke was coming to a close.
The report said about the collapse of the bridge: “The design of the bridge and its supports was sufficiently strong to carry all normal loads with an adequate margin of safety, and I know of no other case in which a bridge has collapsed in this way.”
He made no suggestion about ensuring bridges stay up if one support collapses.
The bridge had to be replaced quickly – it was used by a busy and vital freight route.
A temporary military bridge was erected. It is still there.
The driver also implied his brakes were not working as they should – but they
were tested and found to be fully in order.
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