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Sunday, 1 January 2017

How Marconi bridged the Atlantic Ocean



The first morse code message sent across the Atlantic Ocean by radio, as opposed to cable, was received by Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) on 12th December 1901. He was stationed at Signal Hill, near St John’s, Newfoundland, and the signal was sent by a transmitting station at Poldhu, near Lizard Point in Cornwall, England.

Early experiments

Marconi first started experimenting with wireless telegraphy in 1895 in his native Italy, but moved to England in 1896 because he hoped to attract more interest and support, which was indeed the case. He developed gradually more sophisticated transmitting and receiving equipment and achieved progressively greater distances over which signals could be transmitted.

He was particularly interested in establishing ship-to-shore radio communications, and many of his early experiments were from ships and yachts to receiving stations that he had built onshore. There was clearly a business opportunity here because ships could not be connected by undersea cables in the way that fixed stations could. During the course of these experiments it became clear that radio signals could be picked up even when the transmitter and receiver were not within line of sight of each other, as would be the case when a ship was below the horizon as far as the shore station was concerned. If radio signals could “bend”, what limit could there be to how far they could travel?

Marconi became convinced that it should be possible to send a radio signal for thousands of miles, provided that the transmitting equipment was powerful enough. However, up to this point the best distance achieved had been no greater than about 90 miles (from near Boulogne on the French coast to Chelmsford in Essex, where Marconi had established his business headquarters). Nevertheless, he pressed on with his project to leap the Atlantic.

Preparatory work

Work on the transmitting station at Poldhu Cove began in October 1900, the plan being to build a similar station at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and the work on this station began in March 1901. Each station was to comprise 20 masts, each being 200 high, set in a circle that was 200 feet in diameter. In terms of transmitting equipment, Marconi calculated that the energy needed to send a signal the required distance would be around 20,000 volts, and this was to be provided by a Hornsby-Ackroyd oil-driven engine that would drive a 25 kilowatt alternator and a pair of transformers that would boost the alternator’s 2,000 volts to the necessary 20,000 volts. The final output of the plant, in terms of signal energy, would be 100 times greater than that of any previously built transmitter.

All seemed to be going well until 17th September 1901. By this time the aerials at both Poldhu and Cape Cod were nearly complete and Marconi was carrying out tests on the parts of the system that were serviceable, getting very satisfactory results. However, on that day a storm blew up and wrecked the circle of masts. This was clearly a massive setback, but it proved possible to create a temporary aerial, based on only two masts, that was operational only seven days later. Experiments using this aerial showed that strong signals could reach Marconi’s station at Crookhaven in County Cork, Ireland, 225 miles away, so Marconi decided that there was no need to rebuild the station before trying the ultimate test.

The Newfoundland test

He therefore abandoned the original plan to set up two-way communications between Poldhu and Cape Cod and on 26th November 1901 he set sail, with two colleagues, for St John’s, Newfoundland. He had begun to have doubts about whether the signals would reach as far as Cape Cod and decided to bridge a shorter distance, Newfoundland being the closest point of the North American continent to Cornwall. As it happened, just before setting sail he heard news that the Cape Cod station had also been wrecked in a gale.

The party arrived at St John’s with a quantity of balloons, hydrogen cylinders and large kites, apart from their portable receiving apparatus. They were received hospitably by the authorities at St John’s (Newfoundland was a British colony at the time) and offered space in a disused fever hospital on a rocky promontory overlooking the town. The appropriately named Signal Hill had been used in past ages for sending semaphore communications, and was also close to the point at which the first transatlantic cable had reached shore in 1866.

The trio tried various methods for getting an aerial wire airborne using the balloons and kites. The winds were strong and at times threatened to be too strong, but, once in place, the kites were perfectly serviceable for what was needed.

The station at Poldhu had been instructed to transmit a morse code “S” (three dots) for three hours every day. This letter was chosen because it would be unmistakable if picked up on the other side of the ocean. Any letter including a dash could be indistinguishable from atmospheric noise.

The first attempts at reception were made on 11th December. Marconi and his team recorded in their notes that something was detected on the Morse detectors, and as clicks on a telephone monitor, but they could not be definite that they were the Poldhu “S” dots.

However, on the following day there was no mistaking the regular three dots. One of the kites broke free, but, when a second kite was raised with a slightly shorter wire, the signals were heard continuously for more than two hours. Marconi was convinced that the experiment had succeeded.

Conditions on later days proved difficult, such that further tests were not possible and Marconi was concerned that his claims would not be believed. In this he was partially justified, because the London press was slow to accept his word for what was a remarkable claim, given the scientific opinion of the time that radio waves could not be “bent” (actually, the waves were being bounced off the ionosphere, but nobody knew that at the time).

Later work

Ironically enough, what most convinced people that Marconi had succeeded was the vehemence shown by the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, whose undersea cable had transmitted Marconi’s triumphant massage back to England. They immediately threatened legal action against Marconi for breaking their monopoly, and Marconi promptly ended his testing in Newfoundland.

However, he was clever enough to make public his correspondence with the “Anglo” and won immediate support from the Canadian press and government agencies, the news soon spreading to the United States. Many messages of support came his way, including one from Alexander Graham Bell who made Marconi an offer of land at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for a permanent transmitting/receiving station.

Marconi packed up his equipment on 23rd December, sending everything back to England with one of his colleagues, while he undertook visits to inspect various possible sites and to meet government officials.

Before he left Canada, Marconi had a draft contract in his pocket to establish a permanent wireless telegraph service, and he was promised government finance towards building a wireless station. Both in Ottawa and New York, Marconi was feted and dined, being hailed as a hero for his magnificent achievement, although his evidence for success was extremely sketchy and impossible to demonstrate without a receiving station being in place.

Fortunately, Marconi had been correct, and later work confirmed what he had claimed. The stations at Poldhu and Cape Cod were quickly rebuilt, with substantial wooden towers instead of flimsy masts, and many technical refinements were to follow.

On 22nd February 1902 Marconi set sail on the SS Philadelphia from Southampton to New York, with a view to sorting out the final details of his Canadian contract. However, he used the voyage to demonstrate his system to the world at large, by transmitting and receiving messages as the ship sailed across the Atlantic. The ship’s mast acted as an excellent aerial (albeit much shorter than that used at Signal Hill) and various improvements allowed for dashes as well as dots to be received.

The result was that readable messages could be transmitted for up to 700 miles during daylight and more than 1500 miles at night. The three-dot “S” signal could be detected at more than 2000 miles distance. With this very public demonstration the critics were finally silenced.


Marconi’s equipment was to prove its worth in two very notable instances within the following ten years. In July 1910 a radio message to the SS Montrose led to the arrest of Dr Hawley Crippen, who had murdered his wife and attempted to escape to Canada. Radio messages from RMS Titanic in April 1912 led to the saving of many lives due to the signals being picked up by other ships within steaming distance.

© John Welford

Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Hull rail crash, 1927



This is an account of a fatal rail accident in Hull, England, in 1927. Despite all the fail-safes built into the signalling system, one sequence of events allowed disaster to occur.

The crash at Hull Paragon station in 1927

The rail crash that occurred at Hull on 14th February 1927 was one that really should not have happened. That might be said of most accidents, of course, but in this case it would appear that all the systems were in place to prevent two trains meeting head-on on the same track, but there was one small chink in the armour of railway safety and that was enough to lead to the deaths of twelve passengers.

Hull Paragon is a terminus station, from which the lines run westward for about half a mile before branches lead west and north. There are fewer routes from Hull now than there were in 1927, and one of the lines no longer in existence led to Withernsea on the east coast. A train from Withernsea was running into Hull on the morning of 14th February, the engine being driven by Robert Dixon.

Meanwhile, Sam Atkinson was leaving Hull in charge of a Scarborough service. The two trains should have passed each other without incident.

However, as Driver Atkinson ran under the signal gantry at Park Street, still within sight of the station, he had the strange feeling that his train had been switched on to the wrong track. He checked on both sides of the footplate and, once he was certain that this was so, he slammed on his brakes. However, this was not enough to prevent a collision with Driver Dixon’s approaching train.

Once Driver Atkinson had picked himself up and taken stock of the situation, he ran up the steps of the nearby signal box and demanded to know what had happened.

There were three signalmen on duty, and their aim that morning had been not to allow the approaching Withernsea train to delay the departure of the Scarborough train. They therefore set their signals and points in conjunction so that everything should run as smoothly as possible.

What clearly happened at some stage was that a set of slip points was activated that allowed the Scarborough train to get on to the wrong line. These were controlled by lever 95 in the signal box. The systems in place made it impossible for the lever to be moved unless lever 171, which controlled the signal faced by the Scarborough train, was also moved.

While one signalman was dealing with the Scarborough departure, another was controlling the Withernsea arrival. The levers he needed to operate were 96 and 97.

Lever 171 should not have been returned to danger until the whole train had passed it, by which time it would have cleared the slip points, but, in his hurry to speed things up, the signalman in question moved the lever after only the engine and the first few carriages had passed it.

The other signalman then moved what he thought were levers 96 and 97 but must have been 95 and 96. The slip points controlled by lever 95 were therefore moved during the few seconds between lever 171 being moved and the train reaching the points. Disaster was then inevitable.


Both signalmen were therefore to blame, one for moving lever 171 too soon and the other for moving lever 95 in error. This was therefore a classic case of being too hasty, such that the correct procedure was not followed. Had the signalmen taken more care, even if that meant a train being held at a signal, the accident would not have happened.

© John Welford

Monday, 12 December 2016

The Elliot Junction rail crash, 1906



1906 was a bad year for railway accidents in Great Britain, with derailments at Salisbury and Grantham followed by a serious collision at Elliot Junction, in Scotland, on Friday 28th December.
  
Elliot Junction

Elliot Junction was a station that no longer exists, as the branch line that it served was closed in 1929. The station lay about one mile south of Arbroath, on the line from Dundee (to the south) to Aberdeen (to the north), which is very much open and running at present. In the photo, the station platform was where the car park is now, and the branch line went in the direction of the distant woods.

The weather at the time of the accident was appalling, with winter having set in hard on the east coast of Scotland. Temperatures were well below freezing and ice hung thick on the telegraph wires. Snow-laden winds blew in from the North Sea where the track ran close to the shore. Thick snow lay on the ground.

The accident

On the morning of the accident there had been another mishap south of Elliot Junction when some goods wagons had become derailed, resulting in one of the two tracks being blocked. Single-line working was therefore in operation for this stretch. However, because of problems with the telegraph line this information was not passed to the signal-box at Arbroath, the next main station to the north.

The 07:35 northbound express service from Edinburgh to Aberdeen was driven by Driver Gourlay, who was highly experienced. He was driving locomotive 324, a 4-4-0 of the 317 class. He was an hour late reaching Arbroath, which he did at 10:41, but that was as far as he was able to go as the lines further north were blocked by snow. The train waited for four hours, in the hope of things improving, but it was eventually decided that it would have to return to Edinburgh.

Normal practice would be for the locomotive to be turned on a turntable so that it could be coupled to the other end of the train and run funnel first, as it had on its northward journey. However, this was not done, and 324 was coupled to run tender first, thus giving the driver and fireman no protection from the elements in their open cab.

Another train needed to head south, this being a local train that was returning to Dundee from Arbroath. This was given a sixteen minute start over the returning express, with Driver Gourlay being warned to take special care.

At Elliot Junction the local train was held at the station while waiting for clearance to proceed through the temporary single-track section, about which the driver had not been told before leaving Arbroath. With the telegraph lines being down the only way to ensure that the track was clear was for a man to walk up and back through the affected section, a total distance of three miles.

The stationmaster at Elliot Junction had just decided to allow the passengers off the train to wait in the comfort of a warm waiting room when the express hurtled out of the snowstorm and hit the local train at about thirty miles an hour.

Three coaches of the local train were wrecked as was the leading coach of the express. Engine 324 fell on its side with the wheels still racing until the driver of the local train could crawl into the cab and close the regulator. Driver Gourlay was pulled out from underneath a pile of coal that had fallen on top of him but he was otherwise uninjured. However, his fireman was dead, as were 21 passengers from the two trains.

The cause of the crash

The blame for the crash lay firmly with Driver Gourlay, whose behaviour had clearly been reckless. For one thing, he was travelling “all stations”, which meant that he should have been preparing to stop at Elliot Junction and not proceeding at speed as he approached the platform. Furthermore, he had been instructed to drive under “caution” conditions which meant that the signalling system was not to be relied upon (due to the snow conditions) and safety was ensured by sending trains off at timed intervals and travelling at similar speeds, with drivers keeping a sharp lookout for obstacles on the line.

In any case, the driver’s visibility was severely curtailed by the conditions under which he was driving, with snow and coal dust blowing straight into his face with the engine running in reverse. This should have made him take extra care, not less.

Another question is why, having passed the obstruction of the blocked line on his way up the line earlier that day, he did not think to mention it to the station staff at Arbroath or the driver of the local train. After all, he did have four hours to kill before starting off back down the line.

Driver Gourlay defended himself at the subsequent enquiry by saying that he thought he had an all-clear signal as he approached Elliot Junction. However, the reason for the signal being slightly depressed (it should have been at a 45 degree angle for the all-clear) was that snow on the controlling wire was weighing it down. On the other hand, when driving under caution conditions, as mentioned above, a signal purporting to show all-clear should itself have been an indication that all was not well, given that all signals should have been in the “stop” position.

He also complained that there was no fog warning at the outer signal. In this he was probably correct, because this was standard practice in poor weather conditions, but it was pointed out that it was hardly reasonable to expect a fogman to stand in a blizzard with a warning lamp when there had been no trains between 09:00 and 15:30.

However, what pointed the finger of blame straight at Driver Gourlay was the fact that, while waiting at Arbroath, he had been “entertained” by a friendly passenger at the Victoria Bar on the station platform. He said that he had only had a single “nip” of whisky and had refused other offers from passengers, but Inspector Pringle, who conducted the enquiry, did not believe this. His conclusion included the words:

“The lack of intelligence, or of caution and alertness, displayed by Driver Gourlay were, in part at all events, induced by drink, the effects of which may possibly have been accentuated after he left Arbroath by exposure to the weather.”

Following the inquiry, Driver Gourlay stood trial and was found guilty by a majority verdict. He was sentenced to five years in prison but this was later remitted.

The inspector also had criticisms to make of the practices employed on the railway at the time, which had become slack under the joint ownership of the Caledonian and North British railway companies, who did not get on well together. The accident would have been avoided had the blockage on the line south of Elliot Junction not occurred, and this was due to an avoidable act of folly by a railway employee.


Under modern signalling and communications conditions, as well as Automatic Train Control, an accident such as that at Elliot Junction is extremely unlikely these days. However, outbreaks of human error and stupidity are always possible, so drivers still need to be aware of their responsibilities, one of which is staying well clear of the station bar!

© John Welford

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Tsarina who moved a comma and saved a life



Students are often told to be careful how they use punctuation when writing, but this story - which is supposedly true - is an example of how a comma in the wrong place can make a huge difference to a person’s life.

Tsar Alexander III of Russia

Tsar Alexander III ruled Russia from 1881 until his death in 1894 when he was succeeded by the last tsar, Nicholas II. Alexander came to the throne when his father, Tsar Alexander II, was assassinated. Alexander III ruled as an absolute monarch and was constantly aware of the threats he faced from real or imagined opponents. He was determined not to give an inch in terms of social or political reform.

Given the fate of his father, it is hardly surprising that he sought to clamp down hard on the various protest movements that bedevilled Russia at the time. Punishments were harsh; those anarchists who were not executed were exiled to Siberia, from which only a handful of them ever returned.

Among those executed for an attempt on his life was Alexander Ulyanov, whose younger brother, Vladimir, would in later life take his revenge on the Russian monarchy under his nom-de-guerre of Lenin.

Tsarina Maria Feodorovna

The Tsarina, however, was a very different type of person.

She only became Alexander’s wife by default, in that she had been “bequeathed” to him by his elder brother Nicholas. Nicholas died in 1865 at the age of 21, when he was engaged to be married to Maria, who was a Danish princess (originally named Dagmar). On his deathbed (he appears to have died from meningitis) he expressed his wish that Maria should marry Alexander instead, which she duly did. She therefore became Tsarina, as originally intended, but as the wife of the “wrong” Tsar.

Maria clearly had much more humanity in her than did her husband, who was noted for his dour and cold personality. The episode of the comma would seem to show just how different she was.

The changed comma

The famous event occurred when Maria happened across a document that Alexander had signed. This was a list of supposed traitors and criminals whose fate lay in Alexander’s hands. Against one of the names Alexander had written “Pardon impossible, to send to Siberia”. Maria saw her opportunity to save the life of an unknown prisoner and quickly scratched out and re-inserted the comma. The line now read: “Pardon, impossible to send to Siberia”.

But is it true?

This story is often told, mainly as an object lesson in correct punctuation, but is it really true?

To my mind there are several problems with it. For one thing, who told the story? The change of the comma would have been done in secret, with only the Tsarina knowing that it had happened. She would hardly have let slip at the time that a prisoner had been freed by her action and against the will of her husband. So at what point would she have told the story, and to what end? Granted, she lived a long life (she died in her native Denmark in 1928 at the age of 80), so there might have been other opportunities for telling the tale, but what purpose would she have had in so doing?

Another factor is that the document would have been written in Russian and not English. I have no idea whether a change of comma in the equivalent Russian sentence would work as neatly as in does in English, so that is another question mark against the story.

My own feeling is that it all sounds a bit too contrived, as though somebody had realised that this was a sentence that would illustrate the grammatical point at issue, and the story was written around it as one that would fit the known facts and be believable as it stood.


That said, it is a good story. Whether true or not, it does make very clear that a misplaced comma, whether the error is the result of carelessness or deliberate action, can make a huge difference to somebody’s life!

© John Welford

Monday, 21 November 2016

Domesday Book



Domesday Book (pronounced “Doomsday”) is one of the most remarkable documents ever compiled. It is a detailed survey of a conquered land, namely England after the Norman Conquest of 1066. No other country in the world, at this point in history or for centuries afterwards, had been described as fully. Domesday Book therefore offers a unique portrait of a medieval society and economy.

The original document survives to this day, comprising 888 leaves of parchment that are held in the National Archives at Kew (London). They were all written by one man, a native Englishman who took a year to transcribe and organise all the notes that were produced by the King’s commissioners. He was assisted by a second scribe, who filled in some of the gaps and made corrections.

The job was done remarkably well, such that the entries are consistently presented and easy to read. Other versions and translations have been produced over the centuries, the original having been compiled in Latin, which was the “lingua franca” of the time.

There are in fact two Domesday Books, “Little Domesday” and “Great Domesday”. Little Domesday comprises a survey of the eastern counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, in much greater detail than is found in Great Domesday, which covers the rest of England. It was probably the case that more detailed records were made for the whole country and summarised in Great Domesday, but the work of incorporating the Little Domesday material was never done, hence it survives as a separate document.

The name “Domesday” was only given to the book in the 12th century, the intention being to indicate that its contents were just as certain and unanswerable as the Day of Judgment.

There was a threefold purpose behind the Domesday survey, which was only undertaken after William I had been in charge of England for twenty years. Indeed, William did not live to see its completion, and the benefits of the survey were enjoyed by his sons, who succeeded him as William II and Henry I. William I is justly termed “The Conqueror” because he had little real interest in his new kingdom other than as a source of wealth; he was still Duke of Normandy, and that was where his true interest lay.

The first reason why William needed all this detail was that he wanted to levy taxes on the English and he could only do this effectively if he knew what the people owned and what a tax levy would furnish. Immediately after the Conquest, the Normans were able to make use of the extremely efficient Anglo-Saxon system of land division into “hides” (a unit of land that could, in theory, support a single family), “hundreds” (originally 100 hides) and shires, which were managed by a well-organised local civil service. A tax demand could be sent to a shire and then divided between the hundreds and hides based on local knowledge of what each would bear.

William’s approach was somewhat different. Knowing how many hides there were, he could simply demand a certain amount per hide and expect a total sum to accrue. However, his demands caused considerable distress and even starvation in many areas, and refusal to pay led to strong-arm tactics, severe punishments and the laying waste of huge areas of land.

During the 20 years between the Conquest and the Domesday survey, England had been taken over by a coterie of powerful Norman barons who owed loyalty to William but were also keen to establish their own power bases and exploit their new possessions for personal gain. They also had to defend their lands against constant uprisings from the native English and, at times, from each other. There had been much devastation caused by armies moving across the country, and also by crop failures and plagues. The pattern of ownership and wealth-gathering had therefore changed considerably, and William needed to know how things stood in terms of who owned what.

There is evidence that the Domesday survey was coupled with an immediate demand for taxes, which were extortionate in nature. The King’s officials were able to perform two jobs at once, namely to establish what the taxation base was and make use of that information there and then.

The second motivating factor for Domesday was William’s need to billet his army on his vassal lords, so he needed to know how many troops each could be expected to support, based on what their lands produced. Indeed, the immediate inspiration for the Domesday survey had been a crisis in 1085 when William had needed to billet a huge Norman army in England to counter a threat from Denmark. Without knowing exactly how many men could be supported, and where, William was open to being taken by surprise, and that was not something that he was willing to tolerate.

The third factor was a legal one, namely a desire to establish if land was held lawfully or had been seized unjustly, which had indeed happened on a vast scale since the Conquest. Domesday therefore drew a line under who owned England and its riches. Once written in the Book, the legal status was established and any later disputes referred back to the particular entry that concerned a hundred or other land division.

The Domesday survey was conducted at the level of the shire courts. The King’s commissioners would arrive at a shire court and local juries would testify as to who owned which hundreds and then give detailed information for each one. This included how many hides were under the plough, or were pastureland, woodland, etc, and how many animals were kept. The commissioners wanted to know how many people held and worked the land and their status, such as whether they were freemen or bonded in some way. Although they were only interested in knowing how many heads of household there were, these figures are useful for working out the total population of Norman England (about two million).

The juries were asked for three sets of facts and figures, namely as they were before the Conquest (i.e. January 1066), at the time that the present (usually Norman) owner took over, and at the time of the survey. This sometimes meant referring to older records but more often to reliance on memory and estimation.

After the commissioners had left, a second group of officials would arrive to check that the information was correct, going into the villages to see if any frauds had been committed. The fact that this double-checking took place helps to ensure the accuracy of the picture that Domesday provides of England in 1086.

Domesday Book, despite its thoroughness, is not complete. For one thing, it does not cover the lawless lands north of the River Tees. It does not include London or several other towns, such as Winchester. It is also known that many villages known to have existed at the time are missing from the account. The reasons for these omissions can only be guessed at; were some villages “hidden” from the commissioners in the hope of escaping the King’s taxes? On the other hand, Domesday records many villages that have since disappeared, for whatever reason.

What has survived is a wonderful picture of medieval society, frozen at a date more than 900 years ago when:

 “Modbert holds Eggbeer from Baldwin. Leofgar held it in King Edward’s time. There is land there for 6 ploughs. On the lord’s farm 2 ploughs; 2 slaves; 4 villeins and 4 bordars. 30 acres of pasture; 6 acres of woodland. 3 cattle, 4 pigs, 36 sheep, 4 goats. Formerly worth 15 shillings, now 20 shillings.”

When comparisons are made between communities, either close together or in different parts of the country, all sorts of information can be gleaned about how this society worked.

We can also get valuable information about such things as place names, because modern names can be compared with how they were written in Domesday Book and their origin then determined. For example, my own village of Barlestone in Leicestershire is recorded in Domesday as Berulvestone, meaning the “tun” or farmstead of Berwolf, who would have been of Danish extraction. This very fact shows how, at this meeting point of Danes and Anglo-Saxons in the East Midlands, Danish-descended farmers worked alongside Anglo-Saxons and possibly spoke their language, “tun” being an Anglo-Saxon word.

There are also many personal interest stories hidden among the otherwise dusty lists of facts and figures. One example concerns a female landowner in Yorkshire who “held her land separately and free from the domination and control of her husband Beornwulf”, a situation that clearly shocked the commissioners to the extent that it needed to be fully documented.

Domesday is therefore a portrait of a past world, but it also gives the reader a strange sense of continuity. The pattern of villages on the modern map, in many parts of England, can be traced in the pages of Domesday Book. These villages were there 900 years ago, and some of them do not seem to have grown much in the meantime. We can ask questions about how our predecessors lived on the very spots that we now occupy, and find the answers in Domesday Book. It is indeed a very remarkable record of immense value.



© John Welford

Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Ditton Junction rail crash, 1912



On 17th September 1912, a late afternoon express train, packed with holidaymakers returning to Liverpool from Chester, left the rails just to the east of Ditton Junction railway station and crashed into the brickwork of the bridge that carried Hale Road over the railway. Thirteen passengers were killed, although a horse had a very lucky escape.

Ditton Junction

Ditton Junction (near Widnes, Cheshire) no longer exists as a station, although the lines from Crewe and Warrington to Liverpool still run past the abandoned and overgrown platforms that were witness to the accident.

The problem at Ditton Junction was that three double tracks approached from the east, to be squeezed into two double tracks before opening again into three doubles as they passed through the station, these being a fast line, a slow line and a goods line. Trains approaching from Crewe, having recently crossed the Runcorn Bridge, would normally proceed along the fast line to Liverpool, but could be switched to the slow line via one of two crossovers that were placed within a hundred yards of each other.

Drivers would be warned that they were about to be crossed by means of signals as they approached the station. There were two distant signals, placed side by side, one for the fast line and the other for the second crossover (crossover B), but nothing for the first crossover (crossover A). Just before crossover A was a gantry with three home signals, for the fast line on the right, the crossover to the slow line (via crossover B) in the middle, and the goods line via crossover A on the left. The confusion for a driver who was unfamiliar with the signalling arrangement was that he could assume, being on the central track of the three as he approached the station, that the central signal applied to him. If it was clear, he might think he was clear to proceed along the fast line at speed if he was not stopping at the station. This was the error that Driver Hughes seems to have made.

The accident

Railway rules stipulated that drivers must be familiar with the route they were using, which included knowledge of all the signalling arrangements they would encounter. However, that cannot be said of Driver Hughes, who had been called in specially to drive this extra holiday express. He told the “arranger of engines” at his home shed that he was “all right for Liverpool”, but that was stretching a point. Most of his runs along this line had been as a fireman, and he had only driven a train through Ditton Junction on ten occasions in four years, and had never been switched to the slow line when doing so.

The train in question consisted of seven coaches headed by “Cook”, a somewhat elderly 2-4-0 Precedent class locomotive with a rigid 15-foot wheelbase that allowed no play in the leading wheels. There were also two horseboxes on the train, between the loco and the first passenger carriage, each carrying one horse and its groom.

Driver Hughes therefore had no suspicion that anything was amiss as he approached Ditton Junction at about 60 miles an hour. However, his train was being switched to the slow line to allow a London express to take the fast line. The first awareness he would have had that anything was amiss was when his locomotive was thrust violently to one side as it reached the crossover at a speed far greater than it could have been expected to negotiate safely.

“Cook” left the rails and slid on its side into the side of the bridge, with the cab and firebox torn completely away from the boiler. Driver Hughes was killed instantly and his fireman died later in hospital. One of the horseboxes was projected all the way over the bridge and landed on the station platform beyond. The horse jumped out, completely unscathed. However, the other horse was not so lucky as its box was cut in half, although the groom survived.

The leading carriages piled up under the bridge and against the station buildings. Nobody survived in the first two carriages, although the passengers in the rest of the train were much more fortunate. In total, thirteen passengers were killed and fifty were injured. Fire broke out in the wreckage, caused by the gas lighting system, and the blaze could not be extinguished for two hours. The dead bodies were therefore burned beyond recognition, but the victims had died as a result of the initial impact.

Who was to blame?

The enquiry was conducted by Lt-Col Yorke, who criticised the signalling arrangement which was inconsistent in having a distant signal for one crossover but not the other, followed by home signals for both crossovers. He also recommended that there should be a speed restriction sign for the fast-to-slow crossover.

The inspector was also critical of the decision to allow an inexperienced driver (of the route) to drive the train. He should have taken on a pilot at Chester.

Such an accident would have been far less likely in later years, partly because of improved signalling and also because the crossover was rebuilt with a much gentler curve. Later steam locomotives would have been better able to survive a sudden lurch to the side, especially those built with a bogie for the leading wheels.

The human cost of the accident, which brought a fun day out for many to such a traumatic end, was summed up by a newspaper reporter who commented: 

“The charred luggage lay in heaps, together with hats, caps, fur boas, luncheon baskets, fruit, sweets and holiday literature”.



© John Welford

Friday, 11 November 2016

The deaths of the Romanovs



The details of how the Russian royal family met its end in 1918 are reasonably well known. However, the mystery of what happened after the event has only been resolved relatively recently.

The end of the Romanovs

The beginning of the end of the Romanov dynasty came on 1st March 1917, when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne. Shortly afterwards he was placed under house arrest, together with his entire family, by the Provisional Government led firstly by Prince Lvov and later by Alexander Kerensky.

Plans were considered to send the Romanovs into exile, the most obvious destination country being Great Britain because of the close relationship between the two royal families. An offer of asylum was made by the British government, but King George V feared for his own popularity if this came about, and he persuaded the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, to withdraw the offer. Had the King known what was about to happen in Russia, he may not have made the same decision.

The Romanovs were first held at the Alexander Palace at Tsarkoye Selo, and from August 1917 at Tobolsk to the east of the Urals, where they were still able to live in comfort despite the approach of a Siberian winter. Here, some 1,400 miles from the events in St Petersburg, they were in relative safety and could have no influence on the developments that brought Lenin to power in the October revolution (which actually took place in November, according to the western calendar).

However, the civil war that broke out in the succeeding months affected Russia well beyond St Petersburg (now renamed Petrograd), and, as an army of the counter-revolutionary White Army approached Tobolsk, the Bolsheviks decided to move the royal family to Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains. They were held at a building that is always referred to as the Ipatiev house. Ipatiev was an engineer who used the building as both his home and his office, but he was ordered to vacate it to make room for the prisoners.

The Romanovs arrived on 30th April, the family comprising the Tsar (aged 50 at the time of his death, his wife the Tsarina Alexandra (46), their son the Tsarevich Alexei (13) and their four daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19) and Anastasia (17). They also had a few servants and their personal doctor with them.

On the night of 16th/17th July the family and their entourage were woken and told to prepare themselves for another move. They were prepared for this, and always hopeful that one day they would be exiled to another country. For this reason, the women and Alexei had sewn a considerable number of jewels into their clothes, to give them a measure of financial security in exile, or possibly for use as bribes to gain them their freedom.

They were escorted to the cellar, ostensibly to wait for transport, or they may have been told that a group photograph would be taken. At any rate, they were soon greeted by an execution squad who performed their task with little delay, shooting some and bayoneting the others.

Disposing of the bodies

Attempts were made to dispose of the bodies by burning them and dissolving them in acid, but these methods were only partly successful. The Bolsheviks were determined that nothing should remain that could be the focus of a shrine to the Tsar and his family, so the remains were dumped down the deepest well they could find.

It was not until 1991 that some of the remains were dug up. Their whereabouts had actually been known about since 1978 but it was not politic at the time to make this knowledge public. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 interest in Russia’s Tsarist past was rekindled.

In the years since 1918 there had been much speculation about whether some of the family might have survived the massacre in the basement – in particular it was thought that Anastasia might have escaped and fled to the West – so the opportunity to test the bones for DNA was taken to set all doubts at rest.

However, despite extensive work to identify all the bones, not least so that they could be given proper burials, two members of the family were missing. It was not until 2007 that the bones of Alexei and Maria were recovered. They had been buried separately a short distance from the others.

It seems as though the people charged with disposing of the bodies did so in a considerable hurry – presumably they wanted to leave the site as soon as possible given the knowledge that counter-revolutionary troops were not far away – and the job was botched.
  
One can imagine that the small unit of soldiers who were sent to perform the operation were not too worried about the task of killing the “enemies of the people” but were less happy with that of removing all trace of a room full of dead bodies. One can almost sympathise.



John Welford