The fatal rail crash that occurred at Grantham on 19th September 1906 must count as the “Mary Celeste” of British rail accidents by virtue of the fact that the cause seems to be inexplicable. What happened is clear enough, but why it did is another matter altogether.
The train that was involved in the crash left London King’s Cross at 8.45pm bound for Edinburgh with scheduled stops that included Peterborough and Grantham. It was a passenger service with sleeping cars, and it was also a mail train. The stop at Peterborough was to change engines and that at Grantham was to pick up mails that would be sorted on board for delivery the next day.
The crew that took on the train at Peterborough comprised Driver Fleetwood and Fireman Talbot. Driver Fleetwood, who had 18 years’ experience, was based at Doncaster and knew the route thoroughly. Colleagues who saw them at Peterborough later testified that both men were in good health and spirits and had certainly not been drinking.
At Grantham the signals were set appropriately for the train to stop, and the points north of the station were set for a goods train to cross the main line to proceed towards Leicester on the Nottingham line. Everything was just as it should be.
Three Post Office employees were waiting on the platform to load the mail bags on to the train that was due at 11.00pm. They were accompanied by the night station inspector. One of the postmen spotted the lights of the approaching train and alerted his colleagues to get ready. However, the train in question was clearly going too fast to stop and at first the postmen assumed that they had been mistaken and that this was a different train that was running through. However, they then saw that their mail van was on the train that was rushing past them.
The men on the platform looked on helplessly as the train disappeared and then seemed to explode in a fireball as it left the rails. They all ran up the line to see what they could do to help.
The train had been switched off the main line by the points that had been set for the Leicester goods train, but it was going too fast to stay upright on the following curve. The locomotive ended up slewed across the track with the front three vehicles piled against it. Six carriages and the tender fell down an embankment and only the last three carriages were left upright on the rails. Fire broke out in the crashed carriages on the track and also in those that were now at the foot of the embankment. As well as the driver and fireman, six passengers and a postal sorter were killed.
Why might it have happened?
All sorts of theories were advanced as to why Driver Fleetwood had not stopped his train at Grantham, but none of them seemed to fit the facts. One such fact was the evidence of the signalman at the Grantham South box who had noticed the driver and fireman standing on either side of the cab looking forward at the line ahead. This did not accord with theories of drunkenness, a fight on the footplate or a sudden illness.
Could Driver Fleetwood simply have forgotten that he had to stop, or had he mistaken where he was on the route? This also seems incredible, given that both men knew the road inside out, and they had also worked exactly the same routine the previous night.
As mentioned above, this looks like a mystery that will never be solved.
© John Welford