At about 11.20pm on the 7th of August 1876, twelve people died in the only major accident to a passenger train that ever occurred on the Somerset & Dorset line.

The accident is described most graphically in L.T.C. Rolt's book 'Red for Danger' but the published accounts of the time conflict in an extraordinary way on a number of vital points, and checked against later reports, almost every one can be faulted for omissions or mis-statements, even about such basic facts as the two trains involved, the exact site of the accident and the number of casualties.

The Bath Chronicle for August 10th 1876, and the following five issues, contained column after column in miniscule type, giving full details of the accident and almost word for word reports of the inquest and of the Board of Trade inquiry, which were held concurrently. An enormous amount of evidence was called, much of it conflicting, and many of the witnesses were clearly attempting to shield their fellow employees or to pass the buck.

Background history

The Somerset & Dorset Railway's Bath Extension had been opened from Evercreech junction on July 20, 1874. From November 1, 1875, the line was leased to the Midland and the London & South Western Railways, but the lease was only confirmed by an Act of July 13, 1876, and at the time of the accident little attempt had yet been made to get the line into proper working order or to tighten up the slipshod methods of handling the heavy traffic which were revealed at the inquiry. The line from Evercreech to Bath was single with crossing loops at Radstock and Wellow. In May, 1875, in direct contravention of Board of Trade regulations an intermediate signalbox was opened at Foxcote, about a mile from Radstock, to serve the Braysdown Colliery siding, and to act as a block post breaking up the four-mile section between Radstock and Wellow. Traffic was supposed to be controlled by a crossing-agent at Glastonbury, who was in telegraphic communication with all crossing stations, but not with Foxcote. Radstock and Wellow could not communicate with each other except through Foxcote.

Sequence of events

The main sequence of events leading up to the accident is clear enough. It was August Bank Holiday and 17 extra trains had to be worked over the Somerset & Dorset line. Neither of the trains involved in the accident appeared in the working timetable, having been arranged as specials at the last moment. By 11 p.m. most of the staff had been on duty for more than twelve hours and had clearly abandoned any pretence of working to the rulebook. Three youths, the eldest of them aged 18, were in charge of the block posts at Radstock, Foxcote, and Wellow. No arrangements had been made for these two particular trains to cross, for it had not been foreseen that the down train would be running 11 hours late.

The up train reached Radstock slightly earlier than was expected, and on his own authority the Radstock stationmaster sent it forward to Foxcote without a written crossing order (the driver admitted that he had crossed six trains on the journey from Wimborne without receiving any crossing orders). The Foxcote up distant signal was 'nearly at caution' and the light was out. The train accordingly stopped at the home signal, a red light being also shown from the signalbox. After a wait of about five minutes, the preceding up train was cleared from Wellow, the signal came off, and the driver proceeded to get his heavy train of fourteen vehicles on the move. Meanwhile the down train from Bath had already been sent forward from Wellow without being recorded on the block instruments. The driver of this train was making good speed on a falling gradient of 1 in 198 when he suddenly saw the home signal against him (the down Foxcote distant was also unlit), and found himself face to face with another train, just thirty yards away.

The sound of the crash was heard as far as five miles away, and the continuous whistling of the engines added to the horror of the scene. Remarkably the two engines almost kept to the rails, and only the down engine had its wheels off the track. They were Nos. 5 and 7, both 0-6-0 saddle tanks built for banking and freight duties by Fox, Walker & Co. of Bristol in 1874 and 1876 respectively. They survived the accident to give many years of yeoman service as bankers on the Bath extension, and they were taken into L.M.S.R. stock in 1930 as Nos. 1504 and 1506, the class of nine engines becoming finally extinct in 1934 after sixty years of continuous work on the grueling Mendip banks. The rolling stock was less sturdily built, and the first six carriages of the down train, which consisted of fourteen vehicles, were completely smashed. it was in these that all the casualties occurred.

Responsibility for the accident was divided. The up train should never have been sent forward from Radstock in view of the uncertainty of the whereabouts of the down train. On the other hand, the telegraph boy at Wellow unhesitatingly accepted the up train from Foxcote when he had already sent forward the down without any notification to the Foxcote signalman, who was left entirely unaware of the existence of this train until the moment of the collision. A contributory factor was the unlit distant signals at Foxcote. This state of affairs was not unusual and was simply due to lack of paraffin and anyhow the drivers knew from experience that the young signalman was not strong enough to pull off the signals properly. In the chain of events that led up to the disaster there were all too many weak links.

While the main picture is clear, there were some curious variations in the published accounts of the accident, and there is one major mystery to which attention has never yet been called. Messrs. D. S. Barrie and C. R. Clinker in " The Somerset & Dorset Railway " (1948) state that the collision occurred between a return excursion from Wimborne to Bath and an empty stock train from Bath to Radstock. D. St. J. Thomas in the West Country volume of " A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain " (1960 states that the trains concerned were a relief from Wimborne to Bath and a Bath-Bournemouth excursion. In " Red for Danger " (1950) L. T. C. Rolt describes the up train as a special arranged at the last moment to leave Wimborne at 7.10 p.m. as a relief to the overcrowded 6.10 p.m. from Bournemouth; this is correct, but Rolt is wrong in describing the down train as the return working of an excursion to Bath Regatta, due out of Bath at 9.15 p.m. (It was actually 10.43 p.m. when Bath notified the telegraph control office at Glastonbury that this train had left, the delay was caused by lack of rolling stock, which necessitated waiting for the arrival of other trains before the required number of carriages could be marshalled.)

It has always been a puzzle by the fact that all the passengers killed were inhabitants of Radstock or of neighbouring villages served by Radstock Station. None of them could have been travelling in the north-bound train at the time of the accident, as they would obviously already have alighted at their home station before the train set off on the last fatal section of its journey. On the other hand, it has frequently been stated that the down train was an empty stock train. Other accounts, as I have shown, describe it as a return excursion, even going as far as Bournemouth. It clearly contained Radstock passengers.

The fact is that it was an empty stock train officially. The stock was scheduled to pick up about 300 people who had been attending a Liberal fete at Midford. Midford was the first station out of Bath, 41 miles, but there were not any facilities there for an engine to run round its train, and arrangements had therefore been made to send the train on to Radstock, where this manoeuvre could most conveniently be performed. It was on this train that about fifty Radstock people decided to travel home somewhat later than the last scheduled down train.

Many of them had spent their Bank Holiday at a regatta at Saltford. There was also a party of about twenty friends, mostly from the staff of the Bell Hotel and the Waldegrave Arms at Radstock. They had planned to go to Bournemouth, but had not been able to get seats on the excursion: their money was refunded and they went to Bristol instead. Among the casualties that night were William Godfrey, the 'boots' at the Bell, and two of the cellar-men, George Saunders and William Goulding, together with their young wives, a tragic ending to their 'unofficial' ride at the end of their day's outing. The Liberals, on the other hand, waited on the tiny platform at Midford, without news of their train, until 3 a.m. and then walked home to Bath.

Another account of the accident was later found in an old diary, kept by George Tucker of Radstock, which covers the 1870s. Tucker was born in 1822 and died in 1910, and worked as a colliery blacksmith at Radstock and Writhlington. His diary, now in the possession of his grandson, contains a number of references to the coming of the railway to North Somerset, to his own journeys by train, and to the excursions to the seaside which were so popular with the miners and their families and friends 1,700, for instance, went to Bournemouth on September 18, 1875.

Tucker's diary for August 7, 1876, reads as follows: " An excursion (special from Bath) ran into an up excursion from Burnham near the Lower Works Writhlington at or about 11.20 by which great damage was done to carriages, engines, etc, also 13 persons killed, among the number Anna Maria Chivers my sister-in-law. Buried at Radstock, Thursday 10th, aged 38 years, leaving 7 children." The reference to Burnham is clearly wrong, though there may have been passengers from Burnham via Evercreech Junction. Rolt says 15 passengers were killed; Thomas says 12 'passengers' ; Barrie and Clinker say 12 'people'. In actual fact, 12 passengers were killed, including an eight week old baby boy who was with his mother, and the guard of the train from Bath.

Back in 1962 an article in the Somerset Guardian containing extracts from George Tucker's diary evoked a number of interesting local reminiscences of the accident. An old faded photograph shows the scene a day or two after the crash with piles of debris, and sections of shattered coaches have been cleared away from the single track, besides other shadowy figures, four helmeted policemen stand on guard, a telegraph post and a signal wire post are visible.

The collision must have occurred near the down home signal opposite the Writhlington colliery sidings. Reports put it at 200 yd. from Foxcote Signalbox, and the down home signal was then sited 180 yards from the box itself. This box was replaced by the Writhlington box when the line was doubled in 1894. Farther north again, and abutting on the down line, stood the granary of Paglinch Farm, a fine old house dated 1632. Here the bodies of the victims were laid out for identification, and the first part of the inquest was held.

The Somerset & Dorset Committee did its best for the survivors. One widow received £1,000 in compensation. Four orphans of the crash were eventually given employment on the line, two became stationmasters, another a relief stationmaster, and the fourth a head office inspector. These are presumably some of the children referred to in George Tucker's diary, which makes a touching epilogue to the whole sad story

"22nd August 1876 - The bereaved children by the railroad collision presented with a Bible each, and those losing both parents 5s. in addition."


Copyright © Kevin Clapcott
Most recent revision Friday August 10, 2007