Disaster on the Chester Cup Excursion, 1851

Chester Cup Day, Wednesday, the 30th April, 1851 was a cold day for the time of year, but the Roodee was crowded as never before. One of the reasons was the completion, only four months before, of the new Chester - Warrington railway line, by the Birkenhead, Lancashire and Cheshire Junction Railway Company. This completed the connection through to Manchester via the Newton (Earlestown) Junction on the old Liverpool-Manchester line.

The Railway Company, eager for some return on their investment, advertised excursion trains from Manchester Victoria to the splendid new Chester General Station. It was described as "The Direct Route to Chester Races!" and not less than 4,000 people out of the 18,000 who had arrived in Chester by train that day came on the new line.

The big race proved to be one of the most exciting ever seen there. There were 28 starters, the favourite being a horse called Rhesus, at 4 to 1. The second favourite was Italian and other fancied horses included Black Doctor, Hesse Hombourg and Russborough.

After no less than three false starts, they got away at the fourth attempt. Although Rhesus and Italian were always handy throughout the race, Nancy and Black Doctor managed to establish themselves at the front. Then, on the run in Hesse Hombourg and Rhesus put in a strong challenge; but somehow, Nancy and Black Docter managed to stay ahead to the winning post, with Nancy a neck ahead of the "Docter".

The races over, the multitude streamed back up Watergate Street and by way of Frodsham Street and Brook Street to the new station. City Road was still only a path across the fields.

One excursion train had already left for Manchester before the main influx of passengers took place about six o'clock. The Station Master, John Critchley, estimated that at this time there were no less than 5,000 people within the station. Those destined for Manchester via the Cheshire Junction Line found a train, already full, standing at the platform.

In their impatience to return home, people started climbing on to the roofs of the carriages and Robert Lewis Jones, the Manager of Chester General Station himself, sternly ordered them down before he would allow the train to start.

As soon as this train - with about 430 passengers - had departed, another train could be seen standing in a siding with the notice, "Manchester via Warrington", in large letters on its side. This was already partially filled with passengers who had crossed the track to secure places. The crowd, attracted by the notices, streamed across the lines, climbed into the train, and soon every available seat and standing-place was filled.

There was now no point in taking the train to the platform, so this third train left from the siding, pulled by the locomotive "Druid", at about ten minutes to seven. It was later estimated that no less than 900 passengers were packed into the 18 small carriages.

There is a steep incline out of Chester Station to Hoole and "Druid" was assisted by another locomotive ("No. 16") pushing from behind until the top of the incline was reached. The train then set off at a good speed towards Dunham and Frodsham, while No. 16 returned to Chester Station for her own train.

Shortly after leaving Chester, it began to rain, and for George Allen, Druid's driver and Thomas Leach his fireman on the open footpath, it bacame very uncomfortable, but they were accustomed to this, having both worked on locomotive footplates for a number of years. At Frodsham, several people got off, the rain turned to sleet and at 7.33, when Druid tried to restart on the gradient leading to Sutton Weaver Viaduct, her huge 5ft. 6in. daimeter twin driving wheels began to slip.

In the end, Tom Leach got down from the footplate and, with the help of a local platelayer, started to sand the track to assist the wheels to grip. This was only partially successful, and even crossing the level viaduct, the train did not achieve much more than walking pace.

Beyond the viaduct is a tunnel nearly a mile and a quarter in length, with an adverse gradient towards Warrington. George, with Tom still sanding the rails, struggled to keep his train moving, but although this was denied by the driver, most passengers were convinced that the train came to a stop in the darkness of the tunnel about half way through. It was calculated afterwards that Druid had taken 22 minutes to travel less than two miles!

Meanwhile, No.16 had returned to Chester, picked up her train and left at about 7.15 with approximately 430 passengers. This more powerful locomotive, pulling a lighter train soon began to overhaul Druid, and was within a quarter of a mile of her as they crossed the Weaver Viaduct.

Henry Blackford, the Guard on George Allen's train was seated on top of a "brake carriage", next but one to the end of the train. He was fully aware of his train's difficulties, and as soon as the second train approached closely enough, he beckoned to No. 16's driver, David Evans, to come up and help push Druid through the tunnel - as he had done on the Hoole incline.

This he did, but even with the extra assistance, both trains gradually went slower and slower. There is, again, a conflict of evidence as to whether they actually stopped; the railwaymen stoutly maintaining that they kept moving - if only very slowly - while every passenger seemed equally convinced that they came to a complete stop - some said for as long as ten minutes, but as they were in complete darkness, this was only an estimate.

At half past seven, the next excursion train left Chester Station with about 470 passengers, pulled by the locomotive "Albert" and, running at normal speed, arrived at Frodsham at about five minutes to eight. At this precise moment, the two earlier trains were just entering Sutton Tunnel, but Henry Jones, the Station Master at Frodsham, had no means of knowing this.

There was no formal signalling system in those days and he allowed William Dixon, Albert's driver, to leave without giving him any warning about the trains ahead of him. The Company's rules permitted trains to pass intermediate stations at five minute intervals and the two preceding trains had left Frodsham 24 minutes and 14 minutes before, respectively.

Dixon entered the tunnel at high speed, unaware of the presence of the two trains ahead of him. He noticed the tunnel was unusually full of steam, but he attributed this to the number of trains which had passed through in a comparatively short time. He, too, was very much aware that there were more trains behind him and felt it incumbent upon him to push on.

In the dark of the tunnel his locomotive came into violent collision with the rear of the previous train, completely destroying several carriages and causing his engine to be derailed. Both lines were blocked and the tunnel almost completely filled with debris.

To quote from the report of the Government Inspector Capt. R M Laffan, RE:- "A scene of fearful confusion ensued: 1,600 passengers found themselves crowded together in perfect darkness: while some of them were endeavouring to procure themselves a light from the engines, the noise of another train was heard approaching and led all parties to dread a second collision.

The next train from Chester approached the mouth of the tunnel during the confusion which prevailed within, but fortunately an engineer, who appeared to be travelling on one of the trains, had got back to the tunnel mouth and sent a man on, who succeeded in stopping it."
Five people were killed in the accident, four more died later and more than fifty were injured, some seriously.

The inquest on the bodies was held in the Red Lion, Preston Brook, and lasted from the 3rd May until the 12th. The foreman of the jury was a Dr. Wilson from Preston Brook - Agent for Sir Richard Brooke of Norton Priory - and a verdict of "Accidental Death" was eventually returned. They added a rider to this, however, putting "great blame" on the Executive Committee of the Birkenhead, Lancashire and Cheshire Junction Railway Company, and they criticised their officers and servants for "want of prudence and discretion".

The company, already deficient in locomotives, made no special provisions for the Chester Race Week and they blamed the lack of locomotive power for this "lamentable catastrophe". The jury were of the opinion that "the management of the railway in question at the present time is imperfect and inefficient, thereby endangering the safety of the public." They suggested that in future there should be a servant of the company at each end of the Sutton Tunnel to signal to the trains, and thereby prevent "two trains from being in the tunnel on the same line at the one time."

Capt. Laffan, however, took the view that the company must, without further delay, construct the two stations which were proposed in the plans for the railway, one at each of the Sutton Tunnel, with an "electric telegraph" between them, so that the staff at either station will know "at all times and in all weathers" when any train has passed the other station.

These stations were called "Halton" and "Norton" and were built and served their purpose for many years. Both have long since gone, and a more sophisticated signalling system than even Capt. Laffan could have envisaged controls trains throughout the entire country.

One small question remains. Sutton Tunnel is very shallow - shallower indeed than many cuttings. Why was it ever built? A cutting would have been easier, cheaper and safer. Dr Wilson, you remember, was the Agent to the Norton Estates of the Brooke family. This same family, not very long before, when the Bridgewater Canal was being constructed, resisted for may years its passage through their lands. Did they also insist on the railway being confined to a tunnel?