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
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
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
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?
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