1958 Maze Hill Train Crash

There’s a photo in David Ramzan’s Greenwich – Centre of the World that has always fascinated me. I’d show it to you but I don’t know whose it is and I do at least try to keep the goody-two-shoes side of copyright. If you have the book it’s sandwiched between pages 100/101 and it’s an absolute must-see if you live around Maze Hill.  The reason why I’m talking about it today is  that Joe reminded me about it and it occurred to me that fifty-three years ago today, despite a  major train crash yesterday, commuters would have been travelling into London as normal – something I doubt would happen nowadays. UPDATE: The photos in this have been sent to me by Stephen. I believe they’re from the fabulous Greenwich Heritage Centre, but if they’re not apologies to all. Anyone who objects, just let me know and I’ll take ‘em down. Note – neither of these is the one in David Ramzan’s book – which is still really worth a look.

The Maze Hill train crash occurred when the 9.41am, electric four-coach passenger train from Gravesend, heading towards Charing Cross, missed the red danger signal and collided, head-on, with an empty 9-coach steam train that was being shunted into the sidings (yes, Maze Hill had sidings in the 1950s – and not only sidings, but a large engine shed, too.)

There were no fatalities, happily, but 43 of the 50 passengers went to hospital, though ultimately none of them were seriously injured.

Joe found the accident report online and I’ve been having a read of it, and what fascinates me most is the speed with which the incident was dealt.  You can see a close-up of the worst damage here though the photo in David Ramzan’s book, taken, I assume from the bridge, or perhaps the nurses’ home, shows the whole thing, in fantastic detail – from the gawping onlookers to the stopped traffic. It also shows a view of Maze Hill now totally lost. worth seeing as much for the background as the incident itself.

But back to the timings.  The report says that the accident happened at 10.25am. A fleet of ambulances was on scene ten minutes later. All casualties were removed to hospital by 11.15am. Breakdown cranes were ordered and – get this – both railway tracks were reopened at 7.45pm that evening. They took just nine and a half hours to remove not only an electric train but a walloping great iron steam locomotive too.

I can’t see South Eastern beating that. Okay,  I guess the forensics-gathering these days would take ages, but, given the evidence given to the enquiry (which was also complete just before Christmas that year) I’m not sure what else they would have needed to glean. They ascertained the morning was clear and the rails were dry, that both trains were in working condition, as were the signals. Everyone, from the Stationmaster and Signalman down to the temporary porter (porters at Maze Hill!) was interviewed, as were linemen, firemen, maintenance men, inspectors, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.

It appears, (despite a reprimand to the guard, who ‘failed to keep a good look out when leaving Westcombe Park’), to all have been down to the poor old driver running the electric train, one P. W. Hurst. Thirty three years old and with a previously clear 17-year record on the railways, popular, well-balanced both physically and mentally, Hurst, it would seem, simply missed the signal.

Poor P. W Hurst’s worst-day-ever is recounted in detail in the report, from his bedtime Ovaltine and biscuits the night before to his cooked breakfast at Dartford motorman’s lobby the next day; from his diligent testing of the brakes at Slade Green through to his frantic release of the dead man’s handle when he suddenly realised he had missed the signal and was heading straight for a steam loco.  I can’t imagine his thoughts as he found himself hurtling towards it. After the crash the poor guy had to climb out through a window onto the wreckage, amazingly with just a few cuts and scratches.

Five months later at the Old Bailey he was tried on charges of endangering the safety of passengers by wilfully neglecting to conform to signals. His daily habits were probed – pipe, very little alcohol – but he did own a TV set, which he occasionally watched with his wife. As I read the report I found myself really feeling for him. Perhaps the judge did too – his previous good conduct , passion for the railways and special commendation two years previously for preventing an accident were taken into account, and he was found Not Guilty and acquitted. at testament to the edict that Accidents Will Happen.

If you get a chance to look at the report, don’t miss the back page, which has a diagram of the station at Maze Hill, complete with what I count as nine sidings, both North and South. No prizes for guessing what happened to them.

the attachments to this post:

maze hill train crash GHC  low 2
maze hill train crash GHC low 2

maze hill train crash GHC low
maze hill train crash GHC low

10 Comments to “1958 Maze Hill Train Crash”

  1. EnglishRose says:

    Never mind getting the railway up and running so quickly, the one thing that definitely *wouldn’t* happen today is an ‘Accidents Will Happen’ verdict. Accidents don’t happen any more – someone’s negligence or laziness is always to blame. Oh for a bit of old-fashioned common sense now and again!

  2. Indeed. This really does appear to have been an unfortunate accident. The guy wasn’t negligent or lazy, as far as I can see; he just had a momentary aberration – we’ve all had them, we just haven’t all been driving a train at the time.

  3. Joe says:

    Thanks for posting this! There are so many interesting little pieces of information about this in the report and the way the report is written and the detail contained within it is something that may have been lost in legal/PC mumbo-jumbo these days in a two-year enquiry and 3000 page report.

    Glad to have contributed somehow, too – I also have the Hither Green and Lewisham crash reports but they’re slightly further afield.

    Now, I’m only 22 so I can only just remember the good old glory days of the slam doors but there were so many things back then (including the inevitable delays and excuses) that wouldn’t go amiss now. Windows that opened, guards vans and some decent company for example. Oh well, we can’t all live in the past!

    Isn’t it nice that the blame game didn’t cause more trouble than perhaps it might have done in today’s day and age? I think so!

  4. Well, thank YOU, Joe, for reminding me about it – and finding that great link. I do recommend you take a peek at pages 100/101 in David Ramzan’s book – it’s a fantastic pic.

  5. scared of chives says:

    I know lovely Carol at the Italian deli round the corner remembers the crash…I’ll print it out for her

  6. Dan says:

    There’s a link to the diagram and accompanying report here for those wanting more: http://www.railwaysarchive.co.uk/documents/MoT_MazeHill1958.pdf

  7. John says:

    The lack of fatalities was probably more of a relief when considering that 90 people lost their lives seven months earlier round the corner at the St Johns rail crash.

  8. Mary says:

    I hadn’t really registered that this was after the St.John’s crash. I had thought about commenting that I understood thst it was after St.John’s that procedures were put in place for managing ambulances and hospital places in the case of such disasters – I was always told that at St.John’s local people were tearing up sheets for bandages on the embankment and that the ambulances were total chaos. Perhaps some lessons had been learnt – although clearly this was on a much smaller scale.

  9. Chris says:

    Yes, fascinating stuff. Thanks very much.

    I, too, am in full agreement with the verdict.

    As an aside, an old mate of mine (now long retired) was a passenger on one of the trains at St. Johns.

    He helped with the injured and got home (he lived in Catford) about six hours after the accident.

    In those days, there was no 24 hour news, mobiles etc. His father had heard on the grapevine of the accident and because of his son’s delay in getting home had feared the worst.

    My mate said when he got in it was the first, and only, time he had seen him cry.

  10. Lara says:

    “My mate said when he got in it was the first, and only, time he had seen him cry.”

    A tear just formed in my eye when I read that. *sniffs*