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.
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