Major railway accident in Welwyn North tunnel in 1866 :: Shared Description

On the evening of Saturday, 9th June 1866, a major accident occurred in the northern Welwyn railway tunnel, and blocked the main Great Northern line for many days. Fortunately, because it was three goods trains involved, the loss of life was confined to 2 persons. What is interesting is that in a letter to 'The Times' the following day (see below), the General Manager of the Railway immediately laid the blame for the accident with the signalman!

Local newspaper report-


That three heavily laden trains of merchandise should run into each other in the middle of a tunnel almost simultaneously little more than 20 miles from London; that such trains should have become ignited by fire from the furnaces of their overthrown and shattered engines, and that the tunnel, which is more than half a mile in length, should be converted into one huge furnace and its air shafts into a species of burning crater is a calamity so astounding as to be almost incredible were it not that it is undeniably true.

The scene of this extraordinary occurrence is the Welwyn tunnel about five miles beyond Hatfield, and between the Welwyn Junction and Stevenage, and the narrative of circumstances the collected on the spot is this:- Shortly before 11 o'clock a train of goods' "empties" started on Saturday night from the King's-cross goods' station for Hitchin. On reaching the centre of the Welwyn Tunnel, either from the bursting of a tube, or some other cause, the engine broke down and the train was brought to a stand. In this emergency it would have been the duty of Ray, the guard, who was in the break in the rear of the train, to have gone back out of the tunnel, and given the stopping signal. This precaution, from a cause not explained: and in all probability, never will be explained, for Ray, with his companion, was subsequently found in the break van dead, it is quite clear they did not take. This occurred about 12 30 a.m. on this (Sunday) morning, and had scarcely taken place when the Midland goods train, the driver of the engine of which had received no signal of danger on the London side, ran into the tunnel and dashed into the rear of the already broken down train of empties. The violence of the shock was such as to throw the Midland engine and the heavy train goods which it was drawing, and which, among other merchandise, was known to contain several waggons with casks of oil and other materials of a combustible character over on to the up line, piling them one upon the other in heaps reaching to the crown of the arch, and completely blocking the tunnel. Whether from consternation or from neglect, no signal of the mishap was given to the signalman at the northern end towards Stevenage, and in an incredibly short space of time the Scotch meat train me up, bringing up the dead meat from the north for the supply of the Monday's Newgate-market, with other goods. This, which was a Great Northern train, entered the tunnel, and dashed into the ruins of the capsized Midland goods. In a few moments it was discovered that the engine of the Great Northern train had turned over, and that the goods and waggons of the Midland train had become ignited from burning coal and cinders of the engine furnaces scattered about. Singular to relate, both drivers and firemen of all three engines had escaped either unhurt or with but with slight injuries, and having signalled to the nearest stations, both up and down, what had happened, the first step taken was to look after the guard of the Northern train of empties, Ray, who was found in the midst ruins of his break, frightfully crushed and dead, and with him another man, a fireman in the employ of the Metropolitan Railway, whom it appears he was conveying surreptitiously down the line to his home, who, although not quite dead, was in a dying condition and was not expected to survive many hours. The guard of the Northern up-train, Lacey, was also found lying, on the line near the track, most severely injured about the head. He was in the first instance removed to Welwyn, and subsequently was taken to town and placed under the care of Mr. J. Templeton Kirkwood of the Euston-road, surgeon to the Great Northern and Midland Companies. Lacey, though suffering from a severe scalp wound and other head injuries, it is hoped, may recover. Information of the occurrence was at once telegraphed to Mr. Seymour Clarke, the general manager of the line, who resides at Hatfield, and also to the authorities on the northern side; at Knebworth large bodies of men were employed to get out what waggons they could, but the suffocating character of the fire from the ignited carriages and merchandise prevented their efforts being very effective, with the exception of the Scotch train. Further telegrams having been forwarded to London, about [ ] o'clock this morning Mr. Superintendent Williams, with a gang of some 200 men, reached the scene of the disaster. By this time, however, it was known that there were [86] carriages or trucks, 13 of which belonged to the Midland, all in a blaze. The repeated explosions rendered any attempt, even if the heat and smoke had not prevented it, to enter the tunnel abortive. From the air shaft smoke and at intervals flame, although some 50 or 60 feet in height from the roadway to the summit of the shaft, together with sounds resembling the roaring of a mighty cataract or river, indicated the character of the conflagration that was raging underneath. The authorities having taken counsel, in the absence of water and inability to approach the seat of conflagration it was advisable to let it expend itself, and be prepared to enter the tunnel with aid and clear the line of the ruins so soon as it should have done so. The fire continued to rage throughout the whole of the day, and it was not until 6 [ ] that it had become sufficiently reduced to allow any men to enter the tunnel. At this time a body of men arrived under the command of Superintendent Williams with the Hatfield engine, lent to the company by the Marquis of Salisbury; and a supply of water having been obtained, the engine was set to work, but the ruins are still burning. Hundreds of navvies have arrived, and it is intended during the night to get the line clear. In the meantime the whole of the traffic has been carried on along the Hertford branch, via Royston and Hitchin, and the Cambridge branch of the Great Eastern Railway. It is a fortunate circumstance that the Great Northern Railway service on Sundays is trivial as compared with that on week days otherwise it is doubtful if the Great Eastern could have taken it as well as the Midland, which is also stopped."

From the General Manager of the Great Northern Railway


Sir, - A serious obstruction occurred on the Great Northern Railway on Saturday night, in the Welwyn tunnel, about 20 miles from London, under the following circumstances:-
A train of empty coal waggons was going northwards through the tunnel, when the engine burst a tube and was unable to proceed. A goods train was following, and, by some mistake on the part of the signalman (at present un-explained), was allowed to enter the tunnel before the signalman had received the telegraphic message from the other end of it that the preceding train had passed out. The train came into collision with the break-van of the empty waggons, throwing the van and several waggons of the first train and the engine of the second train off the line.
The guard of the first train was killed. At this moment a goods train reached the north end of the tunnel, and, there was nothing to indicate an obstruction of the “up" line it was allowed to proceed.
The engine of this train came into contact with the engine of the down train, and, with several waggons, was also thrown off the line. Before any means could be taken remove the broken waggons, the fire from one of the engines had caught the débris, and the wind blowing through the tunnel caused the fire to spread so rapidly that it was impossible to clear the line. Arrangements were therefore made to work the traffic over the Great Eastern Railway between Hertford, Cambridge, and Peterborough, and it will continue to be so worked until the line through the tunnel is again fit for traffic.
This, it is hoped, will be the case in the course of Monday. It is hardly necessary for me to mention that the most rigid enquiry will be made as to the error of the signalman, which has had such serious results.

I am, Sir, your faithful servant,
SEYMOUR. CLARKE, General Manager.
Great Northern Railway, King's-cross Station, June 10."

Information source: Lawson Thompson Scrapbooks, Hitchin Museum.
by John Lucas
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3 images use this description:

TL2516 : Northern air shaft above Welwyn North tunnel by John Lucas
TL2516 : Southern air shaft above Welwyn North tunnel by John Lucas
TL2416 : The Great Northern line just to the south of Welwyn North tunnel by John Lucas

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Created: Mon, 6 Sep 2010, Updated: Mon, 6 Sep 2010

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