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Earliest 1865-

Blackheath Tavern

Latest 1865+




Kentish Gazette, Tuesday 7 February 1865.

The Accident In The Blackheath Tunnel. (Click here)

The adjourned inquest on the bodies of the five unfortunate men who were killed by the collision which occurred in the Blackheath tunnel on the 16th of December was resumed on Wednesday, at the "Blackheath Tavern," Blackheath, before Mr. Carttar, the coroner for West Kent.

Mr. Freeland, as before, appeared for the South-Eastern Company; and Mr. Woollett, barrister, for the signalman Jones. There were also present Mr. Knight, traffic superintendent; Mr. Cudworth, locomotive superintendent of the South-Eastern Company; and Mr. Chapman, stationmaster at Blackheath.

Mr. Freeland said he wished to make a few observations in reference to Captain Tyler's report, which was read at the last meeting. The company were in the habit of furnishing to the Inspectors of the Board of Trade all the information necessary for them to draw up their reports, but the Board of Trade did not send the company, as they might in courtesy do, a copy of the report. If Captain Tyler had given his evidence in the usual manner, answering questions as they were put to him, it would have been competent to him (Mr. Freeland) to cross-examine him, but when he came forward with a regularly prepared statement, which had got into the newspapers, it placed the company in a very false position.

The Coroner:- You may remember that I objected to Captain Tyler's evidence being given in that manner, and I must say that it is my intention not to take very much notice of Captain Tyler's evidence, except upon one or two points on which he was questioned. He was merely coming to a conclusion on his own view of the case.

Mr. Freeland said he was only anxious to take notice of one point, and that was Captain Tyler's statement as to the load of the ballast train being too heavy for the engine. In consequence of that statement an experiment had been made within the last few days. The same engine had been taken, the same number of carriages, and as far as possible the same weight, and this train had started from Charlton and had got through the tunnel without any difficulty.

The Coroner:- Are you going to produce this evidence, otherwise your statement is rather irregular?

Mr. Freeland: Well sir, Captain Tyler's statement was to some extent irregular, and I wished to answer an irregular statement in a way that may perhaps be irregular.

A Juryman:- Only one statement was on oath, and the other is not.

Mr. Freeland:- Captain Tyler was not sworn when he made the statement.

The Coroner:- Oh yes; he was sworn before his name was asked.

Mr. Chapman, the station-master at Blackheath Station, was recalled, and, in answer to the Coroner, said that two down expresses passed the Blackheath station within a few minutes of each other. The 4:05 train from Charing Cross was signalled at Blackheath from Lewisham at 4:23, it passed Blackheath at 4:25, was signalled back at 4:26, and at 4:29 "line clear" was signalled from Angerstein Junction. The second express, 4:20 from Charing Cross, was signalled from Lewisham at 4:29; it was telegraphed back clear to Lewisham at 4:35, and it was signalled back from Angerstein Junction at 4:40. The distance from Blackheath Station to where the accident happened was one third of a mile, and it would take an express perhaps two-thirds of a minute to run there.

By Mr. Woollett:- There was 9 minutes' interval between the two express trains. Naturally, having to give so many signals at one moment would make a man feel himself under extra responsibility.

Thomas Randall the breaksman of the ballast train, was next called. This witness, who was severely injured in the collision, seems pretty nearly recovered from the shock, though he is still weak and had to give his evidence sitting. He said, in answer to the question from the Coroner:- I was the brakesman of the ballast train at the time the accident occurred. I saw that my tail lights were all right at Charlton, where we stayed a few minutes. When we started again when we went on at about the usual speed. The tunnel when we entered it was very thick and dark was smoke and fog. I have my hand lantern with me alight. I don't suppose that our tail lights would be visible more than a yard off. As soon as we got a little bit into the tunnel the train began to go slower and slower until it came to a standstill. I applied my brakes when we stopped to keep the train from running back as we were then on an incline. One of the platelayers called out to me "break on, Tom," and the other also called out to me to do the same. I left my break on, and took my lamp, and was getting down. I have my fog signals in my pocket and was going to apply them. I had my foot on the step when the train came into us. I never asked any of the platelayers for a light. I had one in my lantern, and there were lights in the tail lamps. I never saw Lancaster at all; he never came near me to my knowledge, and never spoke to me. I don't believe it was Lancaster who called me "break on, Tom." It was about 2 minutes after the train had come to a standstill that we were run into. I was just stepping out at the time, but I did not hear the other train approaching. I was not aware that the train was going to be divided. I saw Lancaster in the hospital on the Monday after the accident. He never said a word to me about the circumstances of the accident. He merely asked me how I was getting on. He visited me again, but never talked about the circumstances of the accident.

By Mr. Woollett:- When the collision took place I went over the buffer and under the engine of the advancing train. I have had no conversation with anybody about the incident. I had been a breaksman under Lancaster for 3 weeks before the accident. I was a plate layer before.

By Mr. Freelands:- I was with a Great Eastern Company before I came to this company. I have occasionally acted as a brakeman there.

By the Jury:- I never asked any one for a lucifer, for I had a light of my own in my lamp. I never saw Lanscaster at all.

James Jones, the Signalman at Blackheath station, was then called, and the Coroner address and him said:- You know, of course for the purpose we are assembled here, and it is my duty to tell you that the evidence before us is that you were signalman on this occasion, that you gave a signal to Angerstein Junction, and that after giving a certain signal to Angerstein you applied to buy the station-master, and also communicated with by the stoker of the ballast train and by a man named Jupp, that you admitted then that you were given the "all clear" signal for a train to come through, and that you appealed to one of them, saying, "What shall I do!" In consequence of that it is possible that you may be held liable for what has occurred. You are not bound to answer any question of mine or to give us any information as to the accident, and if you refuse I am sure it will not prejudice you in any way with the jury or with me; but I am going to tell you that whatever you say may be used against you both here and in a future court. I therefore asked you whether you will make a statement or not.

John said he was very anxious to read a statement to the jury which had drawn up.

Mr. Woolett said that Jones was acting in in conformity with his opinion, and he wish to state that his statement was entirely of his own compositions.

Jones was then sworn, and made the following statement. He was evidently in a state of great agitation, and his reading was frequently interrupted with bursts of sobbing:-

"I entered the company service 2-years last August as porter, which situation I held up to the week previous to the accident, when I was placed in the signal-box to do duty for the signalman who was ill. I don't believe I have done more than 20 hours duty in the signal-box - that is to say when there was any signalling to do - before I took charge of it, so that my previous experience was but little. However, when I took the duty I hope I should have been able to perform it satisfactorily. My duties were to attend in the signal-box from 7 in the morning until 6 in the evening, with the exception of one hour allowed for dinner. After coming out of the box at 6 I had to wait the arrival and to attend the 6:17 down train. While in the box I had to receive and give telegraphic signals to and from Lewisham station and to and from Angerstein. I had, besides to enter signals in five different places for each train in the signal book; in addition, I had, for each train or engine, to attend to the semaphore and distance signals, and upon each train passing to show my flag, or hand signal that all was right. I will know state briefly the circumstances connected with this lamentable accident, as far as I am able, and in doing so it will be necessary for me to show the traffic that passed through the station within three quarters of an hour of it." (The witness then recapitulated the number of trains which passed through the tunnel and the number of signals he gave during time stated. From it it appeared that the traffic was especially heavy at that period of the day.) "I believe I had, in addition, the block-signal prior to the coal-train signal from Angerstein; but this I am not quite sure of, without seeing the train service book. It have been the practice prior to this day to send the coal-train off first from our station, but I was ordered by the head porter to keep the coal-train and send the empties of first, which was a cause of the ballast train being kept at Charlton. During this time the traffic was very great, and I felt it was as much as I could do to attend to it properly. After the coal train was gone and I had given "the line clear" to Angerstein I had the 4:05 express signal down, and after passing that onto Angerstein and receiving "line clear" I had the 4:20 express signal down. Somebody at the time came running out of the telegraph office, telling me there was a train waiting at Charlton. This message, together with the heavy traffic then taking place, caused me to get confused, and I gave the signal "line clear." I was so confused I did not know what I was about; so much so that I was very much surprised to find it was the outside porter who brought me the telegraph message, and I could have sworn it was one of the telegraph boys. After the down express had passed our station I thought I done something wrong as regards the signalling. I immediately sent for Mr. Chapman, the station-master, to tell him what I had done. I did not at that moment know of the accident. He came down after half of the ballast-train had passed the station. He came to me, and I think I told him what had taken place as to my signalling. All would have been well if I had been left alone, and not have received the telegraph message, which seems wholly to confuse me."

In answer to questions from the Coroner, Jones said that he received three beats from Charlton, which showed that a special train was on the line. After that the express went down and he had to signal that. He was perfectly well acquainted with the signals, but he found by experience that it was merely a knowledge of the signals but long habit in working them which gave a man nerve to carry on the duty. The ballast-train being such a long time in the tunnel also harassed him much more. In the three quarters of an hour preceding the accident he had to give 32 signals by telegraph, to work the semaphore and hand signals, and to make entries in the signal book. Beside this he had to exchange signals both by night and day with the guard and engine driver of every train which passed up and down, and to see that each train had its tail lamp all right.

By Mr. Woollet:- I never took my eyes off the signals. It is only by constant work when a man gets nerve to work the signals. I never had the ballast-train up before during the time that I have been in the signal-box. I think if I had not had the telegraphic message from Charlton brought out to me by the head porter I should not have got confused, and all would have gone on right.

By the Coroner:- I don't complain of the length of hours if a man were only sufficiently experienced in the work. When I have left the box at night I felt more delighted than words can tell that the last signal had been given.

By Mr. Chapman:- I never complained that I was not fit for the work.

Mr. Woollett:- Of course Mr. Chapman believed you to be competent, or he would not have placed you in the signal box.

The Coroner then went carefully and minutely through the voluminous evidence which have been adduced. In his opinion the two questions which resulted from the evidence for their decision was whether, when the train was in the tunnel, the guard Lancaster had been guilty of a dereliction of duty in not going back and using proper means to stop any advancing train; and whether the signalman Jones had not committed a fatal error in signalling "all clear" to Charlton station for the ballast-train was still in the tunnel. The evidence as to the conduct of Lancaster varied considerably, and it would be for them to decide whether he had not broken that rule of the company which directed that whenever a train stopped or slackened speed the guard should go back and signal to stop following trains. In his opinion, the deficient power of the engine had nothing to do with the cause of the accident; for if all the precautions enjoined by the regulations of the company had been observed, no harm would have followed the stoppage of the train in the tunnel. In regard to Jones, he had candidly confessed that he had committed an error in signalling "line clear" to Charlton, and in that respect he was placed in favorable contrast with Lancaster, who, if some witnesses has spoke truth, would seem to be endeavoring to conceal some of omission of duty. In considering the question of Jones culpability the jury, no doubt, would take into account the confusion into which he was put by the receipt of a unusual message from Charlton - the fact that a coal-train had just passed, but Jones might think in the confusion of the moment was referred to by the three beats, and that the ballast-train was not booked in any time bill. Everybody agreed that the duties of a station-master were very onerous, and require great nerve, coolness and experience, and that signalman were called on to work for extraordinary long hours. No doubt it will be a matter of considerable expense to appoint reliefs for every signal station. On the line he had been told that it will be a matter of 10,000, and probably on this line it would be a little less.

Mr. Knight:- It would be a matter of some thousands a year. Perhaps I may be allowed to mention that since this tunnel was built 400,000 trains carrying 80 million of persons, have passed through it without an accident.

The Coroner:- However the question of expense might be, the public has certainly a right to expect that they should be carried safely, and at all reasonable precautions should be taken for their protection. Certainly one regulation of the company did appear to have been neglected in this case - viz., the rule which said that all special trains not mentioned in the time bill should be signalled by the speaking instrument. That undoubtedly was not done in this case. The ballast-train never was signalled by any speaking message, except that unfortunate message which confused Jones and led to the accident. If that was a rule meant to be carried out, it ought to have been carried out on this occasion.

Mr. Knight:- Undoubtedly, it was a rule which was meant to be carried out, but no doubt at that particular moment the wires were occupied with some other message.

The Coroner:- The rule was certainly not carried out in this instance, and to the non observance of it if it be traced to its root the calamity was, undoubtedly, owing. It would be, however, for the jury to take into the consideration the evidence which had been laid before them and they say where the blame lay, without troubling themselves as the consequences which might in a future court attend those parties whom their verdict might implicate.

The jury deliberation about an hour and a half, and on their return the Coroner said the jury have returned a verdict in the case of each of the fireman, who were killed, of "Manslaughter against James Jones, the porter, and William Henry Lancaster, the guard. They wish, however, to append to their verdict these observations as a mere matter of opinion. They say they have very reluctantly found a verdict of guilty against Jones, the porter, and they consider that his error in transmitting the wrong signal arose from his inexperience as a signalman." As regards Lancaster the jury are on opinion:-

"That William Henry Lancaster having gone to the rear of the train, omitted his duty by not taking the usual precautions to prevent the accident laid down in the rules of the company, he having had sufficient time.

They wish also to call the attention of the company to the following recommendations.:- "That it is desirable that the company shouldn't enforce strictly the carrying out of their own rules, and that in all cases special trains not in the time books should be telegraph by speaking instruments. That any improvement that could be made in a tunnel for ventilation will be most desirable.

Mr. Freeland said that there was a bill before Parliament next Session for a line from Greenwich to Woolwich, by which the use of the tunnel would be very much obviated.

Mr. Knight said the recommendations of the jury would be placed before the company, and would receive their utmost attention. The execution of the company deeply deplored the accident, for which had always been there anxious study to carry on the working of the line with safety to the public.

The Coroner said that with the unanimous occurrence of the jury he should admit both Jones and Lancaster to bail, themselves in 100 each, and two sureties each of 50. The Rev. Mr. Buche and Mr. Champney, of Lee, entered into recognisances for Jones, and Mr. E. Corne, of Bermondsey, and Mr. E. Moore, of Blackheath, for the guard Lancaster.

This brought the lengthened proceeding to a close.




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