Marking the 100th anniversary of Britian’s worst rail accident
Travelling by train is the safest form of land transport there is. It is a fact that you are safer sitting on a train than you are walking down the road or standing at a bus stop. In those circumstances, there is always the possibility of being hit by a vehicle. Sitting in a train, there is no such danger. Britain has one of the best railway safety records in the world. Rather than the cliché of this not happening by accident, it happened by a serious of accidents, from which lessons were learned and action taken to prevent possible repeats of the same accident. Because when things do go wrong on the railways, they go wrong with terrible and tragic results.
On the morning of 22 May 1915 the UK suffered it’s greatest ever rail accident. A collision of a southbound troop train at Quintinshill, near Gretna on the Anglo-Scottish border, eventually was to involve five trains and cost over 200 lives.
The background to the rail accident was against that of the First World War. At the event of war, a 1911 Act of Parliament came into effect whereby that while the 130 railway companies in Britain continued to operate their own services, the government had overall control of the railways under the auspices of the Railways Operating Department (ROD). The outset of war had seen an upsurge of patriotic fervour in the UK, with men quickly joining up, even lying about their age to do so. As the war continued however, men came back from the trenches with horror stories about what conditions were actually like and the terrible loss of life involved.
The troops mobilise
At the onset of war a new battalion of territorial soldiers, the Royal Scots 7th (Leith) Battalion (known as 7RS) had been raised of recruits mostly from Leith, Portobello, Musselburgh and other burghs around the coastal outskirts of Edinburgh. The Battalion were placed on coastal defence on the Firth of Forth, then on 15 April 1915 were moved to Larbert, near Stirling, to train alongside the 52nd Lowland Division before deployment to France. 7RS were initially meant to be deployed to France, but a last-minute change of orders had them bound for Gallipoli. They were to join a Liverpool-bound train on 21 March. However, the ship meant to transport them, Aquitania, ran aground in the River Mersey and the deployment was delayed for 24 hours to allow Aquitania to refloat on high tide. The troop train eventually left Larbert at 03:45 on 22 May 1915, carrying carrying 7RS Battalion Headquarters, A and D Companies. The operating company was the Caledonian Railway (CR), but due to shortage of rolling stock, the carriages were old Great Central Railway (GCR) wooden-built stock, with gas lighting and heat.
Illegal action at Quintinshill
CR signalman George Meakin had worked the night shift at Quintinshill Signalbox, near Gretna. Quintinshill, on the CR main line to Carlisle, had two running lines and two outer loops. The designation of these lines were “Up” (towards Carlisle and London) and “Down” (towards Carstairs and Glasgow). Meakin had already diverted a goods train, which left Carlisle at 04:50, into the Down loop, to leave the main line clear.
George Meakin should have been relieved by signalman James Tinsley at 06:00. However, the two men, in conjunction with local train drivers had adopted an informal, dangerous, and totally illegal arrangement, whereby Meakin would cover for Tinsley by writing down train movements on a sheet of paper, rather than the Train Register, while Tinsley, to avoid a 1½ mile walk from Gretna, would take a lift on a Carlisle-Beattock local train to Quintinshill, then fill in the movements in the Train Register in his own hand.
At an unascertained time, Meakin had moved a train of empty coal wagons into the Up loop, thereby leaving only the Up and Down main lines empty. There were two Glasgow-bound expresses running late, which meant that when the local train reached Quintinshill, it would have to be moved off the Down main line. The local left Carlisle at 06:17 and arrived at Quintinshill at approximately 06:30. To clear the Down main, George Meakin had it shunt to the only available empty line, the Up main. This in itself was not dangerous, as there were no trains due at that time. However, Meakin failed to take two vital actions which were to be fatal. Firstly, he failed to send the “Blocking Back” signal to Kirkpatrick signalbox, the next box to the north, which would have told them that the Up main was occupied by the local train. Secondly, he failed to place a “collar” over the signal lever for the signal on the Up main. Had he done this, then either he nor Tinsley could have cleared the signal for any trains to proceed on that line.
A final failure was on the part of George Hutchinson, Fireman of the local train, who breached his responsibilities under Railway Inspectorate Rule 55. Under this rule when a train was stopped for more than three minutes, a member of train crew is required to contact the signalman to ascertain why and ensure that all procedures were being correctly adhered to. Hutchinson duly went with Tinsley to the signal box, where Meakin and two other members of train crew were talking. Hutchinson’s mistake was that he failed to check if the signal lever had been collared, but chatting with the rest of the men, merely accepted a pen from Tinsley and signed the train register.
At 06:34 one of the signalmen sent Kirkpatrick box, the “Train out of Section” bell, to tell them the coal train was in the loop. This immediately would have given the Kirkpatrick signalman the impression that the Up main was clear, whereas the local was still standing there, The first northbound express thundered through Quintinshill at 06:38.
At 06:42 Kirkpatrick box signalled Quintinshill to offer the troop train. Tinsley, somehow completely oblivious to the Local standing on the Up main, in full sight of his box, signalled back to accept the train, and forwarded the signal the next box to the south, Gretna Junction, to accept the train. At 06:47 Quintinshill box received the signal from Kirkpatrick, “Train entering section”. Any further action would have been too late; collision was now inevitable.
The troop train collided head-on with the stationary Local standing on the Up main at approximately 06:49. The resulting wreckage was strewn across the Up main, Up loop, taking out the train of coal wagons, and the Down main, which was fouled by the overturned locomotive from the troop train. One minute later the second northbound express, double-headed with two large steam locomotives and travelling on the Down main at around 100mph, hit the troop train locomotive and carriages, itself derailed and carriages smashed into the goods train standing in the Down loop. It was at 06:53 that James Tinsley sent the “Obstruction Danger” bell to both Kirkpatrick and Gretna Junction.
Some of the old GCR carriages on the troop train, obsolete, never meant for high speeds, and with poor resistance to collisions, were smashed into splinters. This however was not to be the biggest killer. The gas reservoirs on some of the surviving carriages ruptured in the collision, and the gas was ignited from the hot coals from the steam locomotives. Of the 21 carriages on the troop train, six had detached and rolled safely back down the line. The remaining 15 became an inferno as fire raged through them. As the carriages had been deadbolted, the troops had no means of escape
It is an everlasting testament to the surviving troops that there was no thought for themselves. They immediately jumped to action and attempted to help their comrades and others in the crash, as did local people as news spread. A report from the time reads,
“The survivors at once got to work to help their stricken comrades and soon the whole neighbourhood was alarmed, and motor cars from near and far hastened to the spot with medical and other help. The kindness shown on all hands will never be forgotten, especially by the people from the surrounding area and Carlisle who gave such valuable assistance to the injured. Their hospitals were soon overflowing, but all who needed attention were quickly made as comfortable as possible. Their Majesties The King and Queen early sent their sympathy and gifts to the hospitals.”
It is not known exactly how many were killed altogether in the Quintinshill disaster, as the register on the troop train was destroyed in the fire. However, an official report by Lieutenant-Colonel Dtuitt gave an estimate of 215 military deaths and 191 injured. The dead were later revised to 214. Of the 500 men of 7RS, only 58 were present for roll call at 16:00 on 22 May. Of the deaths of 7RS, only 83 bodies were ever identified. The remaining 133, being either unidentifiable, or literally wholly cremated in the fire. Driver Scott and Fireman Hannah on the troop train, who had previously had the honour of driving the Royal Train, died instantly in the collision. Civilian deaths however were light, but no less tragic. A mother and her baby perished when the troop train smashed into local train, and seven passengers on the express were killed. The final report gave an estimate of 226 dead and 246 injured.
On Sunday, 23rd May 1915, 107 coffins were despatched to Leith and laid out in the Battalion drill hall in Dalmeny Street. It was said that there was not a family in Leith untouched by the tragedy, so it was on Monday, 24th May, that when 101 of the coffins were taken for burial in Rosebank Cemetery, thousands of people lined the streets the funeral cortège took, shops closed, traffic came to a stop, and blinds were drawn. 3,150 troops also lined the route in respect to their fallen comrades.
Some of those pulled from the wreckage were to subsequently die in hospital in Carlisle, and this was to lead to legal problems. The crash had happened in Scotland, but as they died in England, there was confusion over which country’s legal system should oversee enquiries and trials. As it was also to all cause and effect an industrial accident, with classic British bureaucracy, the result was to be three enquiries, and one trial.
Board of Trade Enquiry (England)
The first of these was the Board of Trade enquiry, headed by Lieutenant-Colonel E Druitt of the Railway Inspectorate, which started on 25 May in the County Hall, Carlisle. Druitt questioned many witnesses, including Meakin, Tinsley, and Fireman Hutchinson, all of whom were open and honest about their illegal actions. He also criticised Alexander Thorburn, CR Stationmaster of Gretna, who had jurisdiction over Quintinshill box, but was apparently unaware of Tinsley hitching a lift on the local train.
Druitt concluded that even if the troop train had been electrically lit, a fire would still have ensued, as the coal train had also caught fire. That is debatable, and in any case, what Druitt failed to consider was that in the crash the source of the fire was under and directly inside old wooden carriages, which undoubtedly was the main cause of the high number of deaths.
Druitt also said the disaster could have been averted had the section had electric track circuiting. Track circuits worked whereby an electric circuit was run via running rails in each track section carried a low voltage circuit to an appartus in the signalbox. When this circuit was shorted by the wheels and axles of trains, the apparatus switched, indicating that the line was occupied. The same principle is still used today, alerting signalling centres but now also interlocked to signals, which automatically turn to danger when the circuit is shorted. Track circuiting however was in it’s infancy in 1915 and the CR had decided that Quintinshill did not warrant circuiting. Druitt was correct however that had it been done, then the collison may never have happened. On the other hand, with the obvious confusion in the signalbox that morning, there is no guarantee that it would not have been likewise overlooked.
There can be little surprise that Druitt squarely laid the blame at the feet of George Meakin and James Tinsley. He stated in his report,
“This disastrous collision was thus due to want of discipline on the part of the signalmen, first by changing duty at an unauthorised hour, which caused Tinsley to be occupied in writing up the Train Register Book, and so diverted his attention from his proper work, secondly by Meakin handing over the duty in a very lax manner; and, thirdly by both signalmen neglecting to carry out various rules specially framed for preventing accidents due to forgetfulness on the part of signalmen.”
Coroner’s Inquest (England)
A Coroner’s Inquest was also opened in the County Hall of Carlisle on 25 May, but was adjourned until 23 July to allow Lieutenant-Colonel Druitt to carry out the Board of Trade Enquiry. The Coroner for Carlisle, Mr T S Strong, had sought advice from the Home Office, who advised him to proceed with a Coroner’s Inquest on the 27 people who had died in England.
Strong likewise placed the blame wholly on Meakin, Tinsley and Hutchinson. Summing up, he stated to a jury of 19 that had rules been observed by (a) blocking back, (b) using lever collars or (c) correctly keeping the train register, they could not have forgotten the stationary train and the disaster would have been averted. Strong stated that if the jury found that the men had been negligent in their duties, then they had to be guilty of manslaughter. The jury took only one hour to return a verdict of Gross Negligence.
Strong committed the three men to face charges of Manslaughter at the next sitting of the Cumberland Assizes, and they were granted bail. However, their solicitor (correctly) protested that as the accident had happened in Scotland, English Law had no jurisdiction to try the men. Tinsley himself had been arrested in Edinburgh on 29 May on a charge of Culpable Homicide, which was the Scots Law equivalent of Manslaughter. He now faced being tried in two different countries for the same crime. Strong stated that the Home Office had told him to proceed with an inquest. Senior English Law officers were consulted and it was agreed that any trials should indeed take place under Scots Law.
High Court Trial (Scotland)
The Trial against George Meakin, James Tinsley and Thomas Hutchinson proceeded on 24 September 2015 on charges of Culpable Homicide and Breach of Duty, in the High Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh; the highest court in Scots Law. The trial was presided over by Lord Justice General, Lord Strathclyde, with Lord Advocate of Scotland Robert Munro KC prosecuting, and Condie Sandieman KC defending. The three men entered pleas of Not Guilty.
The trial only lasted a day and a half. Sandieman stated that Hutchinson had no case to answer, which the Prosecution and Lord Strathclyde agreed with, and the jury of 15 (Scots jury) were instructed to find him Not Guilty. Sandieman tried to convince the court that neither Meakin nor Tinsley had been criminally negligent but that the accident was due to a momentary loss of memory on the part of James Tinsley. After hearing the evidence, Lord Strathclyde instructed the Jury;
“At 6.43 on the morning of the day in question the men in the signal box at Quintinshill were asked to accept the troop train coming from the north. They accepted it. That meant that they gave the signal to the north that the line was clear and that the troop train might safely come on. At that very moment when the signal was given there was before the very eyes of the men in the signal box a local train which was obstructing the line on which the troop train was to run. One man in the signal box had actually left the train a few minutes before just at the time when it was being shunted on to the up line. The other man had a few minutes before directed the local train to leave the down main and go on to the up main.
That is the staggering fact that confronts you.
If you can explain that fact consistently with the two men having faithfully and honestly discharged their duties you should acquit them. If you cannot explain that staggering fact consistently with the men having faithfully discharged their duties then you must convict them.”
The Jury retired at 12:40 on 25 September to consider their verdict. They returned at 12:48, duly acquitted Hutchinson as instructed, and found George Meakin and James Tinsley guilty of Culpable Homicide and Breach of Duty. Meakin was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment and Tinsley received three years penal servitude. Both were in fact released on 16 December 1916 and returned to work on the Caledonian Railway; Tinsley as a Lampman, and Meakin as Good Trains Guard. This apparent leniency was in fact due to a labour shortage created by men leaving their jobs to go and fight in the war.
Fatal Accident Enquiry (Scotland)
The final enquiry, a Fatal Accident Enquiry took place in Dumfries on 4 November 1915, concerning the deaths of the crew of the troop train. Sheriff Campion, presiding, lost no time in reaching the same conclusion that the negligence of Meakin and Tinsley was wholly to blame for the accident.
A memorial to the fallen of the soldiers of Royal Scots 7th (Leith) Battalion was unveiled in Rosebank Cemetery on 12th May 1916. It is in the form of a Celtic Cross of Peterhead granite, and consisting of a memorial plaque and Regimental Badge and Leith Burgh Coat-of-Arms, one on each side. Flanking this cross, on the north wall of the cemetery, are bronze plaques, which originally listed the names of 213 who died. The name of Sargeant James Anderson, who died in September 1917, never having recovered from injuries sustained at Quintinshill, was added shortly after his death. For unexplained reasons, Private James Garrie and Private William S Paterson, both named in the lists of dead were somehow missed out, and this error was corrected by a plaque dedicated to both added in 2015.
A marble plaque remembering the accident and honouring the men or the Royal Scots was unveiled in Larbert railway station by Councillor William “Billy” Buchanan of Falkirk District Council. The Western Front Association unveiled a memorial to 7RS just south of Quintinshill in 2007, while a memorial to all who died was unveiled on the site in 2010.
The ‘Lost Children’ Mystery
There is an unexplained and extremely sad postscript to the Quintinshill Disaster. Among the dead the bodies of four children were found, one of a little girl, and the others being the trunks of the bodies only, so badly burned that it was impossible to determine their gender. There was no record of missing children and the railway companies had no record of children travelling. The bodies were moved to Glasgow for possible identification, but despite notices in newspapers and at railway stations, nobody ever came forward to claim any of them. The bodies of the four children were laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Glasgow Western Necropolis on 26 May 1916.
Given that the true death toll of the Quintinshill disaster is not and probably never shall be known, it is possible that these children were travelling on the local train and the bodies of their parents were incinerated in the fire.
It is to the credit of Councillor Billy Buchanan, who had the Larbert station memorial unveiled that their grave was identified and a memorial to them was finally unveiled on 27 June 2011, reading “The lost children of Maryhill – they were sadly never named or claimed”.