Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

British Railway Accidents and Incidents in Maps and Pictures by Jonathan Mountfort

The Midland train heading south towards Hitchin from Bedford. Note the chimneys on the maltings in the background, which enable us to locate this view on the map. (British Railway Accidents and Incidents in Maps and Pictures, Amberley Publishing)

I became immediately hooked on the study of railway accidents when, at the age of ten, I borrowed J A B Hamilton’s British Railway Accidents of the 20th Century from my local public library – I think I read it five times in the next couple of weeks. But I can’t really explain why that should be – I’m not obsessed with death or killing people and I don’t read books on wars or battles, nor do I play shoot-em-up video games. I think it must come down to the power and majesty of a train rumbling along the tracks and then suddenly, for almost any trivial reason one can imagine, succumbing to a tearing crunching disaster – splintered carriages and wheels of steel littered around the scene, and bent and ripped up rails to be swiftly replaced by the permanent way gang, usually within 24 hours of the incident occurring.

So, over the many years since then, I have read most of the books on the subject, including of course Tom Rolt’s “bible” on the subject: Red for Danger. But for me, there was always something missing. I could read about what happened, the names of the railway staff involved, what went wrong, and what the accident inspector recommended… but none of these books gave me any context, especially maps, so I could see where they happened and how the track fitted into the landscape. Well, I have a motto (which I’m sure is not just mine) which is: “write the book you would like to buy”. So when Amberley asked me if I had any suggestions for new titles, I straight away suggested British Railway Accidents and Incidents in Maps and Pictures. The reason for the “incidents” part is that I didn’t want to be restricted to just writing about serious mishaps, and indeed I wanted to be able to include events which were not mishaps at all. But I wanted it to have all the context that was available from contemporary maps and postcard images.

Ordnance Survey 25-inch map c. 1900 showing the probable location of the train and flood shown in the picture postcard dated 30 April 1908. (British Railway Accidents and Incidents in Maps and Pictures, Amberley Publishing)

Which brings me onto my next subject: postcards. Local photographers were usually on the scene of an accident within minutes, getting pictures for the local newspaper, or even the nationals if the event was serious. They also published their work as postcards, and the public of those days, with no TV or horror films, were eager to lap up the images and send accompanying notes to their friends and loved ones. We see Victorian and Edwardian society as much more macabre and ghoulish than we are today, but actually, this was the  only excitement they got in their mainly humdrum lives, while we now have, as I said, TV programmes and films. But what do we watch? Murder and mayhem and we lap it up – so actually human nature has not changed at all and we are just as obsessed with death and destruction now as ever we were – just look at the success of Game of Thrones!

As I mentioned, people bought the postcards and sent them to their friends, often with the usual tedious postcard message on the back saying, “I hope mother is well… we’ll come and visit soon… isn’t the weather foul/lovely, etc”. But some of the backs of accident postcards have wonderful commentary on the event shown on the front – and in this book I have included the ones I own which give this insight into the event portrayed. Now to me, this is fascinating: here you have, in your hand, a unique (and I use the word correctly and not in its usual muddled sense) contemporary record in ink or pencil of what the person writing, usually around 100 years ago, saw and thought about what had happened, often giving invaluable information which no other research into accident and newspaper reports could ever reveal – I shall call this “research through serendipity”, because it really can be nothing else!

The message on the back of the postcard reads: ‘This is a photo of the accident just outside Salop station it was on a viaduct higher than the house tops there is twenty killed and one have died since I went to see the wreck it was awful they had got most of the dead away they were smashed out of all recognition. I expect you will see it in print’ and at the top of the card: ‘where I put the cross is a carriage reared right on top of another one side smashed clean off’. (British Railway Accidents and Incidents in Maps and Pictures, Amberley Publishing)

Unfortunately, this means I have exhausted my own supply of on-the-spot personal commentary, but if anyone out there has a postcard with a relevant message written on the back, then if we can gather enough together we can use them in a sequel – you never know.

Anyway, I hope you like the book, and of course, there will be a few errors in it which I am sure you will soon let me know about, but that is just inevitable when putting together detailed work of this kind. And at this point, I shall flag up an error which I made and which I failed to spot in time before publication: I therefore apologise here for spelling Courtney Atkin’s name wrong – he is the author of the fabulous book A Significant Accident which he wrote about the Connington South derailment of 1967.

So, I’ll just conclude by saying what this book is not:

It is not a book about the history of British railway accidents – there are many, many of those already out there.

It is not a book about the Railway Inspectorate and the Royal Engineers and their work to make the railways of Britain safer.

It is not a book about the changes which were made to effect these improvements – all of these subject are covered in detail in Tom Rolt’s book and others.

So thank you for listening.

Jonathan Mountfort's new book British Railway Accidents and Incidents in Maps and Pictures is available for purchase now.