John Speller's Web Pages Norton 1890

John Speller's Web Pages - GWR Broad Gauge - B&ER

Norton Fitzwarren Accident 1890
In the early hours 11 November 1890 one of the the worst accidents in the history of the Great Western Railway took place at Norton Fitzwarren, just west of Taunton on the GWR main line. A narrow-gauge goods train with a broad-gauge pilot engine was being shunted at Norton Fitzwarren and the signalman, forgetting it was there, allowed a broad-gauge special bringing passengers from an ocean liner from Plymouth Millbay Dock to Paddington to plow into the goods train at over 50 m.p.h. Ten passengers were killed and a number seriously injured. On the broad-gauge locomotive was ex-B&ER 4-4-0ST No. 2051, while the narrow gauge engine was 0-6-0 No. 1100.

A contemporary account described the accident thus: "The railway accident near Taunton, on the Great Western Railway ... sent a thrill through the South of England. A special train running to London with passengers who had reached Plymouth by the mail boat Norham Castle from the Cape, and were full of thoughts of home and friends, crashed into a goods train. The disaster was a terrible one. It occurred at Norton Fitzwarren, where George Rice, the signalman, had, through lapse of memory, left the [goods] train on the up line. When he received the message asking if the road was open for the special mail, he signalled " All clear." The train of three coaches, containing about fifty passengers, was sent out, and came flying towards the junction at the rate of sixty miles an hour. The goods train did not even show a red light, and the special dashed against it without the slightest warning. The goods driver and stoker sprang off the footplate on hearing the roar of the coming train, and saved their lives. Then came a crash that made the permanent way tremble, a shock the vibration of which was felt in the village of Norton. The two locomotives were wrecked. The driver and the fireman of the mail were flung, b}' the resistless power of the impact, on the carriage roofs, and miraculously escaped. But the fate of the passengers was dreadful. Ten of them were killed and many fearfully injured. The first carriage was not only broken up, but got on fire; and the blaze in the darkness, and the cries and moans of the injured, made a scene more vivid than any that ever leapt out of Dante's imagination. Help was speedily at hand, and the fire quenched, otherwise the disaster would have been even more appalling; for the three carriages were piled in a heap, and the injured were so tightly imprisoned in the wreckage that they had to be liberated with axes. Some of the incidents were pathetic; others ghastly and revolting. Several of the passengers, miners, were coming home with wealth from the diamond fields to spend their days in peace and plenty. One traveller, crushed hopelessly beneath the splintered carriages, cried in vain for release; then, realising that death was near, murmured, " Thank God; I can die happy," and expired. Another passenger had his head forced through the jagged glass of a carriage window, and his face was as cruelly cut as though he had been subjected to torture by the Spanish Inquisition. The fate of Titus Baylis, a negro, was even more startling. After the fashion of his tribe, he was goodhumoured, light-hearted, making and laughing at jest; but his merriment was suddenly checked by death, his head being completely cut off. An entire cardparty in one compartment were killed ; and the cards, blood-stained, were eagerly sought for on the line, when daylight came, by morbid people who gloat over tragedy. The signalman, aged sixty-four, was arrested and tried for manslaughter, but acquitted. The coroner's jury had brought in a verdict that the accident was entirely due to his negligence, but at the assizes justice did not rigidly demand its pound of flesh. A merciful view was taken of the old man's lapse of memory; but it was emphatically held that no man of the prisoner's ago ought to have been left alone in a signal box at night, and the grand jury asked that the attention of the Government should be called to the great danger involved in allowing trains to stand shunted on main lines." John Pendleton, Our Railways: Their Origin, Development, Incident and Romance, Volume 2 (1896)

While over the last 150 years there have been three fatal accidents at Norton Fitzwarren, thanks to the grace of God no passenger has ever been killed on any railway west of Norton Fitzwarren.
Aftermath of the Norton accident. The damaged coaches can be seen in the background next to the signals. The bowler-hatted gentleman on the extreme right is Alexander Gibson, GWR Divisional Superintendent, Taunton. Photograph by Alfred Petherick of Taunton
The damage to the first coach suggests that it was fortunate that there were only ten fatalities in the accident, However, if there had been a brake van next to the engine, as was normal practice, there might have been no loss of life
The up "Flying Dutchman" at Norton Junction in 1890, photographed from the station bridge. The main signalbox is on the left; the one on the right controlled the junction between the Barnstaple and Minehead branches and was closed at night
The broad-gauge engine No. 2051 was sent to Bristol after the accident where it was deemed beyond repair and scrapped. The narrow-gauge engine was also scrapped
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