Two rail accidents on the ‘Old Potts’ – 100 years ago
When mention is made of a Shrewsbury railway accident, most of us automatically think of that dreadful night around the turn of the century when the mail train from Crewe rushed headlong down the slope from Harlescott to smash itself on the curves approaching the station.
It is less well known — if it is known at all — that just 100 years ago the old "Potts" railway suffered two collisions in Shrewsbury.
Happily neither was of colossal proportions, but they give a clear picture of the way the "Potts" was run at that time.
Many people still remember the "Potts" railway in its 20th century reincarnation as the Shropshire & Montgomery; but there can be few, if any, who can recall its earlier existence as the “Potteries, Shrewsbury & North Wales Railway: North Wales Section”. A splendid title, especially since it never reached either the Potteries or North Wales.
The railway first opened its main line from Shrewsbury to Llanymynech in August 1866, at which time the branches from Llanymynech to Llanyblodwel and from Kinnerley to Breidden were opened for goods traffic only.
At the time there were ambitions to making the railway the through route to the Welsh coast, and much of the line was double track.
But within four months the bailiffs had been brought in. For three weeks they stayed with the trains, travelling on them and sleeping on board overnight, until all traffic ceased on December 21.
The railway re-opened two years later, having sold much of its stock and reduced its main line to a single track. Amazingly, it managed to make a small profit for a couple of years, but by 1875 the losses were mounting up again and much of the track was in desperate need of repair.
Traffic on the Breidden branch was already very limited due to the precarious state of Melverley viaduct.
The general disarray was in evidence at Shrewsbury. A branch from the "Potts" main line at Coleham went, at that time, towards the Column, under the London Road near the Bell Inn and then up to the main Shrewsbury-Wellington line, where there were some exchange sidings.
At one time these had been under the control of a man named Russell, but he had been fined for some misdemeanor about a year earlier, and had not been seen since.
The "Potts", in their search for, economies, had never replaced him, so that the mighty Great Western and London North Western Railways began to treat the sidings as their own. It was in these circumstances that a train was being shunted there on October 16, 1875.
There was a shortage of guards, too, for on that date a signalman was having to act as guard on the afternoon goods trains from Kinnerley to Shrewsbury. Indeed, there was even a shortage of guards-vans, since John Smith was forced to travel in the rear wagon.
This had no proper braking equipment. The only way in which he could apply the brakes was by climbing over the wagon sides, clinging on as best he could and treading on the side brake. As he said, he risked his life every time he did it.
As this train was proceeding slowly, at 8 or 9 m.p.h., round the curve that led towards the Bell bridge, Edward Fewtrell, a London North Western driver, wag shunting some wagons in the exchange sidings above.
Unfortunately he tried to fit too many wagons into one siding, so that three of them were forced over the stop-block at one end.
These careered on to the "Potts" line and down towards the approaching goods train. A signalman and clearing house lad gave pursuit in vain.
The fireman of the goods train shouted out in alarm as he saw the runaway trucks Approaching and he clambered up onto the tank of the engine for protection.
The driver, Thomas Hollis, desperately shut off steam and put the engine into reverse, while at the rear of the train the guard, not wishing to risk his life, jumped clear.
The impact of the ensuing collision was so great that, not only were the three runaway trucks thrown clear of the line, but also the engine and front six wagons of the goods train.
The fireman, John Izon, was knocked senseless and thrown from the tank to the footplate with several broken ribs. A water gauge burst, so that escaping water scalded the driver in a most frightful manner; the poor man was also dreadfully injured by the collision.
The guard and signalman, now arriving on the scene, helped down the injured fireman and looked for the driver. Owing to the escaping steam it was some time before they could see him. Eventually he was found and carried to a local hostelry, presumably the Bell, where he died soon afterwards.
In the ensuing enquiry the "Potts" company were able to avoid the full penalties that their inadequacies might have deserved, because the stretch of line on which the accident occurred was for freight only and therefore not subject to Board of Trade regulations.
There could, however, be no such excuse with the accident that happened just two months later, on December 28.
A passenger train from Llanymynech, which was due at Shrewsbury about 5.30 in the afternoon, was standing at a platform just outside the Abbey Foregate terminus while the tickets were being collected.
In one compartment Miss Lewis, up from Kinnerley to visit friends, and Miss Ellis from Swan Hill in Shrewsbury were getting ready to alight as best they could. The train was cold and dark, since most of the lights, as usual, were not in working order.
It was then that a goods train smashed without warning into the rear of the passenger train, breaking the windows and the remaining lamps, hurling passengers from their seats, and throwing the Misses Lewis and Ellis violently against one another.
Eventually Miss Lewis was found to be seriously injured and was carried away unconscious and suffering from internal injuries.
The "Potts" company tried to hush up the matter for it was obvious that the standard of signalling was deficient. The news did not appear in Eddowes Journal but the Shrewsbury Chronicle was obviously more observant, or possibly persistent.
"Great difficulty has been experienced in obtaining accurate information as to the precise manner in which the accident occurred", the Chronicle said, "the (Potts) officials pronouncing it to be a 'mere tilt-up' which was not worthy of notice."
Not surprisingly, many of the injured passengers, some of whom were still confined to their rooms several days later, regarded it as of graver importance.
The Board of Trade appear to have taken note of these accidents and over the next four years they applied increasing pressure on the "Potts" to put their house in order. The permanent way was in desperate need of repair, the Melverley viaduct being especially, dangerous. Early in 1880 a compulsory 25 m.p.h. speed restriction was imposed on the whole line.
But by this time there were no funds left to carry out any track repairs and on June 22 the Board of Trade ordered that the line should be closed down. Operations were straightaway "suspended".
The "Potteries, Shrewsbury & North Wales Railway: North. Wales Section" ran no more.