22nd May 1915

Hundreds killed in the Quintinshill rail disaster

The multi-train crash at Quintinshill has been described as Britain’s deadliest rail disaster. Five trains were involved, 226 were killed, and a further 246 were injured.

The track at the Quintinshill signal box is relatively complicated, consisting of two main lines with a passing track on either side, giving four parallel lines in total. Three of these pieces of track were occupied by static trains at the time of the accident, leaving only the northbound line free, as a train carrying troops from Larbert, near Falkirk, approached on its way south to Liverpool.

Unable to stop in time, the troop train collided with the stationary passenger train on the southbound line. Both trains derailed, and the wreckage spilled over onto the northbound line. Now all four lines were blocked.

Another train arrives

One minute later, the northbound London Euston to Glasgow sleeper service crashed into the wreckage, igniting the gas used to light the troop train. Immediately, the old wooden carriages of the troop train burst into flame, and the fire quickly spread to the other trains in the wreckage. All the coal being towed by the engines was burned in the process, and so were many of the survivors of the initial crash. At least half of the soldiers were killed and were buried in a mass grave.

“The fire spread with tremendous rapidity. Many passengers had been killed outright, and others, maimed and injured, were pinned down amid the wreckage and burned alive,” reported the West Bridgford Advertiser on 29 May. “A number of bodies are unidentified and others are charred beyond recognition. The most dreadful losses, as has been indicated, are those which have occurred among the officers and men of the 7th Royal Scots.”

Passengers trapped

On the day of the crash, the Sheffield Evening Telegraph recounted how two men “were pinioned by the legs under masses of wreckage. The debris was burning fiercely and the men were each shouting ‘for God’s sake, get me out.’ Dr Edwards, with remarkable pluck and bravery, amputated one of the legs of one man and both legs of the other man. One man died shortly afterwards, but at noon the other unfortunate victim was still alive.”

On 18 May 2001, The Guardian carried an interview, by Michael Simkins, with Peter Stoddart, who had survived the crash. “We were doing 80 miles an hour and we went through the local [train] like cheese. We drove it back nearly 90 yards,” Stoddart said. “I came to, halfway down an embankment by the track. Blood was pouring from a deep wound in my head, in the back of my neck. I looked up and there was a little lark singing its damned head off. I saw my mate a few yards away. He was laughing like hell at me. I put my arms out to him, and it was only his head. His head with his mouth and eyes open. I broke down and started to cry, I don’t know for how long.”

Mercy killings

Stoddart confirmed that officers had shot men who were trapped in the burning wreckage to put them out of their misery.

The subsequent inquiry put the blame for the accident squarely on the men in the Quintinshill signal box, who had handed over from one shift to the next at the wrong time, and been distracted by each other’s presence in the box. Moreover, George Hutchinson, a fireman from one of the trains, had gone up to the signal box to remind the men that his train was standing on the line, but had not actually spoken the warning: he had merely signed his presence in the register. The three were sent to stand trial for culpable homicide. It took the jury just eight minutes to find the two signalmen guilty and they were imprisoned – one for eighteen months and the other for three years.



Other events that occured in May

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