The evening rush hour of Wednesday 4 December 1957 was a very foggy one, while the Clean Air Act had been passed the year before it had yet to have a dramatic impact and fogs made worse by the pollutant laden air of the city were still common.
The train services had been disrupted throughout the day by the fog, the running order of trains had been changed and a Hastings train heading towards Ladywell was wrongly held at a red signal, on the assumption that a train heading towards Hayes was in front of it. It wasn’t; the crowded electric commuter train was behind and stopped at a red signal close to St Johns, just beyond the point where the line from Nunhead joins, its brakes firmly on as it was on a slight incline at that point.
At just before 6:20 pm a late running steam train from Cannon Street to Ramsgate approached, its driver had missed two yellow warning signals and when he saw the lights of the Hayes train it was too late. The Ramsgate train ploughed into the stationary Hayes-bound electric, the front coach of the former left the track and crashed into the bridge from Nunhead which partially collapsed onto the first three coaches of the still moving Ramsgate train – largely destroying them. The map above from the Ministry of Transport report shows the location, with the picture below showing the devastation under the bridge was from a few days later (1).
Further up the track two of the Hayes train carriages were forced upwards and together as a result of the impact from behind. The accident could have been even worse as a train was approaching the bridge from Nunhead; fortunately the damage to the bridge caused a partial derailment and the driver saw the problems ahead and was able to stop in time. The extent of the damage to the twisted bridge from above became visible as the fog cleared and daylight broke (2).
As was to happen a decade later with the Hither Green crash, local emergency services and people (such as the unknown woman below (3)) responded to the aftermath of the crash. In a statement in Parliament the next day, the Transport Minister noted:
The Government would like to take this opportunity of paying a tribute to the outstanding work done, not only by the emergency services and the voluntary organisations but also by those living near the scene, who so unselfishly put their houses and their belongings at the disposal of the rescuers. The conditions in the dense fog and darkness were appallingly difficult and distressing, and there can be nothing but praise for all concerned who worked with such efficiency and determination throughout.
The conditions that the rescue workers operated in were atrocious – one syndicated newspaper report (4) describing it as ‘Dante-esque’ – rescue workers ‘ moving like ghosts in the all-embracing fog guided by the screams of the injured trapped in the wreckage.’ There was too the evidence of everyday life of coats, gloves , handbags and briefcases strewn across the site along with Christmas parcels bought hours earlier in the West End scattered across the tracks – some just visible the following day in a photograph from the official report – the location with the art deco Grover Court to the left is clear.
While many of the casualties went to Lewisham Hospital they were also rushed to various other local hospitals, many of which are long lost to NHS rationalisation – St Alfege’s (later to become Greenwich) , the Brook, the Miller, St John’s (Morden Hill), St Giles (Camberwell) and oddly to the Maudsley – whether one of those injured had mental health issues too or the local hospitals were so stretched that this was where the beds were isn’t clear.
In the Facebook discussions on the post there were lots of memories of those who ‘escaped’ the crash through small changes to their normal routine with themselves or relatives leaving work slightly late and not being able to get onto the train and in days before many homes had telephones those waiting fearing the worst – such as a brother, expected home at 7:00 pm, but not opening the door until nearly midnight. There were those who were lucky in their ‘choice’ of carriages saving them. There will have been others though where changes to their normal routines will have meant that they didn’t return home that night.
Both parents of one person who commented on one of the threads were involved – her father was in the Civil Defence and so he decided to go and assist. Her mother was found in the wreckage about 11.00 pm – she had moved carriage at London Bridge, a move that probably saved her life. She was taken to Lewisham Hospital and seems to have been in for a while with operation to dislocated hips and pelvis. She never fully recovered from her injuries but she was stoic and was determined to get back to ‘normal’ as soon as she could.
Many suffered mental scars after surviving the crash or being involved with the recovery – one man described his 15 year old self who worked for a company who had heavy duty cutting gear working most of the night in the recovery efforts. While there was a subsequent court case relating to what we now would refer to as post-traumatic stress none of the survivors or those involved in the rescue received the sort of support that would happen now.
The story of one survivor is worth telling in a little more detail. George Gregory (pictured), from Accrise near Folkestone, was one of those who, eventually, made it home. He was an aviation underwriter at Lloyds who commuted every weekday – the carriage he was one of those that the bridge collapsed onto. He was able to get out onto the track, although was very cautious of the live rail. With other surviving passengers he helped with the initial rescue work until the emergency services arrived – they managed to free 20-30 passengers from the wreckage. He then worked with a doctor who was administering morphine – marking with a ‘M’ those who had received it with his pen. He stayed on site for almost 3 hours helping the emergency services.
George stayed the night with a dock worker who lived near the station who had also been helping with the rescue effort before returning home the following day. He was a little overwhelmed by the generosity of the couple he stayed with (and other local people) – the dock worker had given his coat away to a cold crash victim. They wouldn’t wanted nothing more than thanks from him, but apparently he left some bank notes down the side of a chair before he left.
Despite surviving the crash, George carried the events of that commute home through the rest of his life. He had survived when close friends and colleagues hadn’t and had given up his seat to a woman who never made it home. He suffered nightmares for years as a result of the crash – often waking his wife up by trying to drag her from their bed and ‘rescue’ her from the crash (5).
In the end, 90 passengers lost their lives that night; there are few, if any, peacetime incidents in Lewisham that caused as many fatalities – the December 1952 London smog with a total death toll of between 4,000 and 12,000 may have well have done over a few days but data doesn’t seem to be broken down by borough.
There was a Ministry of Transport inquiry to find out what happened and to try to learn for the future. The report found that the driver he had failed to slow after passing two caution signals so he was unable to stop at the danger signal, although some newspaper reports of the inquest suggest that he never saw it due to the density of the fog. It concluded that an automatic warning system would have prevented the collision, although recognised that there were lines with even more rudimentary warning systems that needed to be prioritised.
The inquest jury found, by a majority decision that the 90 deaths were due to ‘gross negligence’ but it was a verdict rejected by the coroner who recorded one of accidental death. The driver of the Ramsgate train was charged with manslaughter, but was acquitted at a second trial; at the first the jury were unable to reach a verdict.
The memorial to the crash is slightly oddly at Lewisham station given the proximity of the crash to St Johns, but perhaps it is more visible there at a busier station. It seems strange that it gives no idea of the sheer enormity of the scale of the loss of life; it is sad that there is almost as much space is devoted to the names of the commercial organisations (a newspaper, two private rail companies and a funeral director) who ‘made possible’ the installation of the plaque as to the accident itself.
A full list of the names doesn’t seem to be available for the crash, on line at least – something that just wouldn’t happen now. The names of 86 of the 90 fatalities have been pieced together from on-line press reports, as well as the friends and relatives of those who died responding to this post. While there are some local (to Lewisham) people, given the routes and destinations of the trains most of the dead were from the areas around Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Dover and Beckenham.
The youngest victim was Graham Freeman who was just three and had visited Father Christmas on Oxford Street that afternoon and was returning to Catford. He was found dead at the scene – a toy drum crushed by him and he was still holding a soft toy when he was found by rescuers (6).
Patricia (Pat) Baker was 19 and had lived at 9 Lushington Road, Bellingham since she was a toddler. She had been a pupil at Holbeach Secondary School in Catford. When she she left, she had gone to work in statistics for the Regent Oil Company and liked going to the pictures and dancing. Her Dad had tried to get the same train but had failed. In the tangled debris of the crash she had hung upside down for 3 hours but was still chatting and joking with her rescuers before being able to be cut free; she he died in the early hours of 5 December (7).
The impact on the families of those who died was significant too; Anthony Matthews of Tunbridge Wells died of his injuries a few days after the crash. His death left his widowed mother and two younger sisters in financial difficulties as he was the breadwinner. No support came from British Rail.
Unlike the Hither Green crash a decade later, this crash felt a much longer time ago, the smaller hospitals of the early NHS, the pre-nationalisation steam trains and the rudimentary signalling and warning systems (semaphore was still used elsewhere). They belonged to a different era, much less safe one – although as the 2016 Sandilands tram derailment showed, no rail system is 100% safe.
Next time you are travelling towards Lewisham through St Johns or from Nunhead, while the train probably won’t stop, at least pause for thought – the crash location will be obvious to even the occasional traveller on the line, remember those who died, remember that your journey is that little bit safer because of what happened to them.
Those who died included
- Ms Agnes Adams (Embleton Road, Ladywell)
- Mr Richard Allchin (Tonbridge)
- Mr Joseph Allen (unknown)
- Mr Leonard Ambrose (Tonbridge)
- Ms Rosemary Gillian Ashley (Beckenham)
- Miss Patricia Baker (Lushington Road, Bellingham)
- Mr R A Baker (Beckenham)
- Mr Morris J Banfield (Tonbridge)
- Mr John Barnard (Tonbridge)
- Mr P B Bassett (Tonbridge)
- Mr Guthrie Birch (Folkestone)
- Denise Bridle (Catford)
- Mr F J Bond (Tonbridge)
- Mr Charlesworth (West Wickham)
- Pte Kenneth (wrongly referred to as Arthur) Clift (Hexal Road, Catford)
- Mr Leonard Colin (Tonbridge)
- Mr Coombs (Ashford)
- Mr Roy Coppard (Tunbridge Wells)
- Mr C A Davis (Tunbridge Wells)
- Mr V B Emes (Abbey Wood)
- Fusilier Brian England (Dover)
- Mr C Everard (Tonbridge)
- Mr Alfred Ernest Fletcher (Southborough)
- Mr R Gibson Fleming
- Mr Graham Freeman (Catford)
- Mr H R Green (Horsmonden)
- Mr Brian Hallas (Southborough)
- Mr W J Halsey (Dymchurch)
- Mr C Halstead (West Wickham)
- Ms Florence Ada Harries (Persant Road, Excalibur Estate, Catford)
- Mr Percy Heaver (Dover)
- Ms Jospehine Henning (unknown)
- Mr William Hicks (Sunderland Road, Forest Hill)
- Miss Barbara Hubbard (Beckenham)
- Mr M Humphries (Tonbridge)
- Mr S T Humphries (Tonbridge)
- Mr George Huxtable (Shirley)
- Mr Colin James (Folkestone)
- Mr Brian Jarrett (Pembury)
- Mr Thomas Sydney Kennett (Dover)
- Mr Sidney Lawrence (High Wycombe)
- Miss E Leary (West Wickham)
- Mr Liddle (Little) (Pembury)
- Ms Eileen Mary Maskins (Downham)
- Mr T W March (Tonbridge)
- Miss F L Masters (Mastens) (Grove Park)
- Mr Anthony Donald Matthews (Tunbridge Wells)
- Mr McGauge (Not known)
- Mr McGregor (Southborough)
- Mr A R McGregor (Tonbridge)
- Mr R D McGregor (Hildenborough)
- Mr Robert Morley (Tonbridge)
- Mr Rodney Newbery (Tonbridge)
- Mr Vernon Newland (Beckenham)
- Mr T F Nightingale (Tonbridge)
- Miss A Noakes (Tonbridge)
- Mr FJR Norris (Tunbridge Wells)
- Mr C North (Chislehurst)
- Mr Harry North (Folkestone)
- Mr Andrew Phillips (New Romney)
- Mr Colin Pope (Saltwood, near Folkestone)
- Mr E J Pope (Hythe)
- Dr Harold Priestley (Lewisham Park, Lewisham)
- Mr Arthur Reeves (Romborough Way, Lewisham)
- Mr L Relfe (Tonbridge)
- Mr R W Reynolds (Crutchley Road, Downham)
- Mr Derek Rose (Ardgowan Road, Catford)
- Mr C E Rowson (Beckenham)
- Mr Royle (Silvermere Road, Catford)
- Mr Sedgewick (Dover)
- Mr John Sherrott (West Wickham)
- Mr John Shotton (Fordmill Road, Catford)
- Mr Peter Slipper (Tonbridge)
- Mr Edward Snook (Folkestone)
- Mr Andrea Sofokis (Pomphret Road, Brixton)
- Mr F Steeples (Tunbridge Wells)
- Mr Charles George Stone (Southborough)
- Mr Roy Harold Taylor (Folkestone)
- Mr Roy Taylor (Tonbridge)
- Mr R W Taylor (London)
- Mrs S M Taylor (Broadfield Road, Catford)
- Mr William Tidman (Beckenham)
- R Wells (Camden)
- Mr Ronald Williams (Downderry Road, Downham)
- Mr Vernon Williams (Beckenham)
- Mr John Wood (Tonbridge)
- Mr W J Wyard (Hythe)
- Illustrated London News 14 December 1957
- The Sphere 14 December 1957
- Daily Express 5 December 1957
- Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail 5 December 1957
- George’s story comes from both a local paper – the Folkestone, Hythe and District Herald of 7 December 1957 and a emails from his daughter who also supplied his photograph.
- Daily Express 6 December 1957