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The Lockerbie disaster of 1883

Two hours after it left Carlisle, an empty goods train was moving slowly north from Lockerbie Station at 11.25pm on May 14. 1883.

Aftermath: Scene of the crash. By the time the press got there the next day almost all the wreckage was cleared and the main line to Glasgow reopened. Several Carlisle passengers died and many were hurt in the three-train collision

Just then the Stranraer train approached, “coming from the Dumfries branch which joins the main line at the north end of the station”, stated the Carlisle Journal.

Before any measures could be taken to avert a collision the passenger train ran into the middle of the goods train overturning some of the trucks “and drove the hinder part of the goods train back towards Carlisle in such a way that some of the wagons were forced off the metals”, said the newspaper, “so that part of them projected over the up (Carlisle-bound) line”.

Both trains were travelling fairly slowly and the only damage was to one of the engine buffers on the Stranraer train. No-one seems to have been injured in this collision.

A witness on the platform was James Jardine of Newcastle Street, Carlisle, who was waiting for a train. He had heard the noise of the crash and though this nothing more than “a rough shunt”. But out of the corner of his eye he could see the Glasgow express coming.

“At the very moment the collision happened,” stated the Journal, “into view came the express from Glasgow and Edinburgh which did not stop at Lockerbie, careering down the incline from Beattock summit at its usual rate of 50mph.”

The main-line train “was completely wrecked by the projecting wagons of the goods train”. With between 200 and 300 passengers “the loss of life and limb was most heartrending”, reported the Journal. “Hardly one of the 16 or 17 vehicles of which the express was composed escaped without damage,” read the report, “and more than half had one side cut off as completely and as clean as if the work had been purposely done with axes.”

Debris was strewn along the track “for about a 100 yards with splintered wood, shattered glass, torn cushions and twisted and broken ironwork which had formed parts of the admirable carriages of this splendid train a moment before”.

Goods wagons were tumbled about and the track torn up and twisted. Seven people were killed and 300 seriously injured.

Only at daylight next day did the full horror become apparent.

The express had been pulled by two locomotives and the pilot engine was thrown on to its side on the station platform, instantly killing the crew, while the other continued on for another 80 yards, a factor which may have saved many lives.

A third disaster had been avoided because the guard on the express “who, though stunned and hurt by the collision, ran back along the line to warn the Perth express then almost due”.

The Journal devoted many columns to “this appalling disaster at Lockerbie, which has cast a solemn gloom upon so many homes”. Three of the dead were from Carlisle; William Mingins, an engine driver, George Sowerby, his fireman, and Henry Mackenzie who was about to marry his servant girl, Mary Bell, who was also on the train and was injured.

One of those who died was James Foster, who had previously worked at the Cumberland Union Bank in Carlisle and among the injured were others from the city.

One of the heroes was Dr Henry Barnes of Carlisle who was in the express “but happily escaped unhurt”. He was in a first class carriage with another gentleman and hearing “a tremendous crash” called out “that a smash was coming” and seized hold of the arms of his seat. A few moments afterwards the train stopped and “on looking out he saw the overturned engine blazing on the platform”. He and his friend jumped out “and Dr Barnes at once busied himself attending to his injured fellow passengers in other parts of the train”, reported the newspaper.

A relief train from Carlisle brought three doctors, Dr Lediard, Mr Page and Dr J Macdougall, who assisted those from Lockerbie already hard at work. With all the injured removed to inns in the town, breakdown gangs from Carlisle and Carstairs worked through the night to clear the track by 11 the next morning.

Queen Victoria requested information “respecting the accident and the condition of the sufferers”.

Eye-witness accounts included those of the Baptist minister from Carlisle, the Rev A A Saville, “one of the passengers in the ill-fated train”. He was in the coach which took the full impact “and saw the ponderous buffers and end of the luggage van come crashing into the compartment in which he was seated, ripping off the side of the carriage and smashing massive planks and beams like laths”. He had a distinct recollection “of seeing the carriage breaking up before his eyes and people tumbling in among the debris, he holding himself well back in the corner of the compartment and escaping with a slight cut.”

Although the shock was terrible,” said Rev Saville, “I extricated myself and at once busied myself in dragging from the wreck the dead and injured.”

Everything was confusion, he said and the scene, lit by gas lamps was heartrending.

Both the engine-driver and fireman were buried at Carlisle Cemetery some days later and crowds lined the route to witness this. The Journal said that, for the funeral of George Sowerby, “cabs were provided for the Freemasons and not for the railway servants, who walked according to their custom on such occasions.”

But many had to run “because the driver the hearse went at too quick a pace for the progress of the procession”.

It was found that the Stranraer driver, the stationmaster of Lockerbie and the district inspector were responsible for irregularities in the movement of trains into the station.


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