MossValley: Rail Accident at Chester, 24 May 1847 (ILN)
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Frightful Accident
on the
Shrewsbury and Chester Railway

Transcript from the
Illustrated London News
29 May 1847

A very alarming and fatal accident took place on Monday on this railway, by which several persons were killed and many received serious injuries.

Scene of the railway accident at Chester (sketched by Mr A W Hunt, Liverpool), ILN, May 1847 - click for enlargement The train which leaves the Chester Station at half-past six o'clock had just arrived at the new iron bridge which crosses the river Dee, at the extermity of the race-course, when the furthest portion of the three iron arches or spans composing the bridge gave way with a tremendous crash, carrying the whole of the train (with the exception of the engine and tender, which reached the other side in safety) into the river below. Nine persons were taken out in a dead or dying state, and several others mutilated and injured in various ways. The stoker of the engine was thrown from his place upon the tender, and killed upon the spot.

The iron bridge consisted of three spans, each span 100 feet in width. Each span is composed of massive iron girders, supported by stone of the most firm and durable construction. There are four of these girders in each span, one on each side of the up and down lines of rails. Strong wooden beams were fixed across the girders, and along these the lines were laid. The girders themselves were formed of two pieces of iron, firmly riveted in the centre, and seemed well adapted to sustain an immense weight.

The train consisted of one first-class carriage, two second class carriages, and a luggage-van; but it is stated that there were not more than two dozen passengers. The train was proceeding as usual along the line, had already crossed two of the arches, and was in the act of crossing the third, when, without one moment's warning, all the carriages were precipitated into the river, a depth of about 30 feet; the engine and tender, which had crossed the bridge, pursuing their course along the line. The sudden shock and concussion rendered almost all the persons in the carriages totally insensible of their situation. One man, indeed, named Proud, recovered himself almost immediately; he found himself in a carriage turned upside down in the river, and, being fully sensible of the horrors of his situation, he exerted himself to the utmost, and succeeded in getting through the carriage window, whence he precipitated himself into the river, and swam ashore. The crash was heard at a great distance, and assistance was promptly on the spot, Mr. Jones, the house surgeon of the Infirmary, being very active in rendering every aid to the unfortunate sufferers. In a brief space of time four dead bodies were taken out of the river, and twelve or thirteen of the passengers, who were more or less wounded, were extricated from their perilous situation, and conveyed to the Infirmary.

The account of Clayton, the engine-driver, is as follows:-  When passing over the third span from Chester, he felt the rails sinking beneath him, and he instantly put on the steam, and then felt the carriages severed, while the engine and tender cleared the bridge, and reached the abutments on the Wrexham or south bank of the river in safety; but the jerk or wrench arising from this severance threw the tender off the rails, inclining it sideways towards the stone parapet. The tender was finally thrown somewhat on its side, and about three feet off the rails, on the east side; this shock severing it from the engine, the iron bar or hook connecting them being snapped in two. The stoker, whose name is Anderson, was by this shock thrown off the tender upon the rails, and the screw-jack from the tender falling on him, killed him on the spot. The engine continued its course along the line, and, fortunately, Clayton, the engine-driver, escaped without hurt.

As soon as the agitation consequent upon such a dreadful occurrence had subsided, attention was directed to the fallen arch; but, strange to say, only one of the girders, that on the outside, had given way, while the other remained perfectly firm and entire. Of course, the weight of the carriages bore down the rails and the horizontal beams, which, with the girder, now broken into several pieces, feel into the river. It also tore with it a portion of the stone-work in which it was fixed on the Welsh side of the river. Very fortunately, however, nothing seemed to have fallen upon the carriages, and though they were crushed one against the other, they did not appear so completely smashed as would have been the case had the arch been built of stone.

Among the persons killed are:
John Matthews, a coachman on one of the Welsh mail coaches between Chester and some part of Wales. He was a passenger to Ruabon or Wrexham, in the second-class carriage.
Knyvett, also a coach driver, and a passenger to Wrexham.
George Roberts, guard of the train, who met an instantaneous death, having been precipitated from the top of the carrige on to the bank of the river, amid the falling ruins.
The stoker, a young man.

Thirteen persons are known to have been injured:
Mr. and Miss Town, of Wrexham (brother and sister). The injuries which Mr. Town has received are of a very serious character. He has sustained a severe concussion of the brain.
Mrs. Evison, a middle-aged lady, from the neighbourhood of Ruabon and Wrexham. Her injuries are very severe, consisting of a fracture of the hip-bone, the nature or extent of which has not been accurately ascertained.
Mr. Isaac Jones, of Wrexham, said to be a tailor and draper, has had his skull severely fractured, and lies now in an exceedingly critical state.
Mr. John Jones, from the neighbourhood of Wrexham, a severe contusion about the head, which is not, however, reckoned imminently dangerous.
Mrs. Elizabeth Jones (wife of the above) has had her thigh fractured.
Ann Evans, servant to Captain Hoskins, who resides near Ruabon. This young woman has suffered to a greater degree than, perhaps, any other of the unfortunate individuals who were injured. Her thigh is fractured, and she has likewise sustained a serious fracture of the collar-bone, and a number of internal injuries.
Mr. David Evans, of Wrexham, or the immediate neighbourhood, had his thigh fractured.
Mrs. Evans, his wife, received a number of bruises, none of which are of a serious character.
A boy named Stevens, the son of one of the station keepers on the line, and himself employed on the line, was dreadfully injured.
Mr. John Bruce Ford, of Manchester, received a cut on the head, and other injuries, none of which are considered at all serious.
A married female, name unknown, severe concussion of the brain.
A boy or man, connected with some of the offices, named McGregor, had his skull fractured, but was, nevertheless, quite sensible, and conversed with the house surgeons.

Happily, several persons escaped without the least injury.

The engineer was so horrified at the occurrence, that he went on his engine in an almost insensible state for a distance of about two miles.

One of the coachmen who was killed had £150 in his pocket.

The Inquest on three of the bodies lying at the workhouse was commenced on Tuesday. The only witnesses examined were those who could identify the bodies.

Clayton, the engine-driver, who had so narrow an escape himself, identified the body of the stoker; and the bodies of the two coach-drivers having been identified by their friends, the inquest was then adjourned to the chester Infirmary, where the body of Roberts, the guard, is lying, having been conveyed thither, though it seems the house-surgeon, who saw the men carrying it on the Roodee, examined the head, and found it so frightfully fractured, that life was then extinct.

Clayton having identified the body as that of Roberts, the Coroner intimated to the Jury that he should not examine any further witnesses that day, and declared the inquest adjourned to Friday (yesterday) morning.

We have annexed a sketch of the scene of the catastrophe [click thumbnail above to enlarge], taken from the great Bridge over the Dee, by Mr. A. W. Hunter of Liverpool, who was a passenger in the next train after that to which the accident occurred.

- - - - - - o0o - - - - - -

Another item from the same issue of the ILN describes the outcome of an inquest in London following a separate, unrelated rail accident:

An inquest was held on Wednesday evening, at Guy's Hospital, on the body of Mr. James Collins, aged twenty-seven. George Grinstead, station master at the Spa-road Station, on the Greenwich Railway, stated that the deceased was foreman of a gang of labourers employed on the line. On Saturday last, the deceased was standing on the new line, when the train from London came towards the station. Just at that time, the deceased, apparently not knowing what he did, stepped on the old line; the engine-driver and fireman, seeing the danger, called to him, but the train being then on six yards from him, it was impossible to stop in time, and the whole of the carriages passed over him. Verdict, "Accidental death."


The collapse of the railway bridge over the Dee in 1847, only six months after it had been opened, caused a furore at the time; and severe embarrassment for its designer, the great engineer Robert Stephenson, whose explanation for the accident was derailment. In the light of an engineers' report (which includes one of the earliest references to the problems of metal fatigue), and other evidence heard from witnesses, Stephenson's explanation was rejected by the inquest jury, which instead was critical of elements of the bridge's construction which it pronounced unsafe. The coroner excluded negligence from Stephenson but the case had important implications, for (in the words of the jury) 'there are upwards of one hundred bridges similar in principle and form to the late one over the river Dee . . . all are unsafe.' A Royal Commission was swiftly set up to look into the use of cast iron in railway bridges.

A later issue of the ILN on 12 June (which we don't have) contained a further illustration of the scene of the accident, a copy of which can be seen at the Railways Archive, a site specifically dealing with train accident reports (not genealogy: read this page for more information). The site also has a very useful links page for many different railway sources.

A 2004 study of the fall of the Dee Bridge (by Peter R Lewis and Colin Gagg, of the Open University) contains the same illustration and is available as a PDF document from the OU site at this link. By taking another look at records of the time, and with the benefit of modern knowledge and analysis, it's a re-investigation into the reasons for the failure of the bridge. The piece includes a great deal more background, summarising facts about the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway, Stephenson's design and construction, the findings of the inquest into the accident including witness reports, the Royal Commission, and the lessons learned. Well worth a read, whether you're interested in the accident, or this particular railway, or early rail-bridge construction in general.

Wikipedia: Dee Bridge Disaster

If you're interested in finding out a whole lot more about Chester, go to Steve Howe's Chester: A Virtual Stroll around the Walls, which is stuffed with pictures, a great deal of history, and many links.

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