The Second Edition

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The second edition was slightly larger and included articles on G.W.R. engine number 35, the Portobello Junction accident of 1899, the G.W.R. model locomotive, mixed gauge rail at the Low Level Station, a drawing of S & B locomotive number 23, part 2 of 'Working at Bushbury Shed', "Airship" tank engines, 'Robert Plant - Stafford Road driver', and part 2 of the compilation of principal events in Wolverhampton's railway history.

Some of the articles give a good impression of what life was like, working on the railways. 'Working at Bushbury Shed' and 'Stafford Road Driver', both describe a world that is now gone, a way of life that has changed beyond recognition. The articles on G.W.R. locomotives are informative and provide useful information for anyone that is interested in steam engines.

The cover photograph shows an 'Experiment' locomotive at Bushbury.

Accident at Portobello Junction 1899

Bushbury sidings were clamped in a wet fog during the early hours of October 19th 1899. In the gloom stood a massive goods train of 45 wagons awaiting a clear road to Birmingham. Driver John Mason and Fireman Thomas Summers may have seen, or at least heard "DX" locomotive No.278 as it worked off nearby Bushbury shed en route to High Level station to collect its train.

The "DX" swung off the old line and onto the Stour Valley link with High Level. At the regulator was Driver Alfred Humphries, a forty year old married family man. He lived close to the shed at Sherwood Terrace, Bushbury Lane. His fireman, Francis Davis, lived a little further away at South Street, he was twenty eight. At the station the two men reversed the engine onto the London train, consisting of six coaches and two vans. They were due to leave at 5.50a.m.

At 5.43 Driver Mason got his goods train under way, increasing speed only slowly. The rails were wet and the train weighed 450 tons, falling on the absolute weight limit set by the company. Speed increased as the train began the approach to Portobello. Driver, fireman and guard saw all three signals in the Wednesfield Heath area showing clear for the section approaching the junction. These were the last signals seen as the train rolled into a blanket of dense fog. Meanwhile at High Level, the passenger train started on its way along the loop line to the junction with the main line at Portobello.

The fog has cleared in this photograph, taken from the road bridge in Neachells Lane. The lightweight crane in the background would be insufficient on its own to raise the locomotive, the L.N.W.R. having only one heavy crane on its system at this time. No doubt after much manhandling the ‘D.X’ was taken off to Bushbury shed for examination. Surprisingly, despite it being an early example of its class, (built 1861) No 278 was repaired and put back into service, surviving until 1919.
Signalman Charles Povey was working a ten hour shift at the junction signal box, where he had been stationed for the last five years. The line was worked on the absolute block system, with only one train allowed in the section at any one time. Povey did what he had done all those years, and ignored the rules. He accepted both trains into his section, setting the junction signals against the goods train. He expected it to stop as trains always had before, at the home signal.

"It all seemed so simple", he said at the later enquiry.

On the footplate of the goods train both men were straining their eyes for a glimpse of the distant signal controlling the junction. 

In his van Guard Robert Thomson did the same. The fog was so thick that none of the men could make out the signal post, let alone the signal lamp up behind the spectacle glass. The driver noticed that they had passed a level crossing and that the Crossing lay beyond the invisible distant signal. He threw the engine into reverse. In the van Thomson felt the train lose speed and applied his own brakes. The rails were wet, the 450 ton train was running on a downhill gradient, and the braking was supplied by the engine and the guards van alone. The crew could do no more as the train ran out onto the junction. It was still impossible to see any signal light, but the shriek of an approaching locomotive whistle warned them of their impending fate. Driver Mason opened the regulator in a desperate attempt to outrun the train bearing down upon him.

Harry Kay (this is the name given in the newspaper at the time, a descendant claims it to have been 'Clem' Kay) was an engine fitter on his way to work at a Willenhall factory, he was approaching the bridge at Neachells Lane when he heard the warning whistle of a locomotive in the fog. He heard the sound of another engine, the beat of its exhaust increasing sharply as it attempted to put on speed. A tremendous bell like sound signalled disaster. As Harry Kay stared out over the bridge, along the line he saw a solitary locomotive appear from the mist, drawing a few goods wagons. The workmen staggered and fell down the embankment as he went to the help of a train that he could not see.

Sherwood Terrace in Bushbury Lane, as it stands today.

Like most railwaymen, driver Alfred Humphries lived within sight of his work.

The railway bridge can be seen from the front garden.

Photograph Mervyn Srodzinsky.

Shattered goods wagons loomed out of the fog. The locomotive of the passenger train lay on its side roaring steam. The mutilated remains of the fireman lay beneath the tender. Kay opened the steam valves to prevent the boiler exploding and went to help where he could. Passengers were standing around in the mist, shocked and confused. John Westwood, the guard of the passenger train had been thrown across his van in the impact, recovering consciousness some minutes later. He instinctively checked his watch as he got up, it was 3 minutes past 6. He re-Iit his lamp and went the length of the train but could find no sign of the locomotive crew.

He set off back along the line towards Wolverhampton, laying fog detonators along the way. Meanwhile Driver mason had continued to Willenhall determined to warn the crew of a goods train, due at the junction in a matter of minutes. He was successful, and returned with his engine to render what help he could at the accident.

Driver Humphries had been found, badly injured at the bottom of the embankment. He was lifted into the goods engine and taken to Walsall hospital, where he died from his injuries. Amongst all the wreckage, a bottle of tea belonging to one or other of the unfortunate men was found unbroken. The fireman's watch and chain was also discovered, the bar and several links were still attached to the dead man's waistcoat.

The location of the accident.

At 9.30a.m. the recovery crane arrived from Bushbury, but work was hampered by the fog which was still heavy. Shattered wagons were rolled down the embankment out of the way. Another team arrived from Birmingham and a hundred or so men worked through the day to clear the line. The damaged locomotive was left where it had come to rest, still leaking steam at midday. Crowds of sightseers descended in their hundreds as the mist cleared, arriving in elegant carriages, hansoms, carts, or on foot.

Photographers set up their equipment to record the occasion. Fireman Davis was laid to rest at Bushbury cemetery on the Monday morning. He was a member of the Mount Zion Bible Class as was the Mayor of Wolverhampton, who spoke a few words at the graveside. A large number of railwaymen were there as well. Some days later Alfred Humphries joined his fireman, again escorted by a large body of work colleagues and neighbours come to pay their last respects.

The subsequent enquiry report criticised the railway company over their failure to employ fogmen over the section. No one ever laid fog detonators along that stretch of line between the hours of 7p.m. and 7a.m. in the mornings, due the company said, to staffing problems. The poor braking of the goods train was also mentioned. The main fault lay however with Charles Povey, the signalman.

A view from the other side of the accident. The carriage on the left of the picture appears to number 872 and is a five compartment all third, as is the second along. The third vehicle has a centre luggage compartment. An L.N.W.R. policeman stands beside the train, receiving instructions. Portobello was a notoriously poor area at this time, and the local population made short work of emptying the shattered goods wagons of their contents as soon as darkness permitted. Courtesy of N. Tildersley.
He admitted that he bad broken the rules in allowing the goods train to proceed beyond Wednesfield Heath, but said in defence that he had always done the same. On the few occasions when an inspector had checked his train logs no mention had been made of his malpractice, nor had a train ever overrun the junction signals before. The morning of October 19th 1899 proved the exception which made the rule a necessity.The fate of Signalman Povey is not recorded. He almost certainly lost his job, but the real punishment must have lain in the memory of the events that took place outside of his signalbox window, the shrill sound of an approach whistle, the desperate beat of the goods engine struggling to clear the junction, and the roar of the collision, all hidden from sight in the fog. Of such things were Victorian nightmares made....


Wolverhampton Chronicle, Express & Star October 1899.
British Locomotive Catalogue, 1825-1923 Vol. 2A by B & D Baxter.

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