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Accidents on West Somerset Mineral Railway

Accidents on the Mineral Line as reported in the local press and in engineers reports between 1856 and 1907.  Some of the accidents were due to lack of maintenance.   


Because the line was never profitable the Ebbw Vale Company tried to keep maintenance cost to the absolute minimum.  Requests by the maintenance contractor or engineers, as in June 1881 when the latter asked for three thousand new sleepers, sufficient for about 1.5 miles of single track, were deferred.  


15 Aug 1863 - Thomas Burnett – passenger accident

What railway fare the miners were charged before the line was opened to passengers was not recorded, although in from Roadwater August 1863 one miner paid with his life, when Thomas Burnett, aged 23, overslept, and while running to catch the train slipped and was run over and killed by one of the trucks. (West Somerset Free Press, 15 Aug 1863)


19 Aug 1865 - Joseph Hunt – staff accident

In August Joseph Hunt, a boy of twelve, was working as the horse shunter at the foot of the incline.  His job was to hook and unhook the three chains by which the incline winding cable was attached to the wagons and then to attach a horse chain to the wagon and move it into a waiting siding.  In August 1865 he was doing this when the points were changed.  Unfortunately, Joseph's foot was trapped between the moving and the fixed rail, and badly crushed.  It was half an hour before he could be freed, and much longer before Dr Poyntz Wright could be brought up from Watchet.  The doctor amputated Joseph’s leg, probably on the kitchen table of the station master’s cottage at Comberow, but as the Free Press laconically reported: ‘It is doubtful if the boy will live.’ (West Somerset Free Press, 19 Aug 1865)


26 Jun 1879 - derailment

It was embarrassing for the Directors for James, the engineer at the time, to have to report in June 1869 that ‘a defective piece of track was the cause of the engine and some trucks getting off the line’ probably close to Comberow station.  It was later confirmed that the accident arose from the Directors’ reluctance to spend money on maintenance with the result that several rotten sleepers disintegrated as the train passed over. (Engineer’s report, 26 Jun 1879, Minute Book, vol. 1, 282)


18 Apr 1874- William Williams - staff accident

William Williams one of the Neilson locomotive drivers on the upper section of the line was killed while shunting at the top of the incline.  At the inquest, held in one of the miners’ cottages at Brendon Hill, William Kidwill a fourteen years old labourer said that he saw Williams jump off the locomotive and run round to put the brake on a waggon loaded with oats and artificial fertiliser, but he slipped and was run over by the wagon, which must have been moving from the impetus of being shunted towards the brow of the incline by the locomotive.  George Hunt, fireman of the locomotive, said:  “As I was uncoupling the chains from another truck and putting the chain in its place I went forward and saw the deceased lying under a truck.  The engine was stopped at the time.  It was not necessary to put the brake on a loaded truck, but if it were it was my job.” (West Somerset Free Press, 18 April 1874)


5 Sep 1874 - John Saunders

‘On Tuesday evening while men with horses were moving trucks with horses at the Comberow railway station, John Saunders, aged 10, one of the sons of George Saunders the guard, tried to ride on the side of one, but fell off and the wheels went over one of his feet cutting off two toes and injuring the other knee so badly that the leg had to be amputated.’  (Somerset County Gazette, 5 Sep 1874, 7)


2 Oct 1875 – Cox - staff accident

A man named Cox, who may have been William Cox, a railway employee living in the station house at Brendon Hill, attempted to jump on to the locomotive at Gupworthy while it was moving.  He fell and was struck by the engine with the result that his arm had to be amputated. (West Somerset Free Press, 2 Oct 1875).


1 Apr 1876 - William Tonkin – passenger accident

In March 1876, William Tonkin was killed on the line at Gupworthy; born at Breage in Cornwall, he was thirty years old and had a young family; until the end of 1875 he been a foreman at Eisen Hill mine.  Shortly before the accident he had been promoted to clerk, and on that day was standing in a wagon on a train travelling west to Goosemoor terminus.  The train had stopped at the water crane at Gupworthy mine and as it moved off Tonkin left the empty waggon in which he had been standing and crossed to the next, which was loaded with sacks of corn.  At the time he was engaged in conversation with George Perkins, a platelayer, and failed to notice the low timber bridge which crossed the line.  The bridge was used for tramming waste rock from the mine to a dump on the south side of the line; the underside of the bridge was about 3.65 metres (12 feet) above rail level as the Neilson loco could just pass under it.  As the train moved off Tonkin, standing on the sacks, struck his head against the bridge, fell from the waggon and was run over by the next.  (West Somerset Free Press, 1 Apr 1876)


23 Dec 1876 - derailment

On 2 December 1876 four wagons of unusually long mine timbers were attached to the rear of the 3.50 pm down train to Comberow.  The timbers overhung the wagons to such an extent that the wagons were coupled to each other and to the rear coach with long lengths of chain.  As the train approached Roadwater, the three rear trucks ‘from some cause became disconnected’.  They began to return to Watchet at ever increasing speed, pursued by the locomotive, whistling a continuous warning, and the remainder of the train.  The level crossing gates at Clitsome were still open, but at Torre, Washford and West Street, Watchet the trucks crashed through the level crossing gates before colliding on the quay with a stationary waggon which was thereby propelled into the harbour without injury to anyone.  Horne inspected the damage and ascertained that the cause of the accident was ‘due to the manner in which the chain was fastened - it was simply secured by means of the ring on one end of the chain being hooked on the crook of the ordinary coupling chain attached to the waggon, so that whenever the chain became slackened, there was the risk of the ring dropping off.’


Apparently this mode of coupling when long lengths of timber were being taken up to Comberow had been used for a number of years.  To avoid such an occurrence in future, Horne suggested that two chains be used at each coupling instead of one.  The cost of the damage was estimated at £40.  (Minute Book, vol. 2, 23 Dec 1876)


23 Dec 1882- derailment

Two wagons of coal attached to the Neilson locomotive dragged the locomotive on to the incline on 23 November 1882.  At the foot of the incline the shunter Bill Pugsley was on duty with his horse Lofty, and saw the locomotive and wagons approaching.  He called to John Taylor, the station master: ‘Old Tommy is kicking up a deuce of a smeetch up there’ and added a moment later ‘By Gad he’s coming down; come on Lofty (the shunting horse), let’s get out of the way.’ (C Stevens, letter to JRH 28 April 1947).  Although derailed by catch points just below the summit, ‘Tommy’ the locomotive and the wagons remained upright continuing downhill for about 150 metres, cutting through about 180 sleepers until it stopped and fell on to its side.  Horne at once informed Mr Hellard and repaired the line using sleepers intended for other repairs.  Although recovery of the locomotive and wagons must have presented quite a challenge, nowhere was the means of its accomplishment reported.  Horne was instructed to prepare a detailed report about the accident for the Chairman and the Directors, and to express his opinion about the cause and who, if anyone, was to blame.  (Engineer’s report, Minute Book, vol. 2, 23 Dec 1882)


6 Jun 1890 - derailment

On 28 May 1890 one of the passenger carriages on the 4 pm train to Watchet from Comberow was derailed near Pit Mill.  Before the train stopped the carriage was dragged for some distance severing many sleepers.  Horne inspected the site next morning and found that the rail was so badly worn that the wheels of the carriage had pushed it out of gauge and was thereby derailed.  Horne added that if anyone was to blame it was John Thomas ’who should probably have changed the defective rail before it was so much worn.’  (Engineer’s report, 6 Jun 1890, Minute Book, vol. 3)


19 Sep 1894 - derailment

In June 1894 in his report to the Directors, Horne wrote: ‘A slight accident occurred a few weeks ago at Roadwater station, whereby the locomotive was partly off the line.  In shunting some trucks on to the siding there, the facing points, which were not secured as they should have been, shifted during the shunting operation, which caused the loco to go off, fortunately very little damage was done beyond the requirement of a few new sleepers and rails.’ (Engineer’s report, Minute Book, vol. 3 19 Sep 1894)


17 Aug 1907 - Levi Sully- staff accident

Hodge and a party of platelayers were returning to Watchet on the maintenance trolley, which began to get out of control as they approached Roadwater level crossing.  Hodge told the men to jump off, but two at the front were struck by the trolley and twenty one years old Levi Sully was badly hurt.  One of the level crossing gates was damaged.  Hodge blamed the accident on greasy rails. (West Somerset Free Press, 17 Aug 1907)