Victim of a Railway Tragedy
By Diana Kennedy
This article was originally published in the December 2004 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
A couple of years ago while researching on behalf of the Society the 1881 census for Sewells in Suffolk, I came across Emily Sewell a widow and her four children living in Lowestoft Suffolk. The children were, Clara age 16, Matilda aged 14, Ernest age 10 and Harry aged 9. The census stated that Emily’s husband had been killed on the Railway Allowed by Company GER. Who was Emily’s husband?
To find out I bought a birth certificate for one of the children. Ernest Albert was born on 1st February 1870 and this gave his parents as Frederick Sewell and Emily Sewell nee Cummings. Frederick’s occupation was given as Engine cleaner and the family was living in New Nelson St, Lowestoft. I then found from the Vital Records that Frederick William had been christened 18 June 1837 at Oulton Suffolk, his parents were George, a farmer, and his first wife Susannah. According to the 1851 census Frederick William was the third of nine children.
I could not find a death of Frederick William Sewell between 1871 and 1881 in Suffolk and assumed that as Frederick William worked on the railways he could have been killed outside the county. The nearest in the GRO was a Frederick, who died 1874 Blofield, Norfolk. There I let the matter lie and turned my attention to other records. Then I had a stroke of luck!
At the Annual Gathering in October this year, John Slaughter the Saul co-ordinator handed me an article he had seen in a new publication ‘Norfolk Roots’. The article was titled Night Ride to Tragedy about a crash between two trains in Norfolk in 1874. Nineteen people were killed including Frederick Sewell a fireman on one of the trains. The article was written from the newspaper Norwich Mercury reports of Saturday 12th September 1874, detailing the events of the train crash.
On the stormy night of Thursday 10th September 1874 on the Great Eastern Railway (GER) the 8.40pm up-train from Yarmouth via Lowestoft carrying mail had left Brundall station at 9.25pm. At 9.10pm, the 5pm down train express from London to Yarmouth, with Frederick Sewell in the cab as fireman left Thorpe. Due to human error, instead of one train waiting on a loop for the other to pass, both trains had been allowed onto the same line. The ten carriage express train was at full speed of 25mph as it crossed the bridge at Thorpe and struck the three-carriage mail train travelling at 10mph.
The impact forced the trains off the track and the drivers and firemen of both trains were killed instantly. A reporter in the Norwich Mercury of Saturday 12th September 1874 described the scene “Many of the carriages mounted one on top of the other till, as one observer put it, the heap looked almost like a three-story house”. The rear carriage of the down train hung from the bridge over the river and at least one passenger was thrown into the river. Rescue was difficult in the dark and non-stop rain, and fires were lit around the site so rescuers could see.
There were some lucky escapes, one young couple had moved from the lead carriage, as they didn’t like the company in the front carriage. One young woman was thrown clear through trees in a nearby garden and suffered only a few cuts and bruises. Another was a young man sitting in one of the other carriages who escaped without a scratch or bruise, although his carriage had been pulled up into the air as the engines collided. The mail guard, who was in his van at the time of the crash, despite being bruised and shaken and the van smashed like a matchbox, picked himself and his bags up and succeeded in getting them to the post office in a cart. Refusing to go to hospital he was persuaded to return to his home in Yarmouth in a carriage.
Eighteen people were killed; another died soon after from his injuries. Dozens sustained minor injuries and another train took thirty-five of the most seriously injured to Norfolk and Norwich Hospital with fractured skulls, broken and amputated limbs. The Eastern Daily Press reported twenty-seven deaths; others taken to hospital probably died later of their injuries. An inquest was held at the Three Tuns Inn at Thorpe on Saturday 12th September. The bodies were formally identified but Emily Sewell was spared this ordeal. Richard Light, a brother of Thomas Light the fireman on the mail train, identified Frederick Sewell. Among the dead were two Sergeants from the Norfolk Militia, a six-week-old baby, and the Rev and Mrs Henry Stacey, an Independent Minister. One body a man of about 40years of age remained unidentified.
Despite no enquiry having taken place by then, the Norwich Mercury reported the cause of the accident from a letter to the Secretary to the GER Company. The cause being the night inspector at Norwich giving wrong instructions to Brundall to send on the up mail train to Norwich. The express was running late, Inspector Alfred Cooper asked the stationmaster William Sproule if the mail could leave Brundall, but Sproule said no. Cooper reminded him they could delay the express and Sproule said ‘All right. We’ll get her off soon.’ Cooper thought he meant the mail, while Sproule meant the express. Cooper then asked the clerk, John Robson, to tell Brundall the mail could leave for Norwich. Too late he realised the mail had left and alerted a rescue party.
A case was brought against Cooper and Robson. Robson was acquitted but Cooper was found guilty of culpable negligence. Although the jury recommended mercy, he was sentenced to eight months hard labour. The GER Company paid out £40,000 in compensation to victims.
Frederick William Sewell was buried on the 15th September 1874 at St Margaret Lowestoft. As I said at the beginning his widow Emily continued to live at Lowestoft with her children. I found her again in the 1901 census living with her son Ernest and his family, still in Lowestoft. Her youngest son Harry Oswald followed in his father’s footsteps and at the age of 29 was unmarried and a Railway Labourer at Wavertree, Liverpool.
1. Night Ride to Tragedy. Norfolk Roots Issue One June/July 2004 (an Archant Norfolk Publication),
(A list of those killed and injured, plus names of people who identified the bodies can be found in the article or in the Norwich Mercury.)
2. Additional information taken from the Easter Daily Press.
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