ST BEDE’S JUNCTION RAIL DISASTER with researcher, John Caffery

John with a photo of his Grandfather Thomas Caffery.

The last post highlighted the work of the Hive Storytellers who are based in Jarrow. It featured a story that group member John Caffery came across when he was researching his family tree.

“Thomas Caffery my Grandfather was born in Hartlepool in 1886, and I came across his army service records. They revealed he suffered leg injuries in a serious train disaster at Jarrow. I enquired more about this and searched through old copies of the Evening Chronicle to see if there were any reports”.

”I found there was a communal grave and headstone in Harton Cemetery, South Shields for the passengers of the train who were killed in the accident, but no names for them. They were buried with three named soldiers and remembered on a Commonwealth War Grave. My curiosity got the better of me and I uncovered full details of the accident and confirmed the identity of 17 people killed.”

Disaster at St Bede’s Junction, Jarrow.

Reports tell us that the 17th December 1915 was a cold, damp, foggy morning and a coal train was pushed out of Tyne Dock and up the steep track by a banking engine joining the South Shields to Newcastle line at St Bede’s Junction, a signal box controlled the area.

As visibility was worsening with weather conditions and heavy industrial smog, the banking engine had finished assisting the coal train and waited for the signal to let him know he can return back to Tyne Dock.

A passenger train heading for South Shields passed by as the banking engine driver waited patiently for the signal.  After waiting 5 minutes he sent his fireman to the signal cabin to notify them of their position. Sadly this delay proved disastrous as a Newcastle bound passenger train ploughed into the stationary banker train derailing them both, and damaging two carriages.

Shortly after, an empty goods train heading for South Shields also collided into them and was derailed. The carriage’s wooden construction and gas lighting fuelled horrific fires and damage.

Evening Chronicle newspaper report of St Bede’s Rail disaster.

John added “I found in the newspaper reports that the noise from one steam engine was deafening and carriages of the train were a mass of burning wreckage. One engine driver had a remarkable escape as he was thrown yards away from his engine which had overturned and rolled over the embankment into a field. Men were lying on the ground receiving first aid, screaming was coming from the carriages as one train was on top of the other”.

“Despite heroic efforts of ambulance men from Palmers shipyards, soldiers from Durham Royal Engineers and Tyneside Irish, and a number of railway and policemen plus nearby residents, rescue was practically impossible”.

William Dunlop, the guard, and William Rowe, fireman of a train nearby, ran over and uncoupled the other carriages before the fire spread. Another man who helped to recue injured passengers was Samson Tolliday. Samson was an off duty engine driver who lived near Tyne Dock station. He was travelling in the passenger train when the accident happened.

At the official enquiry in Newcastle he told the inspector that ‘the first outbreak of fire was from a gas jet. If I had been able to get saws I might have got more passengers out. All water tanks on the engine were broken and water was not available’.

The Chief Constable of South Shields made an official statement reported in the Evening Chronicle 18th December 1915 ‘It is impossible to identify the remains of any of the victims, and only a small proportion of the property found at the scene can be traced to the possession of any of the missing passengers’.

John talked about finding more newspapers reports

“There was over 200 people on the passenger train, that early in the morning they would have been going to work, among them there was an accountant, cabinet maker, a tripe preparer, and my Grandfather was going up to Newcastle for some army training. The people that were tragically killed were buried on Christmas Eve 1915. I felt strongly that they should have their own headstone with all their names on”.

The new headstone in Harton Cemetery with the names inscribed, the original headstone on the left.

With a combined effort from local company HVR Electrics, who are based next to Bede metro station where the accident happened, A19 Model Railway Club, Bede Memorials and South Tyneside Council Cemeteries Department, John ensured that an appropriate memorial headstone was installed in Harton Cemetery.

Alikivi   September 2022

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