INDEX

INDEX

Thursday, 26 December 2019

INTIMATIONS OF DISASTER




UPDATED 8th April 2015: PLEASE SCROLL DOWN THE PAGE

by Dave Roberts

 Like most people I have never seen a railway accident, and hope I never do but, many years ago, on a bitterly cold evening in the winter of 1962-3 the Roberts family witnessed something  which we couldn't at first account for, and the explanation for which only became clear to us as the story of a disaster unfolded before us on our TV screen.


'...caused by the last coach of the Birmingham train rearing up and
striking the overhead wires'.
Photo: Middlewich Rail Link Campaign
It was Boxing Day, Wednesday the 26th December 1962, and we were all huddled around our ten-year old black and white television set. 

Snow had started to blanket the country just before Christmas and the famous Big Freeze would set in in the New Year, lasting through until March without a break. Almost the whole of England and Wales was frozen solid for weeks on end, bringing the country to a virtual standstill (and, incidentally, delivering a crippling blow to the canal carrying industry).

On this night, which was clear and very cold, we hadn't drawn the curtains on our living room window, which overlooked our back garden, Middlewich gasworks and Seddon's salt works.

 A few miles away, beyond the town, were the outskirts of Winsford where the West Coast Main Line ran on its way from Crewe to Liverpool and Scotland. The line had only recently been electrified and brand new colour light signals, some of them automatic, controlled the new electric and diesel hauled trains.

Suddenly, shortly after six o'clock, we saw a vivid  flash of light in the night sky above the salt works.We  were all stunned for a few seconds and at a loss to account for what we'd seen. It was rather like a flash of lightning, but, it seemed to us, about ten times brighter and a deep, vivid blue in colour.

We had to assume that it was some kind of strange meteorological phenomenon. There seemed to be no other explanation, but the experience was, somehow, deeply unsettling.

We continued with our television viewing (I'd love to know what programme was on that night. We only had a choice of two channels - BBC TV and Granada (with ABC TV at the weekends). I wonder what we were watching?)

I do know that, about an hour after we'd seen the bright blue  light in the sky, the programme was interrupted by a newsflash - something which doesn't seem to happen often in these days of 24 hour news but was a fairly common ocurrence back then when something really important happened. It was always rather nerve-wracking, especially when the NEWSFLASH caption was kept on screen for several minutes before any announcement was made.

This particular report brought us dreadful news.

A diesel-hauled Glasgow to Euston express had run into the rear of a Liverpool to Birmingham train at Coppenhall Junction, near to the former Minshull Vernon Station, just four minutes away from Winsford (drivers on the road to Nantwich pass close to the site when they cross the bridge a few yards away from the Verdin Arms).

Frozen points at Crewe had caused delays and the Birmingham train had been halted at a red signal. The driver of the London train had also been stopped by a red signal further down the line but, fatally, decided that this was a fault with the signalling (he had tried to phone the nearest signal-box but couldn't get through). He moved forward and, failing to see the train in front of him, crashed into it at about 25 miles per hour.

The bright blue flash we had seen just after six o'clock was caused by the last coach of the Birmingham train rearing up and striking the overhead wires. Eighteen people were killed and 34 injured in the crash.

This, it has to be remembered, was the time of transition from steam hauled trains to diesel and electric ones (although there were still plenty of steam-hauled trains on this and other lines in the North-West where steam wasn't phased out until August 1968) and the drivers and signalmen involved were all from an older tradition where things were done rather differently. 

The driver of the London train was used to steam locomotives which could not 'make up for lost time' as easily as the new diesels and electrics, and was thus very anxious to be away. 

The fact that the next signal ahead was at red should have told him that there had to be another train there but, unfortunately, this changed to a yellow as he approached. The brightness of this yellow signal apparently made it difficult to see the tail lights of the train in front. These factors, coupled with the atrocious weather conditions, had conspired to cause this terrible accident on one of the safest railway systems in the world.

The 1962 Minshull Vernon crash was the first major British railway accident which did not involve a steam locomotive.

It wasn't the first time that disaster had struck this section of railway. It had happened before, in 1948, and was to happen again (though with much less serious consequences) in 1999.

But none of us will ever forget that strange vivid blue flash in the sky all those years ago.

A more detailed account of the crash can be found here (pdf file) on the Railways Archive site,  and the definitive accounts of both this and the 1948 Winsford accident are featured in Disaster Down the Line by J.A.B. Hamilton (George Allen & Unwin Books 1967)


Facebook Feedback:

Philip YearsleyAs we had got off the train at Winsford after returning from Runcorn, I have often wondered about the facts of this accident.
I seem to recall hearing that a soldier on his way home on leave was travelling on the first train, and, as he lived in the Minshull Vernon area, pulled the emergency stop cord, then fled off over the fields.
Thanks for the info, Dave.



Geraldine Williams Yes, that was the tale we heard Philip. It must have been a rumour that spread round Middlewich. Glad to know it wasn't true.

Dave Roberts Sadly the story of the soldier is true, but it relates to the 1948 crash and not the 1962 one (the Winsford area has had three train accidents, 1948, 1962 and 1999). The soldier was coming home on leave and, realising that he was near his home in Winsford but that the train was not scheduled to call there, pulled the communication cord to stop the train. He then ran across the fields to his home. He later came forward and owned up. All he was trying to do was save himself the additional journey from Crewe Station back to Winsford. But he didn't cause the crash. A train brought to a standstill like this should be perfectly safe, but the train crew didn't take the necessary precautions to protect it and the crash happened. That soldier must have blamed himself for the rest of his life, but the train could have been stopped for any number of reasons. It was a million to one chance that his actions should have resulted in disaster.

Lindsey Daniels Thank you for publishing this story. I didn't know about it and found it an interesting read

UPDATE (2013)

Richard Maund contacted us during 2013 with a link to more information on the circumstances surrounding this tragic accident (see 'comments'). Here's a direct link to that information:

http://www.railwaysarchive.co.uk/documents/MoT_Coppenhall1962.pdf


The Ministry of Transport report 1963


UPDATE (DECEMBER 2014):

Following our re-publication of this diary entry on Boxing Day 2014 (the 52nd anniversary of the accident), Geraldine Williams wrote:

...this brought back some memories. We lived in Kinderton Street at the time and Jonathan (Jonathan Williams, the late Middlewich Town Clerk - Ed) was only seven months old. Father Down, our Parish Priest, called to see us on his way back from the Post Office. He'd just arrived when the Newsflash came on, so he had to rush off back to the Presbytery, as he was expecting he would be called out to the scene of the crash.

Facebook Feedback (2014):

Darren Roberts That was a good read and very interesting. I'll admit I've not heard about this before. It just goes to show how easily mistakes can be made in bad conditions on the railways as well as the roads.

Facebook Feedback (2015):

Joan Barnes I remember this train crash well, as I worked at Northwich Telephone Exchange when it happened. it was awful.
Jacqui Cooke I was only 12 years old, but my brother worked at Winsford Station signal box at the time.



First published 26th December 2012

Updated and re-published 26th December 2014, 8th April 2015, 26th December 2016, December 17th 2018. Re-published 26th December 2018, 
Updated and republished 26th December 2019












Tuesday, 24 December 2019

CHRISTMAS GREETINGS FROM THE NAVIGATION INN 1917

Pat Nancollas/Malcolm Hough



Here's a small reminder of how Christmas cards looked  a hundred years ago. This card which was sent from the Navigation Inn in Middlewich  by Mrs Ida Malpass is tiny, measuring only 10cm by 7cm (approximately 4 inches by 2 1/2 inches), but its lack of size is made up for by the elaborate way it has been made.

Its sentimentality is, perhaps, partly explained by the fact that the Great War was in its penultimate year. Many postcards of the same era also carry similar messages showing a collective yearning for some sort of security after long years of war and the heartbreak of separation and loss.


A card such as this would have been very expensive to produce and to purchase and only the relatively well-to-do, or people 'in trade', such as Mrs Malpass, and her husband George (landlord of the Navigation from 1903-1928) would have been able to afford such extravagances.




We're grateful to Malcolm Hough, who runs the House Of  Feathers in Wych House Lane for passing these items (along with many others which will see the light of day in the Middlewich Diary in due course) to us.


Pat and her husband Derek are regular customers of the House Of Feathers and Pat, knowing of Malcolm's interest in the history of Middlewich, lent him the Christmas card and the photo of Ida, who was Pat's great-grandmother. 

According to Malcolm, Ida's husband George was also landlord of the nearby 
Talbot Hotel in Kinderton Street for a time.

We have looked at the Navigation Inn before in the Middlewich Diary, notably in this entry:


NAVIGATION INN circa 1894

The pub, which was in Mill Lane, off Kinderton Street, was, according to Ken Kingston ('Middlewich Hospitality', Middlewich U3A Local History Group 2014), at one time called The Coffee House, then the Canal Coffee House, the Canal Inn, the Bridgefoot and finally, from around 1816, the Navigation.

The Navigation Inn, on the corner of Kinderton Street and Mill Lane around 1894. Middlewich Town Bridge and the Trent & Mersey Canal are behind the building
Paul Hough Collection

Acknowledgments:
Malcolm Hough
Pat Nancollas
Ken Kingston

This was the first Middlewich Diary entry produced in Queen Street,
Christmas Eve 2015

First published Christmas Eve 2015
Revised and re-published 23rd December 2017, 12th December 2018, Christmas Eve 2019.

CHRISTMAS EVE - A MIDDLEWICH CHRISTMAS TALE



EDITOR'S NOTE

For Christmas Eve  we have something very special for you, courtesy of Bill Eaton, who is custodian of a lot of photographs and written material by the late Frank Smith of Ravenscroft.

When the Middlewich Heritage Society started in 1985 and I found myself in the role of Newsletter Editor my main, and best, source of material was Frank, who had an enduring interest in the town and its history. Frank wrote many articles for the Newsletter and kept up a reliable and seemingly inexhaustable supply of unfailingly interesting material.

This tale of old Middlewich has, to my knowledge, never been published before and gives us just a glimpse of Middlewich as it was in the 1920s.

It was written, in 1989, in Frank's distinctive and very evocative style, and would, as Bill Eaton says, have been particularly interesting for older residents who may just have remembered some of the places mentioned.

I'm delighted to be able to bring you this story, so very appropriate for Christmas Eve, and hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

My thanks to Bill Eaton for passing this on, and to Joan Smith for permission to publish it.

Dave Roberts
Editor
Christmas Eve 2012

UPDATE (CHRISTMAS 2018):
It's nearly thirty years since 1989, when Frank wrote this  atmospheric little tale of a Middlewich Christmas in the late 1920s. 

Even then he was recalling a time sixty years before and, in 2018, it's worth remembering that he's talking about things which happened (or may have happened)  ninety years ago - way beyond the recall of nearly everyone alive today.

As I said in the original introduction (above) in 2012,  back in 1989 Frank's story would, for some people, have been an exercise in nostalgia; a few - a dwindling few -
people would have remembered the names of the shops and shop-owners which Frank artfully inserts into the text, giving those with long memories a trip back in time.

Now, of course, it's all history and we can't really expect anyone to remember all those Middlewich traders of the 1920s. So please don't worry if you don't recognise any of those long-gone names. Almost no one else does either.

Still, we may, when time allows, take a look at a Middlewich Directory of the period and see if we can correlate the names in the story against its pages.

And despite all the changes over the years, Middlewich is still recognisably the place Frank describes in his story.

Wheelock Street is a remarkable survivor, and its basic structure would still be familiar to those citizens of the 1920s if they could return and see it as it is today. 

That's why we've been able to include the photographs (some of them relatively modern) showing just where Frank's mysterious old man went on his travels all those years ago.

So please enjoy Frank's story, and take it for what it has become - a piece of Middlewich history, somewhat romanticised, for us all to enjoy, now and into the future.

Merry Christmas!
Dave Roberts
Christmas Eve
2018




CHRISTMAS EVE

by Frank Smith



As the North-Western bus pulled away from its stop near the bottom of Darlington Street a rather old man in well-worn clothes appeared among the passengers who had alighted.
It would be hard to give a description of him, as everything about him seemed indeterminate. The only two details that seemed positive were that he seemed very old and by the bright lights from Hodkinson's Greengrocery it was evident that he had a white beard.
He stood for a moment looking at the fruit and vegetables and the tinsel that was draped over them. He moved on to Wilson's Fruit Shop and looked over the half-door which was closed to keep out some of the chill air which gave promise of snow before morning. He sniffed appreciatively at the aroma from the barrel of Canadian Dr Mackintosh apples with their purple tissue paper wrappings before he moved on and gazed over the heads of a group of children who were standing, gazing with looks of desire and excitement at the display of toys, garlands and silver stars in Ward's Toy Shop window. He hardly seemed to notice the rather mundane display of crockery in Niddrie's shop.
Before crossing the road he watched a smiling, rosy-cheeked Mrs Atkins serving a customer with a 1lb box of Red Rose chocolates. Obviously a Christmas present for a loved one.
He paused in front of Walker's shop, but there were many blank spaces in the display where boxes of toys and games had been removed to meet the requirements of parents in their Christmas Eve rush to fulfil promises to their children.
There was, however, one box which had not been moved from its pride of place in the centre of the display. It was a large doll in a magnificent silk dress, with the lace of a petticoat peeping below the hem. Its porcelain face was almost too beautiful to be true, especially with the long eyelashes of its moveable eyelids. How many little girls must have yearned for it as a Christmas present, but the price label of 18s 6d effectively put it beyond the range of many people.

Heathcote's was the next shop to catch his eye. They seemed to have made a special effort to show off their confectionery skills. There were several Christmas cakes with their robins and holly decorations and, even as the old man paused, the largest of the cakes, complete with Santa, his sleigh and reindeer, was lifted from the shelf for a beaming customer within.



The Alhambra Cinema, despite its bright lights, did not seem to impinge on his consciousness. Obviously Buster Keaton held no attraction for him. 
What appeared to have caught his eye were the ducks, geese and fowl hanging outside Butcher Mountfield's shop, but strategically placed in the centre of the row was a large, beautiful turkey with its black/bronze feathers glinting in the gaslight. A few more paces and he mounted the steps and looked over the half-door of Cauley's shop. He looked in admiration at the kissing bush which hung from the ceiling. Inside the paper decked hoops hung a fairy, complete with wand, who moved gently in the incoming air. It was almost impossible to see her for the pink sugar pigs and mice, the sugar pocket-watches and the sugar birdcages with their white lace mesh. A small boy stood near the counter, enraptured by the magic of it all, almost forgetting what he had come for when Mrs Cauley asked him for the second time what he wanted.

It seemed strange that the people who passed in front of the old man never heeded or spoke to him even though they cheerfully wished each other a 'Merry Christmas'. 





The Meadow Dairy window seemed to outshine all the other shops with the intensity of its lighting, and many of the highly-coloured slab cakes on display seemed almost garish in the harsh light. The Christmas cakes seemed to be rather overdone with coloured, piped icing and, while they didn't appear to be of the same standard as Heathcote's, their prices of 4s 6d and 5 shillings were somewhat lower.

The display of chocolates and sweets in Paul Whittaker's held his attention for a few moments, as did the tall glass display jars with their spiked glass tops as they dominated the shelf at the back of the window. A burst of laughter and some cheerful back-chat between friends across the road indicated that Brown's Vaults were helping to capture the Christmas spirit. As the old man moved on he saw the harrassed staff in the Co-op attending to the needs of their customers while two of the counter-hands were busy making up final orders while the delivery man stood impatiently by, grabbing the order as soon as the cardboard box  was filled, and almost before the counter-hand had time to write the customer's name on it in indelible pencil.



Butcher Hulme, too, was busy as he dealt with a steady stream of customers.
Kinsey's also seemed to have its fair share of customers, although the atmosphere seemed somewhat calmer than the Co-op. The old man seemed intrigued by the overhead arrangement whereby the customers' cash and bills travelled in little wooden pots to the cashier, and the receipt and change returned to the counter.
Although it was only eight o'clock the smell from Gatley's Chip Shop indicated that soon the first house from the Alhambra would be coming on to the street, and they were ready to catch the trade.



The new premises of Fitton's butchers was making the most of the opportunity and they had put on a very creditable display. The right-hand side of the shop seemed to have its rails full of all types of poultry, a few hares, some rabbits and several turkeys, which seemed to indicate that it was becoming a popular Christmas choice. The rails on the left-hand side of the shop were hung with carcasses, mainly beef and pork.
The window displays were of various cuts and joints of meat, but centre-stage in each window was a pig's head with an orange in its mouth.
Opposite, Brauer's the Chemist were closing their shop and it was just possible to see all the exotic perfumes, bath cubes and other toiletries before the lights were switched off.
Pegrams, too, was busy, and the open spaces in the shelves where the dried fruits were kept indicated that many people had been busy preparing their mincemeat, puddings and cakes for the festivities.
Next door, at Hulme's, the fragrant smell of fresh ground coffee floated on the air, but the old man appeared not to notice.


The sound of music floated on the air as Bailey's Band began to tune up in the Town Hall for the Christmas Eve dance which was due to start. This was apparent from the number of young men in their bowler hats and navy blue serge suits, and the young women in their 'flapper' dresses with small brown paper parcels containing dance shoes under their arms, entering the Town Hall.
At the bottom of Queen Street the two small shops, a butcher's and a greengrocery belonging to Wright's were still open but, perhaps due to their position on High Town, didn't seem to be so busy.
Perhaps the magnificence of Fitton's was drawing away much of their custom.

The rest of Hightown and much of Lewin Street seemed rather less busy, although there were plenty of shoppers about.

At the top of Wych House Lane Robinson's Chip Shop was advertising its wares by the smell drifting across the road on the East wind. 


Opposite, the pyramidical displays of fruit in T. Oakes window hardly merited a glance from the old man.


He seemed to be tiring and walked as if every step was an effort.
He turned up to the Market by the Fire Station, and paused as if to gather his strength.
Again it seemed strange that no one seemed to notice him.
By the guttering light of the naptha flares it was possible to see from the haggard look on his face, and his deep sunk eyes, that he was ageing quickly.
Despite this he looked at the different stalls; the fish stall with the fishmonger almost giving his wares away, as he knew that tomorrow (Wednesday) being Christmas Day his unsold fish would be a dead loss as he had no facilities to keep them saleable until Friday.
The stall selling cheap German toys for a few pence; the glass birds with glass fibre strands for their tails which would decorate Christmas trees along with the gaudy glass baubles and the coloured wax candles.
Finally, he turned and painfully dragging his feet between the stalls, walked to the darkness of the Vicarage Field.
A small boy, who appeared to be the only person to see him, ran after him and called, 'who are you?'
As the figure disappeared into the gloom the boy heard an old voice say,
'I am the year 1928...'

Frank Smith
Ravenscroft
1989
© Joan Smith 2012

Originally published CHRISTMAS EVE 2012
Re-published 16th DECEMBER 2013
and CHRISTMAS EVE 2014

Revised, reformatted and re-published Christmas Eve 2016

Revised and re-published Christmas Eve 2018. Re published Christmas Eve 2019