Charfield rail crash mystery
Tuesday, August 18, 2009, 07:00
Gerry Brooke delves into a new fictionalised account of a mystery that had never been solved –the identity of two children who died in a horrific rail crash 80 years ago
The tragedy happened one foggy October morning in 1928.
The mail express train from Leeds to Bristol was due to pass through the South Gloucestershire village of Charfield at about 5.30am
On board the steam train – hurtling along at more than 60mph – more than 50 passengers were either dozing or sleeping.
The signalman accepted the train down from Berkeley junction but moved another signal to danger to halt it until a freight train on the same line had reversed into sidings.
But in the thick fog both driver and fireman on the express read the distant signal as clear.
The goods train driver had almost cleared the line when he saw the mail train bearing down on him at full speed.
There was no stopping the tragedy.
The express crashed into a goods tender and then ploughed off the line to hit another empty goods train head on.
In the chaos a coach was thrown over a bridge.
But worse was to follow.
As the engine fell on its side among the splintered wagons, hot ashes spilled from the firebox.
And as pipes fractured in the impact, so the gas which fuelled lights in the old fashioned coaches escaped.
Contact with the hot ashes soon turned the wrecked coaches into an inferno.
Among the chaos, passengers who had scrambled clear made frantic efforts to free those trapped by the fire.
But within 20 minutes flames were leaping up f40ft and the rescuers – many from the village itself – were driven back by the fierce heat.
Despite the heroic efforts of the emergency services, it was many hours before anyone could begin the unenviable task of sifting through the smouldering wreckage.
Many of the victims – 15 people had died – were so badly burned that identification was almost impossible.
In many cases it was only a ring, a watch or an item of clothing that enabled the authorities to put a name to a body.
Despite their best efforts, two small bodies remained unidentified and unclaimed.
"It's an intriguing tale," says retired Yorkshire teacher Nick Blackstock, the author of Something Hidden, a fictional account of the mystery.
"I first came across it about 20 years ago when I was reading the memoirs of a retired coroner.
"Describing his most intriguing inquest, he then stated that it wasn't as mysterious as the case of the two unidentified children killed in a Gloucestershire rail crash.
"That was it.
"Casting around for a new topic to write about the Charfield mystery jumped to the forefront of my mind.
"I had always thought that it would make a fascinating basis for a novel.
"As well as using the British Library at Boston Spa, I also visited the region from time to time – including the memorial to the dead in Charfield churchyard.
"I knew that Gloucester public library had quite a bit of original material – newspapers etc – but I decided not to go down that route as I was writing a novel, not an account of the tragedy.
"Since everyone who knows about the incident has a theory, or theories, I had to decide what my solution would be.
"I hope that in the end I got there, but the process involved many false starts and dead ends."
I won't give Nick's story away – it involves a reporter from a local Bristol newspaper – but he suggests that the children's death was part of a high-level cover-up.
Over the years many other theories have been put forward as to the children's identity.
One was that they had been put aboard the train alone by a governess who had subsequently disappeared.
More bizarre theories include that they were not children at all but ventriloquist's dummies and another that they were small jockeys.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the passing of the years no one has ever been able to identify the two victims.
A porter added yet more mystery to the story by saying that he had seen two children on the train at Gloucester station.
On checking passengers' tickets he had found a girl, aged about nine and a boy about 11, travelling alone. He also recalled that each had been wearing a school cap.
Part of a school blazer found after the crash, blue with black ribbon around the pockets, carried a badge – a floral design on a red background – with the motto Luce Magistra (Light being the Test).
Queen Ethelburger's – a boarding school near Leeds – carries that very motto, but after the school had denied any connection with the children investigations were dropped.
Villagers also reported a frail looking lady in black who would arrive in Charfield on every anniversary of the tragic crash in a chauffeur-driven limousine.
Standing silently by the grave she would lay flowers and pray.
And when, two years later, Bristol's chief constable was found dead in a London park with his throat cut it was said that he had recently revealed the children's identity to a solicitor.
The listings of the dead on the village memorial stone end with the poignant wording – "Two Unknown".
It's unlikely, after all this time, that we will ever know who they were.
Having said that, Nick Blackstock spins a credible yarn – well worth the read.
Something Hidden by Nick Blackstock is published by Picnic and costs £9.99.
If you have trouble buying the book then Picnic Publishing can be contacted on