Review: The Great Thorpe Railway Disaster 1874: Heroes, Victims, Survivors (Phyllida Scrivens)

In 1874, a momentary lapse – in protocol and in communication – at a railway station in Norwich led to the head on collision between two trains on a single trail rail line at Thorpe St Andrew, in Norfolk, England. Almost two dozen people died; scores more were injured.

The book begins by introducing us to some of the people aboard the train. for some, we get two or three paragraphs. For some, we get two or three pages (especially if they are part of the aristocracy or are involved in the actual running of the train). I do usually enjoy this, but after awhile I found myself skimming them – it became a little tedious, and very difficult to remember all of them, especially given the sheer number of Johns and Roberts and Marys and Anns, and all the other quite common names primarily given in that place at that time.

The most interesting art of the book is the breakdown of the accident and just how a series of errors, boiled down to one single lapse, can have disastrous results. In this case, the trains were running late. At the time, the station agent had to give he telegraph clerk a written slip – signed – so the clerk could transmit the authorization to proceed down the line. In Norwich, the clerk had a group of friends in the office, against protocol, and the station agent, aggravated by this and by the lateness of the train, failed to sign off on the authorization. The telegraph clerk transmitted it anyway, which set the trains on the collision course toward one another. Although the engineers on both trains saw each others’ trains coming and attempted to brake, it was too late for the crash to be avoided.

After the crash, people from towns on both sides of the crash flocked to the area to pull people from the wreckage. The engineers and firemen (coal stokers) in both trains were killed instantly, as were a number of people in first class at the front of the trains. Other people suffered rather gruesome injuries, ranging from severed limbs to burns from the boilers spewing uncontrolled steam.

For the time, the response was remarkable, in my opinion. Constables went door to door in each town looking for doctors and nurses to help the wounded, and a response train, loaded with supplies and more medical professionals, ferried wounded from the crash site to yet another town, moving back and forth through the evening.

We get the details for many of the people we met a the opening of the book, dead or alive/wounded, but again, without flipping back to the beginning, I couldn’t place about half of them. Quite a number of the doctors get their chance to shine here as well. working doggedly to save who they could.

The inevitable lawsuits begin, and most of the blame is found to lie with the station agent (and the railway, of course).

The book ends with a sort of “where are they now” look at what happened post-Thorpe to many of the wounded and the doctors who treated them.

If you can get past the first part, it’s a four star read. The beginning, though, just gets a two. I’m spitting the difference and giving it three stars.

Thanks to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.