Thirsk Railway Disaster, 2nd November 1892
The object of the month for September is a marble plaque commemorating Captain Duncan Alexander McLeod, a Black Watch Officer who, having served through the Egyptian and Sudan campaigns and survived a serious wounding at the Battle of Tamaii, died sitting in a train going through the English countryside.
The story of the night Captain McLeod died links together a rail engine, a little girl, a bereaved father, and this Black Watch Officer in a tale of tragedy that led to the deaths of ten people. On 31st October 1892, Rose, the youngest daughter of signalman James Holmes, fell ill suddenly. No-one seemed to know what the matter with her was and her father stayed up all night and into the next day nursing her. Tragically this was not enough and the little girl died. Already exhausted and deeply affected by what had happened, James contacted his employers on the Thirsk railway line to inform them that he felt unable to work his shift. His immediate supervisor informed him that he would pass on his request, but for some reason did not explain the circumstances. As a result James Holmes was told, in no uncertain terms, that he was required to continue to work his shifts.
On the night of the 1st/2nd November 1892 therefore James walked the few miles to his signal box at Manor House to start work, having informed a colleague at nearby Otterington that he was exhausted and that his mother was due to arrive from York to look after his wife, and asked his colleague to inform him when she arrived. By this point a thick mist had formed which would later develop into fog, not only adding to the atmosphere of the night, but further ensuring the tragedy that was to happen.
Some three hours after James started work a signal came down the tracks telling him that two express trains were due, but that the second had been delayed so a goods train had been allowed through in its place. James allowed both into his section of the track but, then, completely exhausted as he was, he fell asleep. Waking some ten minutes later in a very confused state he was informed by his colleague at Otterington to be ready for the second express train. Seeing that his instruments were still recording a train on his section of the track he thought that he had failed to clear his instruments after the first express train left, and so cleared them and allowed the second express train through. He had completely forgotten about the goods train which was lying stationary on the tracks.
A few moments later the second express train slammed into the back of the goods train, which had only just started to move, killing ten passengers and crew and wounding thirty-nine others. Adding to the horror of the night, an hour later the super-heated coals from the express train’s firebox set the wreckage alight. The oil lighting system used by the train acted as an accelerant and within moments the area became an inferno. So bad was the fire that two of the passengers’ bodies were incinerated.
Following the disaster Signalman James Holmes was tried for manslaughter and found guilty. However, in light of the circumstances that had led to his falling asleep, the judge ordered that he be discharged without having to serve a jail sentence. This move was strongly supported by both the jury and the public at large. Those who did come in for criticism were the railway company, for their rather cavalier treatment of James, his fellow signalman at the Otterington signal house for not checking on James following his minutes of silence whilst he was asleep, and the crew of the goods train, for not sending a man down, as per the railway rules, to make sure that the signalman was aware of their place on the track.
Sadly, as a result of all of these circumstances, ten people died on that foggy Yorkshire night, including the man we are commemorating with this month’s object, Captain Duncan Alexander McLeod.
The plaque, though not on display in the Museum, can be seen on one of the monthly behind-the-scenes tours at the Castle (see website for event details).