Object of the Month: Thirsk railway disaster memorial to Captain McLeod

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.

Memorial plaque to Captain Duncan McLeod of The Black Watch, who died in the Thirks railway disaster.

Memorial plaque to Captain Duncan McLeod of The Black Watch, who died in the Thirks railway disaster.

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).

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The Museum of The Black Watch offers an insight into one of the British Army's if not the world's most famous fighting units. Scotland's Black Watch is an elite military regiment whose history stretches back almost three centuries.
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5 Responses to Object of the Month: Thirsk railway disaster memorial to Captain McLeod

  1. Ann Hawick says:

    Dear Sir,
    I am the Great Granddaughter of James Holmes who was the signalman at Manor House signal box at Thirsk on the night of the terrible railway disaster, 2 Nov 1892.
    I was deeply moved by the information regarding Captain McLeod in your post dated 13th September 2013 and for the memorial service that will be held on the 2nd November 2013.
    I would like to ask if is at all possible to attend the memorial service for Captain McLeod who was killed so tragically and to close the link with my Great Grandfather.
    My family lineage has always been of great interest to me and I have researched it closely. I have strong recollections of my Mother talking about her Grandfather and how the accident effected him very badly He never recovered from that terrible night and was left deeply depressed till the end of his life. So many lives would have been effected by this tragedy not least of all my Mother’s family.
    I would greatly appreciate your consideration in my request to attend the service and await your response with great anticipation.
    Yours sincerely
    Ann Hawick

    • Ann, thank you for your comment, it is such a sad story for all involved. Unfortunately I don’t know anything about a memorial service on 2 November this year but I do hope you manage to find some information and attend.

      • Ann Hawick says:

        Thank you for your reply.
        It was just on the off chance that I wrote to you regarding the post I read on your website. It was an opportunity to make a link. However my husband thought I was mad to even think of attending a memorial for someone we didn’t know. I guess I am really wrapped up in this family lineage journey and became very interested when I found Captain McLeod had been a passenger on the train and there is a plaque in honour of him.
        Once again thank you so much for your reply. Perhaps we will attend the museum when we are in Scotland next.
        Yours sincerely
        Ann Hawick

      • It is very understandable to be interested in your family history, we can certainly all sympathise with that! I hope you are able to visit the Museum on your next visit. If you would like to see the plaque just let us know when you plan on coming and I am sure we could bring it out for you.

    • Hi Ann, I’d very much like to get in touch with you as I’m researching the Thirsk railway crash of 1862 as part of an MA; I’m hoping you’d be able to give me some information on your great grandfather and the effect the crash had upon him. My email is ruthlittleeskimo@hotmail.com

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