(Please note this article contains details and images which some readers may find upsetting)
30 years ago, just before 7.20am on the chilly morning of Monday December 12th 1988, the characteristic sound of doors slamming shut on an old-style British Rail train echoed along the platform at Basingstoke station as hundreds of commuters crammed into a service bound for London Waterloo.
For the next forty minutes the train rattled along without incident.
That was until it approached a green signal which suddenly flickered to red without warning.
Unable to stop in time, the driver- Alexander McClymont– halted the train in a cutting on Wandsworth Common, just before Battersea Rise and about half a mile south of Clapham Junction station, where he climbed down from the cab and used a trackside telephone to inform the nearest signal box of the problem.
After being told there was nothing to worry about Alexander hung up but as he did so a second train- this one heading up from Bournemouth- roared around the corner at approximately 50mph.
The time was 8.13am.
According to witnesses onboard, the driver of this train- John Rolls– barged through the door of his cab in the final seconds before impact, no doubt realising it was impossible to brake in time.
The Bournemouth train ploughed into the Basingstoke service, killing John and many others instantly. To those nearby, it sounded like a bomb had gone off.
Lee Middleton– a survivor on the Bournemouth train- described the moment: “I heard a deafening noise and then all hell let loose. We were getting thrown around the carriage like rag dolls… I heard crying and moaning… I thought it was curtains for me.”
Lee found himself pinned beneath the wreckage, his gaze forced towards the clear winter sky which had been exposed after the carriage roof was, as another survivor put it, “split open like a ripe tomato.”
Back at the trackside meanwhile, Alexander could only watch in horror as carriages from his Basingstoke train were thrown into the air, hurling a number of passengers out. He immediately snatched the phone back to alert the signal box and call for emergency services.
To make matters even worse a third train tore into the area moments later, smashing into the already tangled wreckage. Mercifully this train was empty, although tragically a number of people who’d been ejected from the Basingstoke carriages were crushed beneath its wheels.
It was only by sheer fortune that a fourth train managed to stop in time just yards from the carnage.
Alongside personnel from London’s emergency services- including doctors who performed a number of operations and amputations on site, the greatest heroes that day were pupils from the Emanuel School which is located on the embankment overlooking the disaster zone.
Upon hearing the terrifying smash, teenagers far too young to witness the horror they were about to encounter scrambled down the slope to help. The very first person to enter the stricken carriages was Terry Stoppani whose birthday it happened to be that day.
He’d just turned 12 years old.
“There was a huge bang, just like a bomb explosion” Terry explained when interviewed. “I saw all parts of the train flying into the air…we jumped over the railings and climbed into the train through a broken window. The first thing I saw was legs with jeans and shoes on. There was no top half of the body… In the train people were screaming and too frightened to talk. We started pulling people out through the window.”
Another pupil- 18 year old sixth former, Simon Murie– yanked wreckage away with his bare hands, comforting victims as he did so.
Another un-named 14 year old held a trapped passenger upright in their twisted seat for several hours before they could be freed.
Many of the passengers were in a deep state of shock, so much so that they were unable to comprehend where they were or what had happened.
The young rescuers from the Emanuel School were praised by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and visited by the Secretary of State for Education who thanked them personally for “Their immense courage and maturity.”
A BBC news report from the evening of December 12th 1988 detailing the catastrophe can be viewed below:
Overall 35 people were killed and hundreds more injured in what became known as the Clapham Rail Disaster.
Amongst the dead was technician Michael Newman whose glittering theatre signs for shows such as ‘Cats’, ‘Singing in the Rain’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’ earned him the nickname, “the man who brought the West End to light.”
On a personal note, my father knew Mike and had worked alongside him installing these famous displays.
It was determined that the cause of the accident- the light which had inexplicably flicked from green to red- was down to faulty signal wiring housed within a unit that was approximately fifty years old.
The electrician who’d overlooked the fault had been on voluntary overtime which had seen him working seven days a week for the past thirteen weeks; a regime which had inevitably led to exhaustion. It was also noted his training, assessment and supervision had been woefully inadequate.
As a result, British Rail were fined £250,000 although many believed the company should’ve been prosecuted for Corporate Manslaughter.
In 1989 a memorial to those who were killed and injured was unveiled on Spencer Park which overlooks the site of the tragedy.
At 8.13am on Wednesday 12th December 2018, the train drivers’ union, ASLEF will be staging a two minute silence beside the memorial to mark the disaster’s thirtieth anniversary.
I had been in the London Ambulance Service for over eight years when this happened. I was off duty that day, sleeping after night shifts. I woke up to see it on the news, and felt grateful not to have been at work.
But 11 years later, I was in the first ambulance to arrive at the Labdroke Grove Train Crash. It seemed like fate had intervened, because I had missed out on going to Clapham.
Best wishes, Pete.
Thank you for sharing those memories Pete.
I was severely injured in the crash, trapped for 2 1/2 hours, lost a limb and had multiple other internal and external injuries. My heartfelt thanks still go to the servicemen who cut me out, the doctors and nurses who saved my life at St Georges Hospital and to all those who helped me in the years following. I will never forget that day or my friend who didn’t survive.
Thank you so much for sharing Louise, it’s truly humbling to hear about your experience. Best wishes.
This is a fascinating account of a tragic disaster. I was in London a couple of months before this happened, and knew nothing about it.
I enjoy your posts very much. They are well-written and thoroughly researched. Thank you, LondonCabbie!
Thank you so much for your kind words Susie.
they will all be missed so sad
As a pupil at Emaunuel School (In the same class as Terry) I will never forget the scene, walking up the long school drive with some of the victims of this tragic event. Thank you for a such a respectful article.
Many thanks for those kind words and for sharing your experience, much appreciated.
What was the outcome of the investigation?
There was a public inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Hidden. He found many errors in the way British Rail worked at that time. He recommended a reduction in working hours (staff had been working every day for weeks which inevitably leads to fatigue). There were also changes in the way staff were trained and how signalling alterations were actioned and recorded. One of the simplest changes was that any wire which was not terminated on a terminal had to have a special insulated crimp on the end. Only trained members of the Signal Engineers could carry out signalling alterations and a new system of grading was implemented such that a new junior technician could not carry out or manage a complex scheme). If I use the analogy of doctors, so a G.P. can treat patients for minor ailments but for more complex problems the patient must be referred to a consultant. If a patient needs major surgery this can only be carried out by a consultant who has significant experience in that field, you wouldn’t want a knee surgeon operating on your eye for example.
[…] The late 1980s were notable for a relentless string of disasters which affected Britain; the Zeebrugge ferry capsize, the King’s Cross fire, the Piper Alpha oil platform explosion, the Hillsborough Disaster and, as seen recently on this site, the Clapham rail crash. […]
This is an amazing piece of work. Please can you make contact with me when you see this
Many thanks, Tim
Thanks for this site…Clapham rail disaster should never be forgotten…I worked with Glenn Clark ..the weekend before this he was planning to go skydiving sadly he got the Monday morning train and I never saw him again RIP buddy
You’re welcome; so sorry to hear you lost a friend. Stay well.
I was a good friend of Richard Dennison when this happened. I phoned his parents when I heard of the crash and they gave me the sad news that he had been on the train. God bless you Richard, rest in peace .. I went to work the next day and burst out in tears as I was decorating the room. I never saw this article until now, but it was a good piece and was nice to see that it and he are still remembered
Hi I visited my sister the night before because of this she decided not to take that train but our late friend Jane did. My sister should be a grandmother soon. What if. Rip Jane. Still love you friends forever.
Bless you, Robert. Thank you for sharing.