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Category Archives: London History

The 30th Anniversary of the Clapham Rail Disaster

(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.

Two ‘slam-door’ trains in 1986 (image: Wikipedia)

For the next forty minutes the train rattled along without incident.

View from a slam-door train compartment

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.

The railway cutting through Wandsworth Common

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.”

Rescuers amongst the twisted carriages

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.

Diagram of the crash site printed in The Times newspaper shortly after the disaster (image: The Times)

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.

The Emanuel School today (image: Google)

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.

Terry Stoppani being interviewed about the role he played in rescuing victims (image: The Times)

“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.”

Rescue workers at the disaster site

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.

Ariel view of the crash site alongside Spencer Park

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:

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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.

Several victims of the Clapham Rail Disaster were pictured in the news the following day. Michael Newman, who my father knew personally, can be seen in the bottom right hand corner (image: The Times)

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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.

The Clapham Rail Crash Memorial at Spencer Park (image: Geograph)

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.

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Christmas Thanks

I would like to express my sincerest thanks to all of you who’ve supported my website and recent book throughout 2018; it means a great deal to me.

If you’ve not yet picked up a copy, ‘The Knowledge: Train Your Brain Like a Cabbie‘- which is packed with history, trivia, maps and memory techniques all beautifully illustrated by Jamie Whyte– makes an ideal stocking filler!

Here’s what people are saying:

“If you love London, you will love this book”

“Using humour and anecdotes, Robert brings the process to life and gets over what it actually feels like to study the Knowledge”

“A fascinating look into the memory techniques used to complete the hardest map test in the world”

“Definitely recommended”

“I didn’t think there was so much to learn about the Capital”

“Reading it has inspired me to take a trip to London as soon as possible to visit some of the great places I’ve been reading about!”

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The Knowledge: Train Your Brain Like a Cabbie is available both in bookshops and online.

Thank you so much again and I hope that you and your families have a wonderful Christmas and prosperous 2019.

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WWI: Armistice and Aftermath

During the Great War, there were moments when the thunder of guns and explosions ripping across the Western Front were so intense the sound could be heard as far away as London. 

100 years ago, at 11am on Monday November 11th 1918, these hellish weapons finally fell silent when the Armistice (a word combined of two Latin phrases- ‘arma’ meaning weapons and ‘sistere’ for ‘to come to a stand’) which had been signed by the warring parties at Compiègne in France came into affect. 

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In London there were jubilant scenes as people took to the streets. 

King George V and Queen Mary appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace and, the following day, attended a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral. 

The King and Queen en-route to St Paul’s Cathedral, November 12th 1918 (image: Illustrated London News)

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Once the celebrations had cooled, it was time to reflect upon the war’s devastating impact: overall, the four-year long conflict had claimed approximately 37,500,000 lives. 

Britain and the Empire nations- which included countless troops from Africa, Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, India and New Zealand- had seen 908,371 servicemen killed with many more missing or imprisoned. 

British and Indian troops from the 4th Punjab Infantry Regiment (image: British Library)

Practically every town and village in Britain had lost men.

The grim statistics worsened by the ‘Pals Battalions’; a system which had encouraged friends, neighbours and work colleagues to sign up and fight together. It did not take long for memorials to begin appearing across the nation. 

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Although the slaughter had ceased, it was not until the 28th June 1919 that the Great War officially concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles– a controversial document whose harsh treatment of Germany can be blamed in part for sowing the seeds of the Second World War. 

The war’s formal end was marked on the 19th July with a bank holiday dubbed Peace Day, marked in London with a victory parade in which over 15,000 troops marched (please click below to view footage):

On that day a number of wooden memorials were erected along the route, one of which was the first incarnation of the Cenotaph (click below to view): 

Meaning ‘Empty Tomb’ in Greek, the Cenotaph was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the Kensington born architect whose work is most prominent in Delhi, India- including the grand India Gate, which itself serves as a war memorial to the 70,000 Indian troops who lost their lives between 1914-1918. 

India Gate, Delhi (image: Wikipedia)

Like the other structures that day, the Cenotaph- which, like today, stood on Whitehall– was fabricated from from wood and plaster and was intended to remain in place for just a short time.

Its solemn simplicity however proved immensely popular, with over one million people coming to visit and swathe the structure in wreathes. 

It was decided therefore that a permanent Cenotaph should be created and this was unveiled by King George V on November 11th 1920.

The permanent Cenotaph has provided the main focal point for Britain’s annual Remembrance Day ever since. 

The Cenotaph today

Built from Portland Stone, the Cenotaph features no religious symbology; a deliberate choice based on the fact that those who’d fought alongside each other in the British and Empire Forces came from all manner of backgrounds and creeds. 

Although it’s not immediately clear on first glance, every edge on the Cenotaph is subtly curved. If the trajectory of these lines were to be followed, the vertical edges would converge exactly 1,000 feet above ground whilst the horizontals would arc into a broad circle with its radius 900 feet below ground; a technique known as ‘entasis’. 

Where the Cenotaph’s edges lead

As well as enhancing the Cenotaph’s height and solidity, the invisible trajectories projected by these angles invite a broader interpretation; the connection of the earth to the heavens perhaps? 

On the 11th November 2018, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will take part in the annual remembrance service; the first time that a German statesperson has done so. 

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On the same day the permanent Cenotaph was inaugurated, so too was the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. 

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey (image: Wikipedia)

Such was the chaos and ferocity of the Great War that many of those who died were unidentified and as such could not be granted a named grave. 

The idea of laying one of these unfortunate souls to rest inside Westminster Abbey as a symbol of all those who’d suffered a similar fate was first suggested by Reverend David Railton who’d served on the Western Front as an army chaplain. 

David Railton

Reverend David’s idea was agreed upon and in early November 1920 six unnamed bodies, each taken from one of the six major battlefields (The Aisne, Arras, Cambrai, Marne, The Somme and Ypres) were carefully exhumed, draped in flags and placed in a chapel near Arras, France. 

Brigadier General L.J Wyatt then entered the chapel alone, closed his eyes and selected one of the bodies. The remains of the soldier selected were placed in a coffin- constructed from oak trees grown at Hampton Court Palace– and transported back to the UK with full military honours. 

The Unknown Warrior’s coffin at Dover (image: The Military Times)

After crossing the Channel the coffin was transported by rail to London’s Victoria station where it arrived at platform 8 on the morning of the 10th November 1920.

A plaque at Victoria marks the site. 

Plaque marking the arrival point of the Unknown Warrior at Victoria Station

The Unknown Warrior was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey the following day, his tomb topped with a slab of black, Belgian marble. 

The memorial remains a profound site to this day.

The Unknown Warrior’s coffin in Westminster Abbey, November 1920

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Of those who’d survived the war, many had done so with appalling injuries, ranging from facial deformities to lost limbs and lungs ravaged by poisonous gas. 

In Roehampton, south-west London, men who’d had arms and legs blasted off were treated at Queen Mary’s Hospital which specialised in manufacturing prosthetics.

The hospital had been established in 1915 by Mary Eleanor Gwynne Holford who’d vowed to help the injured after meeting Private F.W Chapman; a young man who’d lost both his arms.

Mary Eleanor Gwynne Holford (image: Womenandwar.wales)

During the war, Queen Mary’s treated 11,000 patients and created so many false limbs that it came to be nicknamed the  Human Repair Factory.’

Following the Armistice the hospital continued its important work- by the end of 1918 it had a waiting list of over 4,000. 

As well as the prosthetics workshop, Queen Mary’s also had a gym and other facilities where patients were able to master control of their artificial body-parts, as well as undergoing training to help them secure future employment. 

Please click below to view footage of patients at Queen Mary’s Hospital in 1916:

Queen Mary’s Hosptial remains open today and has a small museum on its grounds dedicated to its history. 

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Other soldiers suffered devastating facial wounds which were often so awful it was a miracle they’d survived at all.

A number of these patients were treated by the artist, Francis Derwent Wood who crafted delicate masks to cover such deformities.

Francis Derwent Wood with a patient (image: Imperial War Museum)

A longer article I wrote a few years ago about Francis’ work can be read here. 

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Not all injuries of course were physical.

Throughout the war, around 80,000 soldiers were admitted to military hospitals with what was then dubbed ‘Shell Shock’ or ‘War Neurosis’.

Today of course we call this PTSD: ’Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’. 

In 1918 it was estimated a further 20,000 men were suffering shell shock- and many more would succumb to mental illness in later life as their memories of wartime returned to haunt them. 

Those suffering displayed all manner of distressing symptoms from severe facial ticks and night-terrors, to internal pain, an inability to walk or carry out other functions and, in some cases, a complete obliviousness to the world around them. 

A WWI soldier suffering from shell shock

Sadly attitudes at the time were largely unsympathetic to those suffering from these disturbing mental traumas. 

One exception however was Dr. Hugh Crichton Miller, a Scottish neurologist who’d pioneered treatment for mental illness by opening Bowden House; a nursing home for sufferers- the first of its kind in Britain- at Harrow on the Hill, north-west London in 1912.

Dr Hugh Crichton Miller

When the Great War broke out, Dr Hugh enlisted with the Royal Army Medical Corps and got to witness the severe affects of shell shock first hand. He quickly came to realise that pioneering new methods were required to treat such cases. One such technique involved having doctors treat patients whilst dressed in civilian clothes as opposed to traditional white coats; an idea which was revolutionary for the time.

After the war, in 1919, Dr Hugh along with a number of donors and supporters founded the Tavistock Clinic (orginally located at 51 Tavistock Square) to continue the work and offer support to civilians. 

The Tavistock remains open today and is now located on Belsize Lane, Hampstead. 

The Tavistock Clinic today (image: Google Streetview)

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Amongst the many national treasures held by the British Library on Euston Road is the personal notebook of the war poet, Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred enlisted in 1915 and suffered both physical injury and shell shock.

Despite these traumas he returned to the trenches and was killed in action on the 4th November 1918, just days before the war ended.

As his mother back in Shropshire received news of her son’s death, the church bells were ringing out in celebration of the Armistice.

I would like to leave you with Wilfred’s masterpiece- Dulce et Decorum Est, the words of which speak for themselves.

Dule et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue, deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

 

Gas! GAS! Quick boys!- An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime-

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

In all my dream before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues-

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. 

Poppies outside Westminster Abbey, November 2018

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