Shocking train smash at Welwyn Garden City

A night of terror

By Susan Hall

The wreckage as seen that night
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
The scene of the crash next day
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
Some of the carriages
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
The damaged carriages
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
The extent of the damage
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
The clearing up operation. The station building can be seen on the right, and the huge crane used in the middle.
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

At 11.28pm on Saturday June 15th 1935 there was a terrible train crash at Welwyn Garden City, just past the signalman’s box, near the station

14 people were killed and at least 29 were injured.

The first train was the 10.45 express from Kings Cross carrying passengers to Newcastle in two portions. The first portion was not involved in the accident.

It was followed at 10.53 by the second portion conveying passengers to Newcastle. This was then followed by the parcels train which left Kings Cross at 10.58 carrying passengers and parcels.

According to Mr Hodgson, the stationmaster, the accident occurred at 11.28.

At 11.29 a taxi driver waiting outside the station, gave an emergancy call by telephone to the local exchange asking them to call all available ambulances. The ambulances were at work from 11.45 until 12.30 when all the injured had been seen. The injured were taken to Hertford and Welwyn hospitals and some of the walking wounded were taken to nearby houses.

Mr H N Gresley, chief Mechanical Engineer of the L.N.E.R gave a description of the formation of the two trains involved.

The first train consisted of 11 coaches and weighed 350 tons. The weight of the engine and tender was 112 tons so the total weight of the train was 462 tons.

The coaches of the first train were entirely modern stock, with heavy steel underframes and teak bodies. The whole of the coaches were fitted with Buckeye couplers and Pullman vestibules.

The 60ft guard’s van of the first train was crushed up into a very small space after the impact, and the body shattered to peices. Mr James M McIntosh, aged 50, of 14 Charles Street Newcastle-upon-Tyne was the guard of the Newcastle express and was killed, along with his dog.

The drivers of both trains survived the incident, Mr R E Morris aged 46 was in the first train, he had entered the service of the L.N.E.R in 1906 and had been an engine driver since 1922.

The driver of the second train was a Charles Barnes, he left Kings Cross station eight minutes late as it had to follow the passenger train, but he said at the inquest that he had not expected to make up time.

 The engine of the second train carried the frame of the last coach of the first train 140 yards from the point of collision. The remarkable part about this last coach was that notwithstanding the tremendous shock of the impact the Buckeye couples were so strong that they held the coach from falling over, although the bogies and wheels had gone from under it.

In that coach nobody was killed or seriously injured, all the passengers were able to walk back to Welwyn Garden City station. Beyond the last two carriages no damage was done to the rest of the train.

There was no telescoping of the train whatever, which was entirely due to the heavy steel frames and strong Buckeye couplers. If it had not been for these, considerably more damage would have been done, and much more serious injuries would have been sustained.

The second train was described as being 394 tons and differed from the first in that it was not entirely composed of modern rolling stock, only the first three carriages were of modern stock. It was in this train that the most serious injuries occurred.

Col. A H L Mount, Ministry of Transport Inspector held an inquiry into the disaster at the ballroom of the Cherry Tree Restaurant in Welwyn Garden City on Thursday 20th June 1935.

A special train from Kings Cross brought railway and government officials to the scene of the crash shortly before the inquiry opened.

The officials inspected the line and the damaged coaches, which had been removed to Hatfield and Welwyn North stations. The inquiry was due to start at 10am but the inspector was occupied for two and a half hours inspecting the line and the rolling stock so the preceedings did not get underway until 12.30.

Colonel Mount express deep sympathy to the relatives of the dead and seriously injured and explained that the inquiry was being held primarily from a techinical aspect in order that they may determine the cause of the accident. He also advised that some of the evidence may be heard in private, and members of the press and public were asked to leave at certain points in the hearing.

After the formal identification of the fourteen dead and statemants from witnesses and railway workers the inquiry was adjourned until Friday 5th July.

A memorial service was held at St Francis Church on Wednesday 19th June and was conducted by Rev. J P P Gorton. During the service the hymns ‘Abide with me’, ‘Jesu, Lover of my soul’ and ‘Loving Shepherd of Thy Sheep’ were sung but some members of the congregation could not contain their sorrow during the singing or when the names of the dead were read out. 

The victims of the crash were:

Brenda Doris Ashford, aged 6 months of 112 Garden Cottages, Maidenhead.

Mrs Annie Appleton, 41, of West Hartlepool, the baby’s grandmother.

James M McIntosh, 50, of 14 Charles Street Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the guard of the Newcastle Express.

Mrs Jane Elizabeth Tolfts, of 7 Raynton Road, Enfield Wash

Albert Widdowson, 44, of 7 Elmfield Grove Wortley, Leeds, L.N.E.R. signalman.

William Marquis, of 9 Station Street, North Ormsby, Middleborough, and his 12 year old daughter.

Elsie Marquis

Frank Herbert Fish, of 71 Cobwell Road, Retford, Notts.

Mrs Mary Ann Pickering, of 56 Deanside House, Kingsley Road, Luton (Mrs Whites Mother)

Mrs Ethel White, 20, of 66 Linbury Road, Luton and her baby son.

Frederick White, aged 20 months.

David Bell, 35, of 54 Thistlecroft Road, Horsham, Surrey, and his wife.

Barbara Irene Bell, aged 28

Mrs Ada Maud Yeates, aged 39, of Twyfordbury, Howberry Road, Thornton Heath, Surrey.

Mrs Betty Ashford, mother of Brenda Doris Ashford and daughter of Mrs Annie Appleton survived the crash but had a broken arm and severe head injuries.

Miss Gladys Tolfts, daughter of Mrs Jane Elizabeth Tolfts, also survived the crash but sustained a broken right arm, injuries to her right leg, scalp wounds and facial injuries, her condition was described as serious.

Another touching story was that of Mrs Margaret Gales of Sturgeon’s Way Hitchin, She was travelling on the wrecked train with her four year old daughter, she sustained injuries to her back and right leg and was taken to Hertford County Hospital, the child however was missing.

Mr Gales was waiting at Hitchin station to meet his family, when he heard the news of the tragedy he went to the hospital to find his wife, the child was still missing.

The next day it was discovered that the child was quite safe and being taken care of in a house in Welwyn Garden City. Someone who had rescued the child had put a note in the mother’s hat stating that she was safe, this then led to her recovery.

The inquiry of Friday 5th July 1935 was held at the Peartree Clubroom, Welwyn Garden City. Mr F R Shillitoe was the coroner and he sat with the nine jurers.

In front of the jury and the coroner was a plan of the track where the accident happened, and on a long table working models of the signalling system, including the instrument used in the boxes, and miniture signal posts had been erected.

Mr Barrington Ward, superintendent of the Western Section of the L.N.E.R. explained the working of the signals showing how trains are passed from one section to another by a code of bells. By this method, Mr Barrington Ward said there could be only one train in a section at a time, unless there was a failure of the human kind.

Many witnesses told stories of the crash and finally, the Welwyn Garden City signalman was called and was asked many questions by the coroner. Mr Fred Howes, of 26 Ludwick Way, Welwyn Garden City had been employed as a signalman since 1912. In April he was transferred to Welwyn Garden City and after receiving instructions, he took charge of the Welwyn Garden City signalbox on May 11th 1935.

After hearing the evidence, which last over two hours, the coroner Mr F R Shillitoe, addressed the jury. He said that it was for them to decide whether the disaster was due to any persons neglect, or whether it was an error or forgetfulness. If they were of the opinion that there was neglect amounting to culpable negligence, the person responsible for such a breach would be guilty of manslaughter. If they thought it was due to a lapse of memory or an error of judgement, and there was no gross or culpable negligence, their verdict should be accidental death.

The jury were out for 35 minutes and returned with a verdict of “accidental death” and added that the accident was due to temporary lapse of memory and error of judgement on the part of the Welwyn Garden City Signalman.

More information can be found about the crash in the Hertfordshire Mercury. The crash details and a listing of the wounded and where they were taken can be found on page 13 of the 21 June 1935 issue.

The inquiry of the 20th June 1935 and a list of victims can be found on page 11 of the 21 June 1935 issue.

The final inquiry and verdict can be found on page 13 of the 12th July 1935 issue. 


This page was added on 04/01/2013.

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  • Yes Simon is correct out of this accident a flaw in the signalling system was recognised by the L.N.E.R.. To put it simply once a train had been accepted by the signalman in WGC signal box from the signalman in Hatfield no.3 signal box by giving the latter signalman a ‘line clear’ on the block instrument there was nothing preventing the signalman in WGC signal box from accepting a second train from the signalman in Hatfield no.3 signal box with the first train still travelling ‘in the section’ between Hatfield and WGC?. The solution to this problem was simple, once a train had been accepted by the WGC signalman from the Hatfield no.3 signalman the train had to pass through the section between Hatfield no.3 signal box and WGC signal box before the signalman at WGC could give ‘train out of section’ on the block instrument to the signalman in Hatfield no.3 signal box and then a second train could then be accepted (the section between Hatfield and WGC was then clear of the first train) this was achieved in conjunction with the electrical signalling ‘track circuits’ in WGC signal box which before the signalman in WGC signal box could give another ‘line clear’ to the Hatfield no.3 signalman and accept a second train (the first or previous train) had to have travelled through the section and had to have occupied and then cleared the track circuits in WGC signal box thus proving that the first train had passed through the section between Hatfield and WGC and was also electrically connected to and worked inconjunction with the block instruments in WGC signal box as well. The system was (and still is called) ‘Welwyn Control’ or ‘Welwyn block’ and this system was adopted throughout the L.N.E.R. and on other large parts of Britains Railways from the mid-1930s onwards. There are other technical aspects to this system but what I have described was the basics to prevent a signalman from accepting a second train into an already occupied section of railway with another train already in it and causing a accident.

    By Michael S (26/05/2013)
  • This accident occurred due to an error on the part of the signalman. To help eliminate human error in the the future a development called Welwyn Control (or Welwyn Release) was used at various busy locations around the country. See e.g. for a technical description.

    By Simon Harding (21/05/2013)
  • Hello Ray, I wouldn’t know you but when I was at WGC s/box as a telegraph lad between 1972-74 the three regular signalmen at the box at that time were the aforementioned Cycil White, Alan ‘pedler’ Palmer and Harry Fitzgerald. I once knew of Alan Dollimore the person that you mention and like you say Alan use to be a telegraph lad at WGC s/box around 1962/63 I believe. I first met Alan one day at Welwyn north station in 1968 and at that time he was working in the Reservations office at Kings Cross station and we knocked around together for several years into the early 1970s. Alan and his family during the 1960s & early 1970s use to live in a bungalow on the Codicote road, Alan’s mother was from Derbyshire I believe and his brother worked at Hawker Siddeley’s aircraft factory in Hatfield. I lost contact with Alan from about 1972 onwards until I met him again by pure chance in 1980 when he was still working on the railway in London but by the end of that year I had lost contact with him again and I havn’t seen or heard of him ever since that time 33 years ago. By the way it was Alan and myself that payed a visit to Ayot s/box in 1968 that is on another topic page on this forum.

    By Michael S (13/04/2013)
  • I was a relief telegraph lad which covered WGC, Potters Bar,Barnet, Kings Cross and Hitchin Yard. The WGC signal box was a long box with 2 sets of levers and was sometimes very busy. I remember a Mr C White as a signalman and a Dollimore telegraph lad. Some of the best parts of my life.

    By Ray Jones (27/03/2013)
  • I actually worked in WGC signal box when i left secondary school at the age of 15 in July 1972 until March 1974 as a ‘telegraph lad’ (a boy who was employed to write down the passing train times in a train register book and also work the ‘single needle telegraph instrument’ invented circa 1880s hence the name telegraph lad. The telegraph instrument was used to send and receive ‘simple messages’ about the whereabouts of certain express trains mostly and was operated by sending and receiving ‘morse code’ messages which by the early 1970s was gradually being fazed out along the whole route between Kings Cross to Doncaster). The signalman on duty would work the levers that operated the semaphore signals and points and he would also operate the block bells & block instruments for the signalling of the trains to and from the signal boxes either side of WGC (Hatfield no.2 signal box to the south and Welwyn north signal box to the north). The signal box at WGC was opened in 1924 and was eventually closed in September 1976 when the area including Hatfield and Welwyn north became part of the Kings Cross power signal box area of control.

    By Michael S (16/01/2013)