The “Age of the Train” arrived in Sutton Weaver on the 18th. December 1850, when the new Cheshire Junction line was opened to the public. It ran from Chester to Warrington and connected at either end with the rapidly expanding rail network. One of the effects was to halve the distance, by rail, between Chester and Manchester by enabling trains to go via Warrington instead, as previously, by Crewe.
Some months later the Birkenhead, Lancashire and Cheshire Junction Railway Company decided to do a promotion for the line and chose the next Chester Races as the promotion. On 26th. April 1851 the Manchester Guardian was advertising Day Excursions to Chester Races as follows: -
The result of the above advertisement was that 4,000 people arrived at Manchester Victoria Station on Chester Cup Day eager to travel to the races on this new route.
There were some problems assembling sufficient rolling stock to cater for this unexpected figure.
All trains started late. The 7 45am, with 2 locomotives and 38 carriages arrived at Chester at 11 30 -over 2 hours late. At one stage passengers in the next train, of 50 carriages, had to get out and walk up an incline!
The Roodee was crowded as never before. The Manchester people left the races smartly as they wanted to make sure they got home! By 6pm, Chester Station was teeming with some 5,000 people. The first train was immediately filled, with people climbing on the carriage roofs, but they were ordered down. The train departed and
the crowd surged across the tracks to another standing in a siding. This was quickly filled with some 900 passengers in the 18 small carriages.
The train, pulled by ‘Druid’ left the siding but had to be assisted by ‘No.16’ to get up the Hoole incline. No.16 returned for her own train while Druid continued to Frodsham where it stopped and several people got off. By this time it had started to rain. When Druid tried to depart, her huge 5ft.6in. driving wheels started to slip.
Between Frodsham station and the Weaver Viaduct is an adverse gradient of 1:240. The driver ordered his fireman to sand the rails, which he did with the assistance of a platelayer. Progress was very slow, about walking pace, even when they got onto the level viaduct. After the viaduct the gradient again becomes adverse - 1:264 - and they struggled to keep the train moving, also mindful that more trains were following.
Meanwhile, No.16, a shorter train, had left Chester with 430 passengers and was catching up. In fact they could see the end of Druid as they arrived at Frodsham. The Station Master delayed them for 2 minutes which was 10 minutes after Druid had left. As No.16 approached the tunnel they could see the Guard of Druid beckoning them to close up in order to push Druid. No.16 inched up behind and a few yards into the tunnel made contact. However, as he increased steam to push, No16’s wheels now started to slip. They proceeded in this manner until they were about half way through the 1.25 mile tunnel where they were now not progressing at all.
A highly dangerous situation had now developed as the next train, pulled by ‘Albert’ was now leaving Frodsham station. This was 14 minutes since No.16 had left. The Station Master did not even warn the driver of Albert as he felt there was plenty of distance between the trains. The next passage is taken from the drivers report at the subsequent Inquest -
“ We were going at 15 - 20 miles p.hour when we entered Sutton Tunnel. I didn’t notice anything in particular, but I saw a good deal of steam when I got about 70 yards in. It didn’t - at first - appear thicker than ordinary, but when I got half-way through it was very thick. I didn’t think this extraordinary, but supposed it to arise from the trains having passed through so close together. I shut some steam off and went rather slower. The next thing I perceived was that I had run into a number of coaches before me!”
In fact, he had hit a flat truck, which was the last of No.16, which was carrying a private carriage. Inside this private carriage was a footman and coachman. The footman’s statement read as follows -
“I was travelling with my mistress in the same train. My fellow servant and I were inside Mrs.Ridgeways private carriage, which was on a truck behind the railway carriage in which Mrs.Ridgway was riding. After reaching Frodsham and entering the tunnel, the train began to go slowly and when it got half-way through it stopped. In about 10 minutes I heard another train coming up. The coachman said “There’s a train coming”, and in a moment or two after, something came into contact with the train and pushed the truck and carriage from under us, and we fell to the ground. I made a search for Mrs. Whetnall (Mrs. Ridgeway’s sister) and, after some time, found her in an upright position, jammed between fragments of the carriage. I felt at her, but she was quite dead”.
In fact, 5 people were killed outright, 4 died later and some 40 people were seriously injured, and about 1600 people were milling around in the complete darkness of the tunnel. A scene of fearful confusion ensued in the complete blackness. The noise of the next approaching train was then heard!
Fortunately, John Doyle, the guard of train, No:16, had managed to run down the track with a red light and stopped the oncoming train on the Viaduct.
At that time there were two practising surgeons in Frodsham - Messrs. Burgess and Dixon. Mr. Dixon was called from his house about 8:30 and arrived 20 minutes later. He was directed to a first class carriage where the wounded had been taken.
Meanwhile, another person had found his way out of the tunnel and gone to the home of Mr, Goodfellow, contractor for the Sutton end of the tunnel, who immediately despatched a man on horseback to fetch Mr. Carruthers, the Company’s surgeon, who lived in Halton. Mr. Carruthers arrived back at 9:30 with his assistant, Mr. Johnston, and went in to tend the wounded.
The Chester Chronicle, on 3rd. May 1851, published the following report -
"The little town of Frodsham, soon after the accident, was crowded with those who had escaped from the carriages with whole bones. The arrival of additional trains from Chester and the rails being blockaded, caused an additional influx during the night, so that the inns were quite incapable of affording accommodation for a tythe of the number who claimed it. Unfortunately, too, Frodsham is not possessed of extreme posting accommodation and a large proportion of the parties had to walk to Warrington or Chester, or remain in the streets. The injured parties, however, were comfortably accommodated at the ‘Bear’s Paw’ and other inns. Some people walked along the railway track to Warrington. Our informant describes the appearance of the passengers walking along the line - a great many without hats - and a considerable number having received cuts and contusions about the head and face, with their handkerchiefs tied round their heads, while others, whose bruises were about their limbs were limping and halting along with the assistance of their less-injured fellow pedestrians."
Of course, it was necessary to hold an inquest on the five bodies lying in a temporary mortuary in the Railway Contractor’s own small hospital near the Tunnel mouth at the Frodsham end. The inquest was held at the Red Lion Hotel, Preston Brook and began on Saturday, 3rd. May 1851. The Coroner was Mr. Nicholson from the Warrington division of the county. Dr. Wilson of Preston Brook, who was Agent for Sir Richard Brooke of Norton Priory, was Foreman of the Jury and was determined to ‘leave no stone unturned’.
The inquest lasted 9 days, no less than 29 witnesses were called and re-called, including the drivers, firemen and guards of the three trains involved and ranging from the lamp-man at Chester General Station to Alderman James Bancroft of Manchester, the Chairman of the Birkenhead, Lancashire and Cheshire Junction Railway Company. There were two trials of the tractive powers of “Druid” when she pulled the same weight of coaches through Sutton Tunnel, using old chairs and rails to simulate the weight of passengers. She came through each trial with flying colours. Nevertheless she had failed on Chester Cup Day and the Government Inspector’s opinion was that the weight of the passengers was more than estimated, causing the springs of the carriages (particularly the Third Class “stand up” type - some of which contained 70 people) to deflect excessively and act as a brake. Hence, after the accident, when large numbers had left the train, ‘Druid’ was able to move away unaided and took all its carriages on to Moore Station - at that time the next station towards Warrington.
The Inquest ended on Monday, 12th.May when the Coroner commenced his summing up at 1pm. This took four hours. The jury retired and deliberated for five hours until 10pm.
The Foreman, Dr. Wilson, read from a piece of paper: “Our verdict is ACCIDENTAL DEATH and we beg to accompany the verdict with these observations: Although the jury have not felt justified in recording any other verdict, they feel bound to state their unanimous opinion that great blame attaches to the Executive Committee of the Company and that there was a want of prudence and discretion generally in the conduct of the officers and servants of the Company along the line from Chester to Manchester on the day when the melancholy accident took place.............The Jury are decidedly of the opinion that the management of the railway in question at the present time is imperfect and inefficient, thereby endangering the safety of the public.’
The Chester Chronicle, the following Saturday, seems to infer it was not altogether happy with such a verdict: -
‘If out of evil cometh good, and the amount of the advantage accruing bears any proportion to the extent of the mischief, it must be very considerable in its application to the improved management of the Cheshire Junction Railway. This concern appears to have been so faulty in all its departments that the greatness of the culpability and the universality of the blame have prevented any individual animadversion; all have escaped because all were reprehensible!’
The Government Inspector’s report was more practical. He compared the Company very unfavourably with the London & North Western Railway in the precautions they took (or failed to take) having regard to the increased traffic of Chester Cup week. He also criticised the Company’s Secretary, Locomotive Superintendent, all three drivers, two guards and the Frodsham Station Master - in varying degrees. Most of all he blamed the Executive Committee. He made six recommendations:
1: That a station be built at either end of the tunnel with an electric telegraph between them.
2: Two guards be provided on each train.
3: The locomotive stock and carriages to be increased.
4: an efficient working staff to be engaged.
5: lights to be provided in all passenger carriages passing through the tunnel
6: the interval of five minutes between trains to be increased considerably.
The first recommendation was swiftly implemented. Stations were built at either end of the tunnel. The Frodsham end was called Runcorn Station. It was later changed to Runcorn Road, and in1869, was renamed Halton Station when the Runcorn Railway bridge was opened and Runcorn got it’s own station. At the Warrington end the station was called Norton station. These stations remained for many years until they were closed, When Runcorn New town was developed Norton station was dismantled and a new station - Runcorn East - was built a few yards closer to the tunnel.
With acknowledgments to Bill Hawkin of Frodsham & District Local History Group