Bath Junction Accident
The Somerset & Dorset Railway 'Bath Extension' was a last attempt by the company to increase trade and encourage traffic to and from the Midlands to use the original line between Evercreech Junction and Bournemouth. This meant building a line 26 miles in length across the Mendips and then entering the city of Bath from the south through another substantial obstacle, the southernmost fringe of the Cotswold Hills. Two tunnels were cut through this ridge, Combe Down (1829yds) and Devonshire (440yds). Money was so short that only single bores were made, Combe Down was left mainly unlined but Devonshire required full lining with stone blocks, no doubt increasing costs. Ventilation shafts were not provided for either tunnel. Of necessity the line was steeply graded with a ruling average 1 in 100 climb from the end of double track at Midford viaduct to a point approximately 400 yards from the southern exit of Combe Down tunnel where, after a short level section it changed at the exit to a continuous 1 in 50 descent to Bath Junction where it met the Midland Railway's Mangotsfield - Bath line for the final half-mile into the terminus station, Bath Queen Square (later Green Park).
On the afternoon of Wednesday 20th November 1929 the 3.25pm Evercreech to Bath goods train consisted of loco number 89, (later 53809) running tender-first pulling 37 wagons mostly loaded with coal and a brake van. Number 89 was a Fowler-designed '7F' 2-8-0 loco with six-wheeled tender and was built by Robert Stephenson & Co at Darlington in 1925. The load of 493 tons was the maximum allowed over Masbury summit to the north of Shepton Mallet, another steep climb of up to 1 in 50. The driver, Henry Jennings, informed the guard, Christopher Wagner at Radstock that no 89 was not steaming well and as a result 13 minutes had been lost between Evercreech and Masbury summit. Wagner suggested sending a message to Wellow to hold the train there until it could be given a clear run through to Bath however in the event this did not happen and it was instead held at Midford to wait for two 'down' and one 'up' (Bath-bound) trains to pass through the single-line section from Bath. The fireman, Maurice Pearce, took advantage of the extended wait and cleared the firebox of clinker and rebuilt the fire so as to give the best chance of a good run through to Bath. The train left Midford at 613pm and by the time it reached Combe Down Tunnel, speed had dropped to around 4mph. Inside the tunnel the atmosphere was extremely unpleasant, hot and smoky and within minutes fireman Pearce was forced to wrap his coat around his head and sit down on the tender seat, coughing violently. He recalled seeing driver Jennings standing on the left side of the footplate at that point but must have soon lost consciousness as he recalled nothing more until after the incident. The guard, Wagner, realised something was wrong as speed increased on the descent towards Bath Junction and other than applying his handbrake as much as he was able there was little more he could do and as the train passed over Bath Junction at an estimated speed of about 50mph he jumped from his van.
The train derailed as it entered the goods yard with wagons soon piling up and becoming strewn across the complex. The yard inspector, John Norman, had seen the train coming in at speed and, realising a collision was inevitable had shouted a warning to other employees to get themselves clear and had then gone into the yard office. The loco derailed but ran on and struck the west end of the office resulting in the death of Inspector Norman. Also killed was a 23 year old LMS goods clerk, Sidney Jack Loder of 4 Canterbury Road, Oldfield Park. Loder had recently arrived at Green Park station by train from Gloucester where he worked and had been taking a short-cut across the yard on his way home. He was hit by a falling lamp standard that was brought down by the derailed wagons. One strange fact that later came to light was that a pencil from the office was found to have been driven for around half its length into one of the wooden sleepers.
Driver Jennings and Fireman Pearce were both removed from the wreckage alive but sadly Driver Jennings died on his way to hospital in Bath. Fireman Pearce and the guard, Wagner, were both seriously injured but fortunately survived and gave evidence to the inquiry.
On 25th November 1929 Driver Henry John Jennings (57) of 3 Lymore Avenue, Oldfield Park and the Midland Railway Goods Clerk, Sidney Jack Loder (23), were both buried in Twerton Cemetery next to the GWML west of Oldfield Park station. At the same location the S&D crosses the GWML on the brick three-arch viaduct that was rebuilt in 2016 for the now-postponed electrification project. Loder's grave is almost adjacent to the GWR spear boundary fence between the cemetery and railway line while Henry John Jennings rests behind the cemetery lodge close to the main entrance off Bellotts Road.
No 89 (53809) was soon repaired and spent the remainder of its life at work on the S&D until withdrawal from service in June 1964. With sister loco 53808 it was sold to Woodham Bros of Barry Dock, South Wales and arrived at their yard in August of that year. Preservation was to follow and it left Barry in December 1975 for its initial base, Kirk Smeaton near Doncaster. before moving in 1980 to the Midland Railway Centre, Butterley, Derbyshire.. On 16th September 1987 it came south to work special trains between Andover and Ludgershall ( Basingstoke Rail Event on 26th-27th Sept) and passed through Bath Spa, complete with support coach and bearing a Pines Express headboard. March 2006 saw it make a poignant return to Bath Green Park where it took centre-stage at an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the closure of the S&D.
The cause of this accident was concluded as loss of control of the engine due to both crew being overcome by smoke and fumes in the exceptionally unpleasant conditions inside Combe Down tunnel. One possibility considered was that the engine running 'backwards' or tender-first, had allowed smoke already in the tunnel to collect in the enclosed cab area but this could not be proven. Consideration was given to reducing the loads of northbound goods trains, to providing banking engines or holding heavier trains back at Wellow if the single line north of Midford was already occupied and, finally, to introducing some form of ventilation in the tunnel.
The full MoT report of this accident contains much detailed information and I commend it to readers who will find it very informative and interesting. It can be downloaded as a .pdf from: railwaysarchive.co.uk MoT_Bath1929.pdf
Guy Vincent. Article dated 24th May 2020