A century ago, on Wednesday 26 January 1921, one of the worst railway accidents in Welsh history occurred. Thirty-six people were injured and 17 were killed in the head-on collision on the Cambrian Railways’ main line between Newtown and Abermule in Montgomeryshire. The accident was reported across the world and a number of changes to safety systems and working practices came about as a result. The disaster has been a case study in a number of books on railway safety, including Red for Danger by L. T. C. Rolt, which traces improvements in railway safety from the start of the 19th century to the 1960s.
The railway line across mid-Wales was a single track, used by trains travelling in both directions. A complex signalling system ensured that goods and passengers moved efficiently and that trains passed each other safely at stations with additional tracks. Train drivers were required to carry special metal tablets which gave them authority to travel on each section of the single track. At each station where trains could pass each other, there were machines which issued the metal tablets and ensured that only one tablet for each section of the line could be taken out at any one time. This made sure that there could only be one train on any section of single track at any one time.
The primary cause of the Abermule disaster was that the staff at Abermule station didn’t follow the rules about handling the tablet. As a result, the drivers of two trains thought they had authority to the travel along the same stretch of line. The express train from Aberystwyth left Newtown for Abermule carrying the correct tablet while the local train, which was headed towards Aberystwyth, entered the same single line section carrying the tablet for the line between Montgomery and Abermule. Neither the driver or the fireman of the local train checked that the tablet they had was the correct one – with disastrous results.
There are many documents in the Library related to the accident. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 restrictions, they’re not available to access at present but there are many digital resources which tell the story of the accident, the investigation, and those involved that can be used from home.
The disaster was widely reported in the media. While our Welsh Newspapers Online only includes newspapers up to 1919, there are many articles available through the Library’s subscription to external online resources. The Times and the Mirror carried detailed reports, with the Mirror paying special attention to the death of Lord Herbert Vane-Tempest, a director of the Cambrian Railways Company and friend of the King, and pictures of the accident site. The Times sent a reporter to Montgomeryshire to interview the surviving railway staff and raised questions as to how the accident could have happened with the tablet system in operation. Many reports of funerals and the accident investigation followed over the next few months.
The Library’s print collection contains volumes of material on the accident, including articles and books such as Red for Danger by L. T. C. Rolt, and The Deadly Tablet by David Burkhill-Howarth. It’s interesting to note that the official history of the Cambrian Railways Co, The Story of the Cambrian by C. P. Gasquoine, only dedicates a paragraph to the disaster. A digital copy of the book is available from the Gutenburg Project.
The official report into the accident, written by the railways inspector Col. Pringle, is kept with the Parliamentary papers in the Library. The 28 pages are full of details and show the depth of the investigation. A digital copy is available from the Railways Archive, and of course Hansard notes the various questions raised in the House of Commons.
Among the non-digitised material in the Library is NLW Photo Album Railways 2, which includes photographs of the accident, while the Screen and Sound Archive holds television programmes such as Y Dydd (1967) and Your Century (2003). There is even a recording of a song The Ballad of Abermule Railway Disaster by Evan Andrew.
The Library has a connection with the Abermule disaster through Lord Davies of Llandinam. He was involved in establishing the Library, donated land for the building and served as its president from 1927, and was chairman of the Cambrian Railways Company at the time of the accident. His papers, which are held at the Library, contain his correspondence from the period and papers related to his various railway interests across Wales.
A century ago, newspapers were the primary means of finding our about the Abermule disaster. Modern communication technologies such as the web and digitisation mean we can browse those same reports from our homes today.
Welsh Political Archive
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