Heritage: Tragic fatal train crashes in Elm Park and Brentwood

1900s Seven Arches Bridge

1900s postcard view of the Seven Arches Bridge, near where men were killed in a fatal accident in Brentwood. - Credit: From the collection of Andy Grant

Historian Andy Grant tells the tragic tale of two fatal train crashes in the local region. 

Elm Park train derailment, 1965

On May 29, 1965 the driver of a train from Shoeburyness reported hitting debris on the Fenchurch Street line near the Rainham Road.

He saw a young teenage boy run across the track, with others nearby.

Within the next hour three more drivers braked hard as they hit obstacles and two of them feared derailment.

At around 7.30pm, a Southend-bound train was travelling at around 70mph when it derailed due to “wanton obstruction of the tracks by some metal objects”, resulting in the train colliding with overhead structures and signal posts.

The obstruction placed on the line was thought to have been a fishplate (an iron block that joins two rails together) or something taken from the nearby scrapyard.

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The leading wheels of the train became derailed and subsequently struck the central metal girder of the bridge as it passed over the Rainham Road.

The derailed train continued for nearly half a mile before finally coming to a stop. The driver, 52-year-old Ernest Wilbrew, received serious injuries from which he died before medical assistance could be given.

One passenger was thrown out of the train and found dead beneath it.

Eighteen other passengers were injured, 15 of them seriously.

Despite a lengthy police investigation, interviewing local children and offering a £1,000 reward, the vandals that caused the crash were never caught.

At the inquest on June 4, a verdict of “manslaughter by some person, or persons unknown” was returned.

The funeral of the driver was held at Southend and attended by 300 railwaymen. The accident led to the first installation of CCTV on the railway to monitor that section of line for future vandalism.

Brentwood, 1850

On the morning of September 19, 1850, a dense fog cloaked the Eastern Counties Railway between Brentwood and Shenfield, with visibility down to around 35 metres.

At around 7.45am, a ballast train consisting of 11 wagons arrived to facilitate work between the Seven Arches Bridge and the Three Arches Bridge, unloading ballast between the two tracks.

A gang of around 25 permanent-way staff were working on the track, spreading the ballast between the sleepers and unloading the stationary ballast train on the down-track.

Although the gang had been working on this section for the past fortnight and were aware that a train was imminently due, no look-out had been posted.

A London-bound passenger train had departed Shenfield station and the driver had noted the fog was becoming thicker as he approached Seven Arches Bridge.

As this was on a bend, he sounded the whistle, which was normal practice.

Because of the fog, the train was travelling at between eight to 12mph and the driver and his guard were keeping a keen lookout for hazards.

Peering through the fog, the driver noticed the gang of men working on the track ahead of him.

He immediately applied the brakes and threw the engine into reverse.

The driver of the ballast train had earlier warned "now chaps, lookout, for the train is nearly due".

On the track, the ganger observed the approaching train suddenly loom out of the fog when around 50 metres away and shouted a warning.

However, the ballast engine was letting off steam at the time, so neither the whistle of the approaching passenger train nor the shouted warning were heard by all of the gang members.

The passenger train ploughed through the men, killing nine of them instantly. A tenth man received a glancing blow from the train and was knocked unconscious, but recovered without serious injuries.

The driver decided to convey his passengers onwards to Brentwood to avoid any further incident and save them witnessing the carnage.

A coroner's inquest was held at the Railway Hotel, Brentwood, and the jury’s verdict found “that the death of the men was occasioned by accident”.

Eastern Counties Railway was also criticised for not affording adequate protection for the gang.

  • More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford History Facebook group. 

READ MORE: The tragic circumstances of three fatal wartime train crashes