Let’s take time to remember

Historians David Leask and Rona Leask at the site of the disaster
Historians David Leask and Rona Leask at the site of the disaster
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It was described at the time as one of Scotland’s most appalling rail disasters, but today there is no physical evidence of it ever taking place.

The catastrophe close to the old Manuel Station near Whitecross killed 17 people and seriously injured many others on a dim grey January morning in 1874.

Now David Leask (62), chairman of Maddiston and Rumford Local History Group, wants to see a lasting milestone placed at the scene of the crash.

He said: “Unlike many other accidents on the railway system there is nothing to remind the passer-by of this devastating incident.

“This could be rectified if local communities work together and consult with the public to mark the disaster.

“Something of this scale should be remembered and the story must remain for future generations – a marker at the scene would be a very fitting way to do that.”

A report in The Falkirk Herald on January 29, 1874 described the crash in truly horrific detail.

It said: “So violent was the collision that not only were the waggons greatly damaged, but more than half of the strong bridge was carried away. The tender, which was running before the engine, was lifted up in front of the locomotive as if it had been on hinges, and that had the effect of enclosing the poor driver in a position where he was burned to death.

“...most of the passengers in the third-class vehicle met with almost immediate death and the others mortally survived only to suffer the most agonising pain.”

Survivors were still being treated at the crash site the following day as they were too fragile to move elsewhere for treatment.

Lydia Wilson, described as a “lady of about 30 years”, from Cromarty, suffered fractures to both legs and had to have them amputated. The operation was performed by two doctors in a cottage.

She was later said by Doctors Gilmour and Macfarlane of Polmont to be in such a condition “as to admit no hope of recovery”, and was judged to be “sinking fast”.

Another woman, Margaret Main, travelling from Edinburgh to Dundee, was injured in her lungs and suffered ruptured blood vessels. She was kept at the Bo’ness Junction in a “dangerous” condition.

There were also heart-rending eye witness accounts at the time.

Among the dead was a mother, Catherine Hogg or Phemister, her two-year-old son John and five-year-old daughter Margaret, who pleaded to be saved before perishing.

One account said: “A little girl, whose name is among the killed, immediately after the accident occurred, clung closely to a gentleman who was in the same compartment, crying ‘Save me, save me’. The gentleman was himself seriously injured and unable to render her assistance; her voice was however stilled in death.”

Survivor David Young said: “Some of the unfortunate travellers were lodged in the most painful positions. The body of one man was jammed between the wheels of a carriage and a truck which was lying immediately below it.

“Another man had been pitched right on to the engine, and his body was lying close to the furnace, the hair on his head being completely burned off the scalp, while the hot steam was plating about his body.

“At one time four men, one woman and a child were all lying on the line quite dead.”

The accident occurred due to the coal train being shunted on the line at the same time the express passenger train was passing through.

During a lengthy court case it was argued that the accident was down to either human error or a points failure, but testimony from traffic controller William Cummings stressed that the danger signals were there before the passenger train, which had six varied carriages, ploughed into the 11-carriage coal train bound with goods to be loaded on a ship at Grangemouth Docks.

Mr Leask him-self believes the lines were managed sloppily at the time of the accident.

The signalman, engine driver and the guard on duty that fateful day were cleared of culpable homicide at Stirling Circuit Court a year later, when following a 20-minute deliberation, nine not guilty and six not proven verdicts were returned.

A report at the time said: “Had they in the end been sent to prison as convicted criminals there would have been a pretty general and well-grounded impression that they had been made scapegoats to atone for a fault occurring in much higher quarters.

“We cannot indeed blame these men nearly so much as the monstrously dangerous system upon which they were obliged to work.”

Mr Leask added: “I am just testing the water to see what interest there is, but this is something I would like all the surrounding communities to get involved in.

“There is funding available from the likes of the lottery for this type of project.”

To get involved in the campaign contact Mr Leask on (01324) 715634.