Fatal train carrying some of Ireland’s wealthiest people burned ‘as wildly as the fires of Hell’

An artist’s impression of the Irish Mail crash scene near Llanddulas, North Wales

It’s 150 years since 33 people lost their lives when the Irish Mail, carrying some of Ireland’s wealthiest people, crashed into runaway trucks filled with paraffin, writes Robert Hume

Thirty-three passengers were burned to death when the Irish Mail, one of the fastest and most famous trains of the day, smashed into runaway goods trucks along a lonely stretch of coast in North Wales on August 20, 1868.

On board were some of the wealthiest men and women in the country, aristocrats returning to their estates in Ireland via the steamship from Holyhead to Dublin.

The Irish Mail had left London Euston at 7.30am and was in the final hour or so of its six-hour journey when the disaster happened.

At Llanddulas, near Abergele, two brakemen were fly-shunting trucks on the main line right ahead of the passenger train. Two of these trucks carried barrels of paraffin.

Schoolboys George Grundy and Willie Statter, on holiday in north Wales, were having a picnic above the track, watching the Irish Mail climb the hill from Abergele.

Suddenly, they glimpsed “a short luggage train” heading towards the Mail. But a bend in the track obscured the trucks from the express driver’s view until the last minute.

There was a terrific crash.

The locomotive, Prince of Wales, rose up into the air like a horse jumping a fence. For a while it seemed to stand still. Then down it came on top of the trucks, smashing them to pieces and throwing them about like a sea monster spitting out rocks. Burning oil gushed from the trucks and unleashed a column of black smoke, which spiralled up into the hills.

As carriage after carriage caught light, George Grundy described “a faint whiff of roast dinners in the air”.

Dozens of labourers from nearby limestone quarries formed a human chain, passing buckets of water from the sea, but it was all to no avail. The fire, wrote a priest from Birmingham, blazed “as wildly as the fires of hell”.

A tangled mass of iron bars and bolts littered the scene; bodies were so horribly charred that identification became almost impossible: Most register entries read simply ‘female/male person unknown’. Some bodies had to be pieced together.

There were no injured passengers. It was either complete escape, or death. Nothing of this magnitude had ever happened on the railways of Britain and Ireland.

Many passengers were identified only by their possessions, placed in wooden fish crates by the line. They provided a poignant reminder of a divided society. Some clearly belonged to a privileged class: A gold watch, a pair of opera glasses, bottles of smelling salts, expensive jewels — diamonds, rubies, opals and emeralds — sparkling in the sunshine. Beside them lay the possessions of those who served them: A blue hairpin, a crochet needle, an ink bottle.

The bodies of rich and poor came to be buried side-by-side in a trench in the churchyard at St Michael’s Abergele, with no regard to where they came from or who they were; aristocrats next to their servants. It was totally unprecedented. They included Lord and Lady Farnham; Judge Walter Berwick from the Bankruptcy Court in Dublin, returning from a continental tour; and William Henry Owen, organist at St Bartholomew’s Church, Dublin.

The fates of several passengers had been determined when they boarded the train at Chester. Emerging onto the platform through a connecting archway from the Queen Hotel, their decision to turn right or left was to have huge significance within the next hour. If they turned right and took their seat in one of the rear carriages, they would survive with, at most, a few bruises, but if they turned left to one of the first three carriages behind the locomotive they were destined for a horrific death.

By a particularly ironic twist, one of those who died, William B Parkinson, a Blackburn tradesman travelling to the Lakes of Killarney, had bribed the driver of his train to Liverpool to go at full speed so he would be in time to catch the connection with the ill-fated Irish Mail at Chester.

Among the survivors were the Duchess of Abercorn, wife of the newly appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and their six children, going to their Tyrone estate. Lord Castlerosse and his family were also spared. The Cork Examiner (August 28, 1868) reported on a service in Kenmare church, offering thanks for their “miraculous escape”.

What caused this tragedy?

In the wake of the “Manchester Outrages” and the Clerkenwell explosion of 1867, many contemporaries immediately suspected sabotage, a “terrorist attack”. There was talk that the London & North Western Railway was riddled with Fenian signalmen and station workers, determined to kill some of the most influential Anglo-Irish aristocrats in one fell swoop, but the coroner preferred explanations involving human error and negligence.

The brakemen should not have been shunting trucks on the main line when an express passenger train was due. Instead of supervising the brakemen, the stationmaster at Llanddulas was eating lunch. The London & North Western Railway had not issued the brakemen with up-to-date books of rules and regulations, nor provided them with watches, so they were unaware the Irish Mail was due. Instead of providing a special train, as the law demanded, the railway company had saved money by transporting barrels of paraffin on an ordinary goods train. The Flint Oil Company claimed carrying paraffin was no more dangerous than carrying Irish whiskey.

The London & North Western Railway was found negligent and was ordered to provide £4,000 compensation and pay the funeral expenses.

No new measures were introduced as a result of the crash. Existing rules about shunting and carrying paraffin were simply restated.

A fateful journey for Farnhams and their staff 

A statue in Cavan town of Lord Farnham, who was burned to death along with his wife

Henry and Anna Maxwell (Lord and Lady Farnham), were returning to Ireland with their four servants, after a holiday at Buxton Spa, Derbyshire. Farnham, 69, who was lame and walked with two sticks, was Conservative MP for Co Cavan, and was affectionately regarded by his tenants.

At 11.30am on August 20, they boarded the train at Chester. The station inspector helped them into a first class carriage towards the front of the train, and wished them a “pleasant journey”.

His brother identified Henry’s crested gold watch with white face and black Roman numerals: It had stopped at 12.52 and 23 seconds.

A scrap of unburned silk dress indicated that another corpse was Lady Farnham. Loose diamonds from her magnificent necklace — worth nearly €750,000 in today’s money — were found scattered along the track.

Nearby, a stout body enveloped in crinoline wires was that of her ladyship’s companion, Elizabeth Strafford. Beside it was found her gold plate for false teeth, a crochet needle and an inkbottle.

It was his meerschaum pipe and bible that helped identify valet Edward Outen. Maid, Mary Anne Kellett, and footman, Charles Buckingham, were found clinging to each other, reported the North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser, “as if in the moment of the collision they had rushed into each other’s arms”.

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