Chapter 3 Research: the Clayton Tunnel

Chapter 3 Research: the Clayton Tunnel

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Chapter 3 – Research: The Clayton Tunnel

The rail disaster – August 25th 1861

“It was because of the peculiar danger and dread of tunnel collisions that some of the first crude installations of block or space interval working by electronic telegraph were provided to safeguard tunnel sections. The first to be protected in this way was the Clayton Tunnel on the London, Bright and South Coast Railway where single needle instruments were installed so early as 1841. But on Sunday 25th, 1861, they failed to avert a most appalling catastrophe, the worst, at that time, which had ever occurred on any British railway.” [4]

On Sunday 25th 1861, three trains fully laden with passengers left Brighton, heading towards London Victoria. The first train was a fortnightly excursion from Portsmouth, and amassed 16 coaches, the second, a Brighton excursion of 17 vehicles, and the third was a regular train of 12 coaches. The trains were supposed to leave Brighton station at ten minute intervals, but somehow, this timing broke down, leading to the inevitable accident which was to follow. Figure 3.1 shows the timing of the trains leaving Brighton that morning.


Train TimeStationmasterActual

Train 1 8.05 8.22 8.28

Train 2 8.15 8.27 8.31

Train 3 8.30 8.36 8.35

Figure 3.1 The train times, advertised, recorded and actual

At each end of the 1.5 mile long tunnel, 24 hours a day, were two signal men. This Sunday morning Henry Killick was at the south end of the tunnel. He was nearing the end of his 24 hour working stretch, needed in order to give him a whole clear day off per week. The signalling was done using signals classed as Whitworth’s Patent Signals which, when a train passed them, automatically via a treadle, set themselves to danger to alert oncoming trains to stop. Connecting the two signal boxes at each end of the tunnel was a single needle telegraph system that could be set to one of three positions by each of the signalmen. The following shows the normal procedure that should have happened.

  • A train approaches the signal at the south end of the tunnel, sees it raised so proceeds on through to the tunnel.
  • As the train passes the signal, the treadle sets the signal down so that other trains know to come to a stop, and not to proceed through into the tunnel.
  • As the train enters the tunnel, the signalman sends a ‘train in tunnel’ signal to the other end.
  • When the train reaches the other end and passes out of the tunnel, the signalman at that end should send a ‘tunnel clear’ signal back to the other end.
  • When he receives this signal back, he manually raises the signal back up to the all- clear position so that all oncoming trains can proceed.

That is the procedure that is meant to happen for normal running of the trains. But, on the fateful morning of August 25th 1861 this procedure broke down because of two fatal factors, the failure of the signal to automatically drop, and the timing of the trains. Below are the steps that occurred leading up to the accident.

  • The first train comes thundering past Killick’s signal box and enters the tunnel.
  • As the train past the signal arm, the treadle failed. The alarm in Killick’s box started ringing, but instead of immediately lowering the signal arm manually, he sent a ‘train in tunnel’ signal to Brown at the other end.
  • As Killick looked back to manually lower the signal arm, he saw the second train thundering closer and closer having already passed the signal which was in the all-clear position.
  • Snatching at his red flag he frantically waved it at the second train just as it too leapt into the tunnel. Both the signalmen disputed what happened next, but at that moment, Henry Killick lowered the signal to prevent any more trains coming through.
  • In the dismay that he felt at not knowing whether there were two trains in the tunnel or not, he sent a ‘tunnel clear?’ signal up to Brown. Brown, either misinterpreting or not seeing this signal sent back a ‘tunnel’ clear signal to Killick as the first train exited the tunnel.
  • Killick, breathing a sigh of relief, interpreted this to mean that both trains were out of the tunnel and everything was all right.
  • Unfortunately, everything wasn’t. Driver Scott of the second train had just glimpsed the red flag as he entered the tunnel, and on seeing that had applied full brake and come to s stop. In his own confusion, he started reversing out of the tunnel to ask Killick what was wrong.
  • Killick on the other hand, took in the red flag and unfurled his white one, indicating to driver Gregory, who had come passed the stop signal and was waiting outside Killicks box ready to go on, that it was OK to enter the tunnel.
  • Just as driver Gregory drove his train into the tunnel, driver Scott was reversing out. The trains met with such force that Scotts train was propelled 50 yards into the tunnel, and Gregorys engine bucked up and hit the tunnel ceiling 24 foot above.

In the fateful crash, 23 people died and 176 were seriously injured.

The Clayton Tunnel

The grandest rail tunnel in England? On correspondence with Judy King, the Clerk of Clayton parish council [8], a lot of very useful information was gained. (See appendix C for a transcription of the email.) The tunnel’s cottage in the middle is actually lived in, and occupied by a Mr B. N. Attewell (Tunnel House, Clayton Hill, Clayton, West Sussex Tel: 01273 845114). Better knowledge of the tunnel was gained by a visit to Pyecombe, near the tunnels northern entrance. Armed with a camera, photos of the tunnel entrance were gained from a variety of angles. (See appendix C).

This is a photo of a train coming out of the tunnel, heading North towards London.

This photo is looking North up the track from behind the cottage in between the two towers.

Another source of information about the train crash and the tunnel was found at the UK Heritage Railways web-site[5]. Also from this site, information about the type of trains that was involved in the accident was gained.

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