Angels and Errors: How the Harrow & Wealdstone Disaster Helped Shape Modern Britain

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Today is the 60th Anniversary of the Harrow & Wealdstone Disaster. In remembrance of the tragedy that occured that day, below you will find the article about the disaster that first appeared on this website last year.

Newsreel Footage of the Disaster

The Night Train South

When the Perth to Euston Express pulled into Crewe on the 8th October 1952 in the early hours of the morning it was already 13 minutes late, largely thanks to heavy fog on the journey south. Taking over the train at Crewe were Driver R.S Jones and Fireman C. Turnock, relief drivers attached to the Crewe North shed. Experienced men both, they likely realised that the rest of the journey would probably be no easier.

Indeed by the time they’d managed to attach City of Glasgow, the LMS Coronation Class 4-6-2 tender engine which would take them south, they had already lost another 16 minutes, and watched enviously as the non-stopping Glasgow to Euston Express flashed past on the platform opposite.

Neither Jones nor Turnock were particularly fazed by the weather though, their train’s Guard would later report. At 43, Jones was widely regarded by his colleagues as a careful and conscientious driver. A man who spent most of his time focused on either the job or his family, he had been in service on the railways in some form or other since 1927 when he’d started as a Cleaner. He’d spent time as a Fireman before passing out as a Driver in 1948 (with high marks) and knew most of the routes out of Crewe like the back of his hand. This included the fast run down to Euston, which he’d carried out almost 30 times before without incident.

Despite only being 23, Fireman Turnock was equally experienced. He had joined the railways as a Bar Boy in 1943 and become a Cleaner the following year. He’d been a Fireman since 1945 (appointed at the humble age of 16) and was regarded by most of his seniors as a man well on the way to being a Driver himself. Like Jones, he was generally regarded as a conscientious railwayman who took his job seriously, and had fired London expresses more than 30 times before.

So as the Perth to Euston express pulled out of Crewe and headed out into the pre-dawn light, there was no indication that these two men were about to play a major role in the worst peacetime railway disaster the UK had ever seen.

The Daily Grind

Meanwhile down south, Signalman Armitage was just coming on shift at Harrow No. 1 signal box, just to the north of Harrow & Wealdstone station. Armitage had started out as a Signalman with the London, Midland & Scottish before his career had been interrupted by the war. He’d volunteered for the army upon the outbreak of hostilities and seen service in Military Transportation both at home and abroad. He returned to civilian life with a great deal of experience, and had been serving as a District Signal Reliefman for the Watford Area ever since. By all accounts another competent and able figure, Armitage had the morning shift that day at Harrow No. 1. From here he would be responsible for all the lines in and around the station, of which there were three pairs – slow, fast and electric.

The fog was still lying low across the ground as Armitage took charge, and so he immediately confirmed to central control that – as per standard procedure – he’d be operating under tighter rules with regards to signalling. Broadly speaking this meant taking a more cautious approach to traffic working and allowing greater headways between services, in case conditions meant a driver missed a warning light or signal. By dawn, however, the fog had begun to clear and only a few drifting wisps remained. Overall it looked set to be a bright and sunny day. By 8.10 he could see well beyond the marker-points the signallers used to determine whether fog-working was required or not, and so he informed the relevant parties that Harrow No. 1 would be switching back to normal working.

Slightly before this, at 07.31, the Tring to Euston local passenger service pulled out of Tring station and began its journey into town. It was always a popular service due to its timing, but it had been even busier than usual in recent weeks, as the previous timetabled service had been cancelled due to signalling works. As a result, it wasn’t long before the Tring was running slightly late due to the need to dwell at stations longer to pick up the extra passengers.

Finally, at Euston itself, the Manchester express was preparing to depart. It was to be double-headed by 45637 Windward Islands, an LMS Jubilee Class and 46202 Princess Anne, an LMS Princess Royal Class. Due to leave at 08.00 it too would ultimately depart slightly late, although its drivers would have hoped to quickly make that time up.

A Normal Days Work

So as the clock ticked past 08.00, all three services were running slightly late – although as expected the Manchester Express was soon making up time. Indeed as the crew on the Euston-bound Perth service had expected, they’d actually lost even more time after leaving Crewe thanks to the fog. Luckily, as the fog had started to clear, they’d begun to make this back up, and by the time they reached Watford they found they had virtually caught up with the Glasgow service that had overtaken them at Crewe station (and which itself was now running a few minutes late as well).

As the Glasgow service slowed to a relatively sedate 15mph in order to pass through the Watford Tunnel, Jones and Turnock found themselves being held at a red signal in order to prevent the two services getting too close together. Whilst the Perth service waited, the Glasgow train cleared the tunnel and swiftly accelerated back up to approximately 50mph and continued south.

A few minutes later at Harrow No. 1, Armitage received the call from Hatch End, the next box up the line, to say that the Glasgow train was inbound. He accepted control of it into his sector. Looking south down at the fast platform through which the train would pass, he noted that it was busier than usual, thanks to both the earlier service cancellation and the fact that the Tring stopper was late. Armitage telephoned Station Foreman Fosket to ask him to warn the passengers to stand back as a fast train was approaching.

There was plenty of time to do this, Armitage knew, because after entering his control the Glasgow train had to pass through three sets of signals – the “Distant,” the “Outer Home” and the “Inner Home.” Even at speed, this would take a couple of minutes.

Fosket dutifully passed on the warning, and the passengers stood back as the Glasgow train flew past.

At approximately 8.14am, just as the Glasgow service was blasting through Harrow & Wealdstone, Armitage was asked to accept the local Tring service into his control as well. It was at Harrow & Wealdstone that this service left the slow line and joined the “fast” for its final journey into Euston itself. The Glasgow service had been lucky that the Tring service was running late, as the practice was then (as is still often the case now) to give locals priority over expresses if both were running late. If this meant a late express train crawling into its ultimate destination behind an all-stopper, the theory went, then so be it – as getting regular commuters to work had to be the priority. If the Tring service had been on time, then the Glasgow service would have been held and would have had to crawl into Euston behind it.

Indeed this seemed set to be the fate of the express from Perth, for Armitage had barely accepted the slow train and given it the green signal to advance into the station when, at 08.17, he was asked by Hatch End whether he was ready to receive Jones and Turnock into his care as well. Armitage no doubt dwelt for a second on the lack of luck the Crewe men seemed to have – if they’d been a few minutes earlier he could have let them follow the Glasgow service through with the stopper following on behind. As it was, however, he’d already set the points to allow the Tring train onto the fast line and into the station and it was already crossing them.

This didn’t stop him accepting the Perth service though, nor should it have done. Armitage knew that, like the Glasgow service, it would have to pass through three signals before it reached the station.

The first of these, the bright light known as Distant, he set to yellow for “Caution.” Like the Glasgow service before it, the express from Perth would be coming in fast at 50 or 60mph, and this caution signal would tell Jones to slow down in expectation of a red signal ahead.

Jones would then see that red signal on the Semaphore arm of Outer Home and know he needed to stop, giving the local service time to clear the platform. If, somehow, Jones missed the caution at Distant, then the red at Outer Home would still give him time to hit the brakes before he reached the red at Inner Home. Essentially, it was all perfectly safe and standard operating practice – as long as Jones didn’t somehow manage to miss both the Distant and Outer signals nothing bad would happen, and even then only if he didn’t recognise from his surroundings that he’d done so and shed any speed would there be any real trouble.

Unknown to Armitage though, Jones was about to do exactly that.

Missed Signals

No-one was ever able to establish why Jones and Turnock failed to stop. The Distant signal was working and well located, as was the Outer Home. This was checked after the accident by the investigators, and was confirmed by the driver of the Glasgow train who, it will be remembered, had passed through only minutes before. Even if they hadn’t seen the signals, both men had worked the line before and should reasonably have expected them. Certainly, Turnock as Fireman was badly placed to see the signals but like his Driver he’d been working the route long enough and was conscientious enough to normally spot that they’d probably skipped a signal.

Ultimately the accident report tentatively concluded that somehow Jones had missed the Distant, either through a sudden wisp of the remaining fog or possibly the remains of the smoke from a passing freight train. Then – still looking for the Distant (which was deliberately positioned at Driver eye level) – he somehow missed the Outer Home, which being a traditional semaphore-style signal was higher up, as well.

Unaware of the disaster that was about to unfold, Armitage had meanwhile returned his attention to the slow service, which had pulled into the platform. At 08.17 he’d also accepted the Manchester Express from Euston heading in the other direction, which would pass through shortly on the adjacent fast “down” line (lines heading away from London are always regarded as “down,” regardless of geography).

A minute or so later though at about 08.18, to Armitage’s utter horror, the Perth train came storming through the mist about 600 yards to his left, flying through Outer Home at close to 60mph.

Armitage’s experience and training kicked in and he dived for signal lever 40, which set detonators on the track in a last desperate attempt to warn the Euston-bound express it had overrun. Whether because of this or because he had suddenly seen the signal box looming out of the mist and realised his mistake, Jones finally slammed on the brakes.

It was too late.

Realising a disaster was about to unfold, Armitage instinctively lunged for the lever that would signal the outbound Manchester express that was also now rapidly approaching the station to stop. Just as he flipped its signal to red, however, the buzzer sounded indicating that it had already passed it.

At just before 08.19 the 11 car, 364 ton express from Perth slammed into the rear of the stationary 9 car, 332 ton Tring stopper (carrying more than 800 passengers) at over 50mph.

The force of the impact shattered and telescoped the last three carriage of the stopper into a length of a single carriage, jumping the whole train forward by about 20 yards. The carriages of the stopper service were then flung to the left as the Perth train continued to plough under it, landing on the adjacent down line.

Seconds later, With no time to brake and moving at about 60mph itself (as a result, tragically, of its successful efforts to make up time), the Manchester express slammed with full force into the wrecked stopper. The Manchester’s dual engines left the track and ploughed into the station platforms. Momentum carried its carriages forward up and over the existing wreckage, crushing them between that and the station’s heavy footbridge overhead.

As the dust began to settle on Harrow & Wealdstone station, over 90 people were already dead. More would die in the coming hours and days, with the final toll being 112 dead and 340 injured. It was the greatest railway disaster since 1915.

The Need For Change

In railway terms, the accident at Harrow & Wealdstone marked the end of resistance to the systemwide installation of Automatic Warning Systems (AWS) on Britain’s railways. AWS worked by giving some kind of automatic feedback to the Driver in the Engine when he passed a signal at caution or danger, regardless of whether he had seen it or not. It was not a new idea – the Great Western Railway had used AWS since about 1905 and the Pringle Committee had recommended that similar systems be adopted by all Britain’s railway companies. Since then, however, uptake had been virtually non-existent. Attempts to establish a standardised AWS approach across all the players had become bogged down in committees and trials, and the cost of implementation was also a barrier to take up – especially after the War.

Indeed in many circles there was a tacit, unspoken belief that it wasn’t really worth it – that as long as you had experienced, cautious drivers and signallers who followed the rules and the equipment was up to scratch major accidents and disasters could be avoided. Major accidents (such as the 1915 accident at Quintinshil) were the result of failures of men and machines, the argument went, something that AWS would not necessarily address.

The disaster at Harrow & Wealdstone blew that argument out of the water. The subsequent investigation, helped by the fact that so many railwaymen were on site during and after the accident, had a wealth of evidence that clearly established that Armitage had behaved completely appropriately in the signal box and could not have done more to stop the disaster. Indeed Mr. S. Williams, a Signal and Telecommunications Engineer with the LMR had been travelling in the Tring service and ran straight for Harrow No. 1 box as soon as he climbed out of the wreckage to make sure that all the lines in and out of the station had been secured. He discovered that Armitage had indeed done so even as the disaster was unfolding, and was able to confirm that all the gear was locked in the appropriate places that would back up Armitage’s later account of how events had unfolded.

The equipment couldn’t be faulted either – all the signals were working and clearly visible both before and after the crash. Jones and Turnock were also capable and experienced men. Although both died in the accident, post-mortems showed no signs that they had been incapacitated in the cab prior to the accident (indeed Jones was still gripping the brake lever when he was found), and neither had ever shown a failure to give 100% attention to their duties before.

The simple fact was that the human element wasn’t always enough – you needed automatic aids as well. From the moment the Harrow & Wealdstone happened country-wide AWS became inevitable.

Saving Lives in the Aftermath

This story, however, doesn’t just end with the crash itself – nor with the railways. For the rescue and response to the Harrow & Wealdstone disaster in the immediate aftermath would have effects on British emergency response services that endure to this day.

Within minutes of the disaster, the rescue effort had begun in earnest. The stopper was a popular train with railway workers commuting to Euston (indeed a significant proportion of the final death toll were Euston men and women) and those that were unhurt began to pour out of the train and take control of the situation. The wreakage was a mess of broken and crushed carriages, all wedged on top of each other, with wounded and dead trapped inside.

The emergency services soon began to arrive from the surrounding areas to find passengers, railwaymen and locals already trying to help survivors. It soon became clear that the scale of the disaster was greater than anyone had imagined, and soon help was being called for from a wider and wider area.

Overall, control of the site was fragmented – with railwaymen, councilmen, police and firemen all trying their best to work together without really knowing who was officially in charge or should be doing what. Harrow & Wealdstone would prove to be one of the spurs to the establishment of Civil Disaster Plans by Britain’s local councils and their regular testing.

The Special Relationship

The disaster also marked a landmark moment for the fledgling NHS – partly due to a simple piece of chance.

Several men of the US Airforce had been on one of the trains. They were part of the 494th Medical Group which had just taken up station at the newly built and equipped USAF Hospital Station in South Ruslip, and they immediately threw themselves into the process of helping survivors. As the scale of the disaster began to become clear, they quickly approached the Police on site and asked permission to ring back to the USAF Hospital and call for more help. The Police swiftly agreed and, one phone call to their senior commanders later, the 494th were on full alert and ready to receive wounded.

More importantly, the 494th immediately dispatched an emergency response team to the site – 7 doctors and 1 nurse under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Weideman, USAF.

It’s tricky to know what went through the Colonel’s mind when he first arrived on site in mid-morning. The rescue effort by this point was well under way, but it was still a haphazard affair. Ambulances had began to pour in from various hospitals to the site within a few minutes of the disaster, and had been immediately loaded up with any wounded and dispatched on their way. The Colonel must have quickly realised, as had a number of senior medical and emergency service figures on site, that this had been a costly error. Ambulances that had departed with the lightly injured “walking wounded” who had been first out of the wreckage had yet to return to the site, and cars and even removal vans (according to the subsequent NHS Report into the disaster) were now frantically being commandeered to take the seriously injured away.

All around, more wounded were being pulled from the wreckage to add to those already on the station’s remaining platforms, adding to the confusion there.

Colonel Weideman and his team were well versed in the fledging art of combat medicine, something that had begun to emerge from the shadow of WW2. They swiftly realised that right now the situation at Harrow & Wealdstone bore more of a resemblance to the battlefield than a routine accident and their own training now came into play.

The American Medical team swiftly established a triage station on Platforms 5 and 6. Not knowing what to expect at the scene of the disaster, Weideman’s team had wisely elected to throw everything they could think of into the ambulance they had travelled down from South Ruislip with, rather than heading out with nothing. As they found themselves slapping IVs on and carry out plasma transfusions on the station concourse, this decision paid dividends.

There, on the platform, the 7 American doctors – helped by various British Doctors who had been nearby at the time (including some from RAF Fighter Command) – treated the most seriously wounded before they were taken to hospital. It was an act that saved many lives.

The Angel of Platform Six

In order to allow the doctors to focus on care, Nursing Lieutenant Abbie Sweetwine – the sole nurse that had accompanied the American team – focused on triage. Calmly and carefully, she managed the triage process on the platforms, identifying the most seriously injured and marking them out for attention. She also handed out cigarettes, tea and comfort to the shocked and lightly wounded. For many who found themselves on the platform that day, Sweetwine would be the face of hope and help – the “Angel of Platform 6” as she soon became known.

Sweetwine was also responsible for the seemingly simple (in hindsight) act for which all of the receiving hospitals would be most grateful – using a tube of lipstick she had on her person, she began marking patients.

Those that had already been treated had an “X” marked onto their forehead, those that had been given morphine were given an “M.” Through this system (which she passed on to the ambulancemen so they knew what the marks meant) Lieutenant Sweetwine gave to the receiving hospitals something incredibly precious – information. Hospitals receiving victims that had passed through the hands of the unit from the 494 were quickly able to build up a basic idea of their treatment so far, helping to prevent overdoses of drugs like morphine and giving them a headstart in identifying and treating the most critically injured.

None of the concepts put into practice by Colonel Weideman, Lieutenant Sweetwine and the USAF medical team were entirely new. Triage and indeed the concept of the “Golden Hour” in which it was vital to treat patients, even if that meant doing so on-site, dated back to WW1 and before. Harrow & Wealdstone, however, represented the first time that these concepts, baptized in the fire and horrors of WW2, were publicly used in full force in a civilian setting – well before they became more familiar to both the public and healthcare industry at large after their refinement in the Korean War.

The NHS Takes Note

It was a lesson not lost on the NHS and Britain’s emergency services. Just as the disaster marked the point at which AWS was rendered inevitable for the railway industry in the UK, it also marked the point at which the British medical establishment acknowledged that focusing solely on getting the victim to hospital as quickly as possible wasn’t the answer. The life-saving work of the American medical team on that October day served as clear and demonstrable proof that ambulances shouldn’t just be about “scoop and run” – there was a time and a need for “stay and play” as well and ambulancemen needed to be combat medics just as much as they needed to be drivers.

In essence, Harrow & Wealdstone was crucial to the invention of the modern Paramedic.

When Jones and Turnock took over the Perth – Euston express on that fateful day, they could little have suspected that they were about to be involved in a railway disaster almost unparalleled in British history. One that would not only carry a tragically high death toll but which would also, in various ways, shape the future of both the railways and British healthcare.

Proving the Dream

The story of the Harrow & Wealdstone disaster, however, is still not quite done.

Take a look again at the newsreal footage at the top of this article showing the aftermath of the disaster – specifically the section about a minute in where the medical team from the USAF appear. Clearly visible in that clip, standing at the back, is Nursing Lieutenant Sweetwine.

Abbie Sweetwine was black.

It’s something that barely registers now, but back in 1952 Lieutenant Sweetwine was very much an exception – one of the few African-American women serving in the USAF and possibly the only one in the 494th. When we look at the campaign against racial discrimination in both the UK and USA, it easy to focus on the headline events and figures. In doing so we forget that discrimination is often overcome through the quiet acts of bravery as it is through the loud ones.

Lieutenant Sweetwine thus played both an important primary role on that 8th October and, accidentally, an important secondary one as well. For through the simple but very visible act of carrying out her duty, and through saving lives at Harrow & Wealdstone, the Lieutenant put another tiny crack in the ridiculous notion that somehow her ethnicity made her less capable at her job than others.

As “the Angel of Platform Six” (a title bestowed on her by the Daily Mirror) Sweetwine enjoyed a brief period of minor fame, and if you dig deep enough today you can find mention of her in the archives of various newspapers and magazines of the time. In all cases – whether it’s coverage in a Hertfordshire local of her picking up an award from the people of Croxley Green for her actions, or answering questions for a small piece in Life Magazine – Sweetwine comes across as a smart, humble individual who firmly believed she was just doing her job.

In its own way, and for many people, that was just as important and inspiring a message as any civil rights speech.

Written by John Bull