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Railway Accident on the Leamington to Kenilworth Line at Leek Wootton

LMS Route: Nuneaton to Leamington

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An overview

The accident at the cross roads near Leek Wootton, which occurred on 11th June 1861, was caused by bridge failure. Robin Leach's book, 'Kenilworth's Railway Age', describes both the circumstances leading up to the accident and the coroners report afterwards. The bridge's frailty could not have been a surprise to the LNWR's management because it was known to vibrate more than others on the line and had become something of a local attraction due to its swaying movement and loud rumbling noise as trains passed over it; it had even been given the name 'Crackley' by local youngsters. Within less than ten years of the bridge being erected in 1844, a major repair had been made in 1853.

The inevitable accident occurred when LNWR Southern Division 0-6-0 No 282, running tender first with a train of empty mineral wagons to Victoria Colliery - later the site of the power station at Longford, passed over the bridge at a speed of between 7 mph to 8 mph up the long incline to Kenilworth. With the full weight of the locomotive (some 30 tons) on it the bridge collapsed, the tender, having just reached the far side, jackknifed as it fell, crushing the crew in the cab. The crew comprised the driver, George Rowley of Brockhall, near Weedon, and the fireman, John Wade of Preston. Both young men were due to be married within two weeks of the accident. The space between the two abutments, about 50 feet, was filled with debris from both the bridge and the train. It took several hours to extract the crew's bodies which were then taken to the nearby Anchor Public House.

Whilst the initial cause was identified as being the failure of one of the transverse cast-iron beams, the coroner's court and the Board of Trade's inspector identified three fundamental reasons for the accident:
a) the bridge when first built had been expected to carry much lighter loads, the Bury type locomotives employed weighed approximately 10 tons
b) the design of the bridge was considered to be poor and not fit for purpose combined with poor cast-iron manufacturing techniques, and
c) the subsequence maintenance and repairs to the bridge were very poor when compared to contemporary railway practice and not just once but on a number of occasions.

Robert Stephenson was the principal engineer and had sketched out the line but a Thomas Wodhouse had been the first engineer of the line. Robert Stephenson's prowess as a bridge builder was acknowledged throughout the country and his bridges across the Menai Straits, Newcastle and Berwick were considered major engineering achievements. However his design at Leek Wootton was to prove not very adequate, albeit this was compounded by poor subsequence maintenance and increased engine weight. There was much criticism of Robert Stephenson's design by several witnesses, with the Chief Civil Engineer of the L&NWR, William Baker making the comment that 'a ten pound note would have put in a new beam'. Its worth however noting that when the line was built, the railway's finances were very parlous with cost savings being sought at every opportunity. A third party might have asked the L&NWR's Engineer if it was so cheap to replace the beam why wasn't it bearing in mind the time and money spent on patching it.

The coroner's court, under the direction of WJ Poole, and the Board of Trade's representative from the railway inspectorate, Captain Tyler previously of the Royal Engineers, heard evidence which clearly showed that whilst other factors contributed to the accident the principal reason was the failure by the L&NWR of not carrying out the necessary remedial work when the problem had been first identified some four years earlier; namely to replace rather than repair the cast-iron transverse beams.

The accident did have other repercussions namely it allowed internal L&NWR politics to be played out. The L&NWR was at the time of the accident divided into different operating divisions. Initially the L&NWR had three divisions which were based upon the three original railway companies which formed the L&NWR in 1846. In 1857 the three divisions became two divisions: the North Division based at Crewe and the Southern Division based at Wolverton. John Ramsbottom was Northern Division Superintendent who began to standardise and modernise the locomotive stock, initially replacing the 2-4-0 goods engines with his 'DX' 0-6-0 locomotives, of which over 900 were built at Crewe from 1858 to 1872.

The first Southern Division Locomotive Superintendent was Edward Bury who had been in charge of the London and Birmingham Railway locomotive department at Wolverton since before that railway opened. He resigned in 1847 and later became General Manager of the Great Northern Railway. His successor at Wolverton was James McConnell who had previously worked for the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway at their Bromsgrove works. Among the classes built under his superintendence were the very successful 2-2-2 "Bloomers", developed from a Bury design, and the Wolverton Express Goods 0-6-0 class, built from 1854 to 1863. The Southern Division's trains were longer and heavier, and 0-6-0 locos had been introduced as early as 1845. It was one of McConnell's locomotives which was involved in the accident.

There were distinct differences between the Southern and Northern Division locomotive policies. Wolverton had been set up in 1838 for repair work only, the locomotives being purchased from outside firms, whereas Crewe, from its foundation in 1843, was a locomotive-building works. Only a dozen locomotives were built at Wolverton from 1845 to the end of 1854, but in the following year construction started in earnest, and another 154 were completed in 1855-1863. The Southern Division engines were bigger, heavier and more expensive than those of the Northern Division, and after a disagreement with the cost-conscious Chairman, Richard Moon, in 1862 McConnell was obliged to resign. The accident at Leek Wootton was used as part of Richard Moon's evidence against McConnell. The Southern and Northern locomotive departments were consequently amalgamated, and John Ramsbottom became Locomotive Superintendent of the entire LNWR, his headquarters remaining at Crewe. Locomotive building and repairing were gradually run down at Wolverton, which became the LNWR's carriage works in 1865.

We have transcribed below the original accident report submitted by Captain Tyler, RE and an article from the LNWR Society's Journal written by Harry Jack and discussing the accident with a potted history of the locomotive.

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Photographs and Drawings

View of accident from Coventry Road looking towards Warwick

A policeman stands guard over the scene of the accident which occured at Leek Wooton on 11th June 1861
Ref: lnwr_oldmil1445
Warwickshire Railways
A policeman stands guard over the scene of the accident which occurred at Leek Wootton on 11th June 1861
Close up showing collapsed bridge with the tender standing vertically above the footplate
Ref: lnwr_oldmil1445a
Warwickshire Railways
Close up showing collapsed bridge with the tender standing vertically above the footplate
Close up showing the Victoria Colliery Coventry name on the three-plank dumb buffered wagons
Ref: lnwr_oldmil1445b
Warwickshire Railways
Close up showing the Victoria Colliery Coventry name on the three-plank dumb buffered wagons
Oblique view of the collapsed bridge as it  is being inspected by the local coroner and other locals
Ref: lnwr_oldmil3052
LNWR Society
Oblique view of the collapsed bridge as it is being inspected by the local coroner and other locals

View of accident from Coventry Road looking towards Ashow

View of the collapsed bridge seen from the other side of the bridge with the tender on the left
Ref: lnwr_oldmil1446
Warwickshire Railways
View of the collapsed bridge seen from the other side of the bridge with the tender on the left
Close up showing the locomotive's tender fitted with axle springs placed beneath the tender running plate
Ref: lnwr_oldmil1446a
Warwickshire Railways
Close up showing the locomotive's tender fitted with axle springs placed beneath the tender running plate
LMS railway photo
Ref: lnwr_oldmil1446b
Warwickshire Railways
Close up showing a single-plank flat wagon with the L&NWR diamond marking lying beneath the wreckage

Sketches used by Captain Tyler to illustrate his Board of Trade report

The main girders, consisting of two timber trusses, were connected together below by five cast-iron transverse girders
Ref: FIG 1
Board of Trade
The main girders, consisting of two timber trusses, were connected together below by five cast-iron girders
One of the cast iron cross-girders was patched, to cover a defect which appeared, below the flange
Ref: FIG 2
Board of Trade
One of the cast iron cross-girders was patched, to cover a defect which appeared, below the flange

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The Board of Trade Accident Report

Railway Department,
Board of Trade,
9th August 1861

I am directed by the Lords of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade to transmit to you to be laid before the Directors of the London and North-Western Railway Company, the enclosed copy of the report made by Captain Tyler, R.E., the officer appointed by their Lordships to inquire into the circumstances connected with the accident which occurred on 11th June from a goods train breaking through a bridge near Wootton.

I am, &c,
E.A. Bowring


The Secretary of the London and North-Western Railway Company

In compliance with the instructions contained in your minute of the 12th June last, I have now the honour to report, for the information of the Lords of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade, the result of my inquiry into the circumstances which attended the accident, that occurred on the 11th of that month, in consequence of the failure of a bridge on the London North-Western Railway between Leamington and Kenilworth.

The 6am mineral train from Kenilworth to Leamington passed over the line in due course on the morning of 11th June 1861, and started empty on its return journey from Leamington at about 7 o'clock, with a six-wheel coupled good engine (such as was usually employed) attached to it, which weighed about 30 tons, independent of the tender. It was travelling at a speed of seven or eight miles per hour, when a bridge at Wootton, half way to Kenilworth, suddenly failed under the weight of this engine.

The bridge was constructed in the year of 1844, to carry the railway over two roads, namely, that of the Stoneleigh to Guys Cliff, and that from Leek Wootton to Hill Wootton; and it covered a span of 50 feet. The main girders, consisting of two timber trusses, were connected together below by five cast-iron transverse girders (See section No 1), and these latter were suspended at their ends on wrought iron bolts attached to the trusses. The rails were carried on longitudinal sleepers, resting on planking which were supported by them.

In the year 1853, the trusses of the main girders were strengthened, some of the timbers were renewed, new rails were placed upon the bridge, and one of the cast iron cross-girders was patched, to cover a defect which appeared, below the flange, and near the middle of it, at the point where the strains upon it in tension were the greatest.

It was spliced, as shown in section No 2 with two angle irons, each 3½ x 3½ x ½", by 3 feet long, and two packing strips, 1" x 2½" by the same length, and was pierced by bolt holes (shown in black in the section), on each side of the flange, and below it; those through the web having been six in number.

The debris of the bridge and the train were left undisturbed, at the request of Mr W Savage Poole, the coroner for Kenilworth, until I visited the scene of the accident the day after it occurred. The main girders were then standing nearly in their places. The cast-iron cross-girders had all broken transversely, at various distances from their centres, and were hanging by their ends from the main trusses, the wrought iron bolts by which they were connected with the upper portion, and attached to the lower portion of the trusses, having in no case given way. The engine, which had been travelling tender first, stood upright upon its wheels in the road nearly in the middle between the trusses, and against the abutment nearer to Kenilworth; while the tender, which had evidently passed off the bridge before the engine fell, was dragged back upon it, and rested on it in an upright position, with its wheels against the face of the abutment.

The six wagons next behind the engine fell in upon it, and lay in a confused mass, with a seventh upon them, filling up the chasm formed between the trusses.

The driver and fireman had unfortunately been crushed to death by the tender, as it fell back upon the engine; but the guard, who was riding in a breakvan (sic) at the tail of the train, and a porter who was with him, do not appear to have been injured: as the remaining wagons of the train, and the van, were brought to a stand against those which fell into the road, without very great violence, when no room was left on the road for more.

Of the five cast-iron girders which had thus failed, and whose failure was obviously the cause of the accident, three exhibited flaws in the sections of fracture. The first, commencing from the Leamington abutment, had a blow-hole in it ¾" x ½", close to the lower end, which had not been visible from the exterior. The third had two similar defects in it, one near the bottom ¾" deep by 1¼" wide, and the other in the fillet 1½" x 3/8". The second showed decided symptoms of a previous crack, which had extended, not only below one of the bolt-holes (indicated in the above section No 2) in the middle web, but also for some little distance above this bolt-hole; and it had evidently been by far the weakest of the girders for some time before the accident. The sides of this crack could not have been seen from the exterior because they were covered by the splicing angle-irons. The bottom of it might have been observed to open during the passage of a train over it; but it was not unlikely to escape observation, which it appears to have done. There can be no reasonable doubt that this second girder was the first to give way under the weight of the goods engine. It must have been previously in a critical condition: and after having been cracked in the manner that I have described it was not extraordinary that the complete fracture should at length take place.

These cross-girders were placed at distances of 8'-4" apart, from centre to centre; and, when the second girder gave way, the additional strain thrown suddenly on the first and third caused them, apparently, to give way also. The fourth and fifth, then, in consequence of the forward motion of the engine, being subjected successively to the greater portion of its weight, must have failed in like manner, until the engine fell, not far from the end of the bridge, into the position in which it was found in the road below.

The breaking weight of these cast-iron transverse girders, when sound, may be estimated to have been about 40 tons in the centre, or 80 tons equally distributed over their length; and the greatest strain produced upon them by the passing of the engine in question, in addition to the stationary load, to have been equal to a weight in the centre of each of about 11 tons, so the factor of safety when the girders were sound would have been between 3 and 4, instead of 6 as is desirable in the case of all cast-iron girders employed in railway bridges.

But the second girder above referred to, was weakened most materially, when it was patched in 1853, by the holes (at the end of the splices) that were made in its flange, and through the lower portion of its middle web; and it was afterwards still further reduced in strength by the crack, connected with the bolt-hole next to the west end of the splices, which was the immediate cause of its failure.

These girders were of a defective form, inasmuch as the flange should have been at the bottom of them, instead of at 4½" from it; but they were constructed at a time when these matters were not so well understood as at present. They were of ample strength for the engines then in use, but they did not afford a sufficient margin of strength for the much heavier engines of the present day. The application of the splice upon the second of them in 1853, was an improper proceeding, as it as likely to lead to its ultimate failure, by weakening it at the bolt-holes near each end of the splice, and by the extra stiffness produced in the part spliced, which would tend to bring increased strains upon the portions near to those at each end of it which were thus weakened.

Instead of splicing that defective girder at that time, it would have been better to have taken out all the five girders, and to have substituted in their places new transverse girders of a better description and more suitable material.

That they should have been allowed to remain, and that this girder should have been so patched, and retained until failure occurred, is too much in accordance with ordinary railway practice, which does not take sufficient account of the increased weight, of the engines of the present day. These engines are permitted daily to run in too many instances over bridges which were never intended to carry more than half their weight; and sufficient attention is not as a general rule paid, upon lines which have been opened for a number of years, to the necessity of strengthening the bridges in proportion to this increased weight of the engines employed, so as to ensure the margin of strength that is desirable to interpose between a reasonable degree of safety and actual failure.

I have &c,
H. W. Tyler,
Capt. R.E.


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LNWR Society Article

By Harry Jack

The two photographs on page 30 of Journal Vol 6 No 2 show the remains of the bridge over Leek Wootton crossroads, about two miles south of Kenilworth. It collapsed on the morning of 11th June 1861 as a 0-6-0 goods engine weighing about 33 tons was passing over, breaking a faulty cast-iron cross girder. This first beam that failed is the second from the left in the upper photograph, hanging down above the engine's splasher. The engine was running tender first, hauling a train of empty coal wagons for the Victoria Colliery at Hawkesbury, some five miles north of Coventry. Leaving Leamington at 6.50am and travelling at about 8mph, the train reached Leek Wootton and the tender had just crossed the bridge when the engine simply dropped sixteen feet to the road beneath, pulling the tender down with it. The footplatemen were trapped under tons of falling coal and pinned against the firebox, where they were burned to death. The engine was LNWR (Southern Division) No 282, one of a class of thirty built by William Fairbairn & Sons of Manchester from 1851 to 1855.

The design, by Locomotive Superintendent James Edward McConnell, was based closely on Beyer's 'Sphynx' type, but with his own added peculiarities. In the case of No 282, delivered in November 1854, these variations included a complex firebox containing three parallel water-filled partitions, which proved very difficult to construct and maintain, and maybe did little to assist combustion, but certainly increased the weight of an already heavy engine. This accident focused attention, once again, on the weight of Southern Division engines. The size and weight of McConnell's engines had often been complained about, but at Board level he had always had the unwavering support of Admiral Moorsom, latterly Chairman of the LNWR. Then, just a fortnight before the accident, Moorsom suddenly died; his successor was Richard Moon, whose attitude was rather different. McConnell's days on the railway were numbered. Three weeks after Leek Wootton the boiler of a 7ft Bloomer exploded on the Irish Mail; then the first of his new H-class, Special Large Bloomer No 375, was found to be heavier than specified. Meanwhile Richard Moon was rigorously investigating McConnell's estimates and producing damning reports. The year 1861 was not a good one for McConnell and in the following February he handed in his resignation.

The Leek Wootton photographs are probably those described as having been shown to the LNWR Permanent Way Committee. They are the earliest-known photographs showing any of this class of engine, but a similar Fairbairn was photographed two years earlier, in like circumstances, having had a bridge collapse under it at Bescot. The engine was Cannock of the South Staffordshire Railway, built in 1858 and later to become LNWR (S Div) No 311. Again, much of the detail is obscured, this time because the engine was half-submerged in a pond. All later photographs show the engines after rebuilding with Crewe boilers in the 1860s. In the Leek Wootton pictures McConnell's brass corniced dome and safety valve trumpet can be partly seen. The chimney seems to have been broken off and buried by the falling wagons, but the extra lock-up safety valve is clearly visible in silhouette in both photographs. Details of the engine's livery are unclear: it was probably green with black bands. No engine number is apparent on either the footplate fender or the boiler side, but it would have been in cast numerals on the segmental brass plate, unreadable here, but visible as a light patch on the coupling-rod arch of the middle splasher. Apart from the missing chimney and a broken buffer plank, the engine doesn't look in bad shape, despite its fall. It survived, latterly as No 1981, until November 1879. The two uniformed and top-hatted men look like police officers guarding the accident site; the other four men may have been members of the rescue party or railway officials.

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