The Bromsgrove rail accident

Author Neville Billington recounts the story of the infamous explosion in November 1840 that saw two railwaymen lose their lives.

Photocaption: An illustration of the Surprise before the fatal explosion, by Robin Barnes.


At 1750hrs on Tuesday 10 November 1840, at Bromsgrove Station, a tragedy occurred that we may, today, regard as symptomatic of the embryonic stage of mechanical engineering in the early 1840s. The accident may also be regarded as a milestone event that led to the foundation of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in January 1847, ‘to give an impulse to inventions likely to be useful to the world’.

The Directors of the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway Company (B&G) received a proposition from one Samuel Aspinall Goddard of Birmingham that a locomotive he had built, designed by American inventor Dr William Church and named Surprise, should undergo a month’s evaluation on the B&G lines. The engine was, by this time, around three years old and had been used on other railway lines, first as a ballast engine and then as a luggage engine before standing in the open for several months in Birmingham. William Creuze, Superintendent for the Locomotives Department, was tasked with examining the locomotive and, along with Joseph Rutherford, a foreman in the engine house, he went to Mr Goddard’s yard and made an initial appraisal following which the locomotive was brought to Bromsgrove by John Henshaw, an employee of Goddard.

The locomotive was given an uneventful seven mile test run and then parked over an ash pit at Bromsgrove Station. Several people were on board, including Joseph Rutherford, Thomas Scaife, a banking engine driver; Thomas Luke, Creuze’s call clerk; Henshaw and others. Suddenly, the boiler of the engine exploded with great violence. Scaife was killed instantly while Rutherford was blown through the brass rails of the footplate, these breaking under the force. Henshaw was blown over the rails and survived, as did all the others except Rutherford, who died some hours later.

Suddenly, the boiler of the engine exploded with great violence. Scaife was killed instantly while Rutherford was blown through the brass rails of the footplate, these breaking under the force.”

A draughtsman with the company, GD Bishopp, was in an office at the station when he heard the explosion and ran outside. At the inquest, on 12 November, Bishopp had the harrowing task of explaining to the court the full horror he had witnessed and especially the gruesome state of Scaife’s remains. (Within a year, Bishopp was working closely with locomotive engineer, James McConnell, and we can assume he told him how appalling the accident had been. McConnell aspired to improve standards in railway engineering and, meeting with renowned ‘Father of the Railways’ George Stephenson and others at Bromsgrove Station in 1846, the idea to found an institution was born).

The coroner was Mr Ralph Docker and his court was convened in Rigby Hall, the home of the Foreman of the Jury, a man named George Ellins. The court later moved to the Dragoon public house where the jury had the macabre task of examining the fragmented remains of Thomas Scaife which, almost unbelievably, had been laid out on a table. The jurors then examined Rutherford’s body in his company cottage. Rutherford had been carried there immediately after the accident where a surgeon, George Horton, administered rum, but it was a forlorn gesture and Rutherford died the same day leaving a wife and three children. Scaife was unmarried. After the visit to Rutherford’s cottage, the jury returned to the Dragoon where the inquest continued. However, perhaps to give a change of environment, given the stressful way in which it had been felt necessary to display Scaife’s remains in the Dragoon, the coroner decided to move his court yet again. The venue this time would be the Cross Hotel in Bromsgrove’s High Street.

The newly restored and erected grave stones in 2014. Image courtesy of Dave Webb.

Although the jury seems to have identified with reasonable accuracy the cause of the explosion, they failed dismally to address a strong contributory factor. They also had good reason to conclude that, perhaps surprisingly, the engine had generally been very well made. The general design of the locomotive was unconventional with the controls being ‘forward’, very similar to the arrangement on another of Church’s inventions, his steam road coach. The boiler consisted of an inner and outer tube with water in between. Dr Church said he ‘thought’ he instructed the boilermaker to construct the walls of the inner tube three eighths of an inch thick (though later declared to the court he should have said ‘a quarter of an inch’). The explosion seems to have been due to intense fire upon the plate of the inner tube which catastrophically failed. The gap between the two tubes was only one and a half inches at the point of failure and the recovered fragments showed they had a wall thickness of only three sixteenths of an inch. This alarming lack of wall thickness was partially attributed to corrosion caused by the engine standing idle in Birmingham for so long.

That was not all, however. There was evidence of sand, assorted washers and other items, including tools, having been left inside the boiler, evidence for the latter arriving in spectacular fashion by a wrench being blown sky-high in the explosion. The presence of sand was discussed. William Creuze was sceptical there would have been any but this contrasted with evidence by John Henshaw. Replying to a question by the coroner, Henshaw is reported by the Worcester Herald to have said that when he picked himself up after the explosion, he was ‘completely smothered in sand as well as water – trousers, coat and even my hair was covered with it’.

Henshaw’s evidence was telling as there is strong evidence that sand, from the local soil, was infiltrating the water supply at Bromsgrove Station, causing particular difficulty with the banking engines. Unfortunately, the jury foreman, Ellins, and the coroner, Mr Docker, seem to have steered the jury away from any conclusion that would have been embarrassing for B&G. The strong possibility of sand in the water system being a contributory factor should have been highlighted in the coroner’s findings but Docker simply returned a verdict of Accidental Death and imposed a deodand of £60 on the locomotive. (A deodand was the term given to an object that had contributed to the death of someone and was believed to share the guilt of the death. The value of the object was forfeit to the Crown and was then applied for charitable purposes.)

The Moment of Explosion, by Mike Kedian, 2013.
John Henshaw and a colleague being thrown clear. The wrench crashed through the station roof.

Meanwhile the grief felt by the families left behind by the two railwaymen had to be borne and much compassion was shown by the local railway community towards Rutherford’s widow and her children. A joint funeral for the two men was held on the Sunday after the accident in St John’s Church in Bromsgrove. The ecclesiastical historian GK Stanton, writing within living memory of the tragedy, tells us the church was packed for the occasion. The service was conducted by the Rev GA Jacob DD, Head Master of the Grammar School who, Stanton assures us, ‘preached a most impressive extempore sermon.’

The widow of Joseph Rutherford, ‘late Engineer to the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway Company’, erected a stone over his grave in 1841. A gravestone revering Scaife was paid for by his fellow workmen and was put in place in 1842. The gravestones underwent a major restoration in 2013 and today, for the people of Bromsgrove and further afield, they provide a memento that is both melancholy and historic. 

The Bromsgrove Society
This article is an extract from one written by Neville Billington for The Bromsgrove Rousler, which is the annual local history magazine published by The Bromsgrove Society. The society has also published a number of books about Bromsgrove, including the Bygone Bromsgrove series and a History of The Bromsgrove Guild, the organisation that made the magnificent Buckingham Palace gates. These and many other books about Bromsgrove and nearby can be obtained by contacting the secretary of the Bromsgrove Society, Mrs Chris Nesbit, on 01527 877277, or mr.nesbitt@which.net. Details about The Bromsgrove Society, including membership and dates of future local history meetings, can be obtained at www.bsoc.co.uk

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