MEMORY LANE: Tragedy on Buxton’s railways as steam locomotive explosion claims two lives

Buxton Advertiser archive, the 1921 railway explosion, the tubes burst from the boiler casing which landed some distance from the loco's position.
Buxton Advertiser archive, the 1921 railway explosion, the tubes burst from the boiler casing which landed some distance from the loco's position.

In the early hours of Armistice Day 1921, just the third such day since the guns of the Western Front had fallen silent, all Buxton was shaken by an enormous explosion.

The blast was so powerful that it must have brought back terrible memories for the returned soldiers who were preparing to mark the anniversary of the war’s end.

Buxton Advertiser archive, the 1921 railway explosion, the boiler casing and tubes where they landed some disatance from the locomotive's wheels

Buxton Advertiser archive, the 1921 railway explosion, the boiler casing and tubes where they landed some disatance from the locomotive's wheels

A London and North Western Railway (LNWR) steam locomotive had exploded with unbelievable force just outside Buxton’s station.

The loco, no. 134, was ripped apart with such power that the unfortunate train crew were found in a wood 450 yards away.

Driver William Holme and fireman Walter Fletcher, both from Oldham, were killed instantly and massive pieces of metal debris rained down across the town, the furthest landing half a mile away.

An inquest opened a week later heard some rather grisly evidence detailing the horrendous injuries and burns suffered by the two men.

Buxton Advertiser archive, the 1921 railway explosion, almost all of the engine above the wheels has disapeared in this view of the wreck

Buxton Advertiser archive, the 1921 railway explosion, almost all of the engine above the wheels has disapeared in this view of the wreck

The fireman was found naked apart from half a boot and the details of the driver’s dismemberment are too graphic for us to repeat in these more squeamish times.

The 12.50am freight train was starting its journey from the sidings below Brown Edge Road and the guard John Hannah told the inquest that he had been stood beside the engine giving the driver permission to start just seconds before the explosion.

Turning towards his guard’s van he had only gone a few steps when the explosion occurred and that was all he could remember.

It seems his miraculous survival was due to his being so close that the blast passed over him.

Afterwards with Sgt. McDowell of Buxton police he had searched for an hour in the dark to find the bodies of his two colleagues.

When earlier in the week the loco’s pressure gauge had shown a dangerously high boiler pressure of 300lbs, the gauge had been blamed for giving a faulty reading.

A fitter at the LNWR’s Buxton engine sheds replaced the gauge only hours before the explosion.

Unfortunately as was later proved at the Board of Trade enquiry the gauge was in fact accurate and the boiler’s safety valves were stuck shut.

This allowed the pressure in the boiler to increase until it reached the point at which it exploded with a force hard to imagine.

The boiler, firebox, cab and almost every other part of the locomotive above the wheels were completely destroyed.

Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras the power of steam engines had increased enormously but the ability of engineers to safely control that power had perhaps not kept pace.

The lessons learnt from this incident though meant that although in later years there were other fatal boiler accidents on the railways there was never again such a massively destructive explosion.