The Great Thorpe Rail Disaster 1874 by Phyllida Scrivens

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Published in September 2021, this book from publishers Pen & Sword documents the lives of those who were killed, injured or otherwise directly affected by the rail disaster just outside Norwich in 1874.

Written by Phyllida Scrivens, this hardcover book measures approximately 24.2cm x 16.4cm, has 216 pages of text and a 16-page section of contemporary and modern black and white illustrations. It has a published price of £19.99 although Pen & Sword is currently offering it at £13.99, and at the time of writing it can be obtained from Amazon for around £15.

There are 13 chapters titled: The Opening of the Yarmouth and Norwich Railway; thirty years later; Collision course; Impact; The next days; Norfolk and Norwich Hospital; The doctors; The last four victims; investigations, chamber of commerce investigation and manslaughter trial; Spring 1875 Indemnity Case; Hero,; survivors; and Consequences or lessons learned.

The accident happened on Thursday, September 10, 1874, and resulted in the death of 25 people. The trains left Norwich and Great Yarmouth that evening and met abreast at Thorpe St Andrew, two miles east of Norwich.

Much of the book is taken up with lots of details about the passengers caught up in the crash, or later events when people had to come to terms with how their lives changed forever.

Although the book explains in detail exactly how the collision happened and its aftermath, it focuses more on the people involved rather than the accident itself. Because the author chose to feature footage of the people involved in the disaster, the details of the events leading up to the collision and its aftermath are rather lost among human interest stories.

Chapter 3 is titled “Collision Course” and I expected to read a description of the path to the collision. The chapter is 40 pages long, and only in the last two pages is there a hint of an impending collision, the previous 38 are filled with pen shots of train passengers.

There is a description of the actual impact in Chapter 4, “Impact”, but as in Chapter 3, there are only two pages dedicated to the accident while the rest of the chapter is more about the people who were affected by the accident.

The book shows that behind the dry story of a disaster are real people, devastated families, mothers with fatherless children, parents with lost children and businesses that have lost their owners, resulting in unemployed workers with no income.

Perhaps the most important result of the crash was the adoption of the Tyler Tablet System, which protected trains on single-track lines for the next 120 years.

The pages below are representative of the 16-page illustrations section. The lower left illustration shows a typical compartment, although the furnishings appear to indicate that it is a first class compartment. The lower right illustration shows the insane asylum that was near the crash site.

Credit: Rail Advent.

Although the right-hand page below depicts the accident with line drawings rather than photographs, the illustrations paint vivid pictures of the aftermath of the accident.

Great Thorpe rail disaster 8-9
Credit: Rail Advent.

The lower left photo below shows a typical method of recovering derailed rolling stock in the 1870s, although given the horrific stacking it wouldn’t have been as simple as the one pictured here. On the right page are examples of the types of locomotives involved in the accident.

Great Thorpe rail disaster 10-11
Credit: Rail Advent.

In summary, this is a well-written and easily readable account of human interest stories that the accident reports themselves do not tell.

If you are looking for an account of the lives of those who were killed, injured or otherwise directly affected by the Thorpe rail disaster of 1874, this book is for you. If you are interested in the circumstances leading up to the accident and what happened before the trains collided and after, then although the details are in the book they are lost in the dozens of stories of human interest.

A good book if you are a fan of local history and railways, what you don’t get with this book is a lucid account of why and how the disaster happened and what the investigation of the Board of Trade found.

The book is available for purchase from Amazon and Pen & Sword.

We would like to thank Pen & Sword for providing RailAdvent with a copy of the book for review.

The article

The Great Thorpe Rail Disaster 1874 – Heroes, Victims, Survivors

ADVANTAGES

  • Well-written pen photos of the people affected by the accident.
  • The author obviously did a lot of research.
  • Highlights the dangers of single-track railway lines.

THE INCONVENIENTS

  • Lack of clear description of the disaster.
  • Too many pen portraits of the passengers involved in the crash.

Breakdown of reviews

  • Presentation/Layout
  • Technical informations
  • Value for money
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