Eight people died in a dreadful train crash on the Great Western Railway, at Sonning Cutting, in the early hours of Christmas Eve 1841. Better safety regulations were enforced by legislation in 1844. Here’s the story of the accident.

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In the dark and cold of a winter morning, at 4.30am on the 24th December 1841, labourers returning home from London for Christmas piled onto two third-class carriages at the Paddington terminus. There were just under 40 passengers in total. The journey to Bristol was expected to take 10 or 12 hours.

Carriages
Their carriages were placed between the tender and the station truck, with 17 heavy goods wagons travelling behind. Third class carriages had no coverings at that time and were left open to the weather. This had been poor that year with an excessively wet autumn. The seats in the carriages were 18 inches high, but the sides only two feet tall.

Disaster
The train’s route took it via Twyford, where it arrived around 6.40am. The train was running ten minutes late as it left the station, with Reading the next stop. Was it running fast to make up time? After 2½ miles it came to what was then known as the Sunning-Hill Cutting, cut through clay and gravel, 60 ft deep and more than a mile long.

In the pitch black of the night, at around 6.45am, the train hit an obstacle, later discovered to be a land slip casued by the rain. The engine left the rails but did not overturn. The carriages containing passengers, though, were overrun by the following truck, which was in turn pushed forward by the goods wagons behind.

All the passengers were thrown out, eight were killed and 17 injured.

Reports
The first report, written by Lt Col Frederic Smith, Inspector-General of Railways, on 25th December, suggested that the loss of life may have been less if spring buffers had been attached to the passenger carriages, with a white reflector lamp on the buffer beam.

In Lt Col Smith’s opinion, passengers should not be travelling on any train that carried heavy good wagons.

Action
Within three days, on the 28th December, the Board of Trade wrote to the Great Western Railway Company, recommending that spring buffers should be fitted and the sides and ends of the passenger wagons be raised to at least four feet six inches above the floor.

The Company replied the next day, stating that such improvements had been agreed “some weeks ago” and were already in hand.

I wonder whether such prompt action would result from an accident today?

Read more
See a facsimile of the original report from 25 December 1841 on the Sonning Cutting accident here

Read a report from The Spectator archive here

Find a list of the victims here in the newsletter of the Sonning and Sonning Eye Society

The photograph is of the North Star, one of the first to run on the Great Western Railway

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3 thoughts on “Victorian Life: Train Accident at Sonning Cutting

  1. Thanks, Frances. , LTC Rolt in his book ‘Red for Danger – A History of Railway Accidents and Railway Safety’ has, as you’d expect, a good commentary on the Sonning Cutting disaster. One of his striking points is that it served to galvanise the thinking underlying WE Gladstone’s much-needed Railway Regulation Act. Among other measures, this statute would compel Railway Companies to carry third class passengers ‘at a fare not exceeding a penny a mile in carriages adequately protected from the weather.’ (I quote Rolt’s mini-digest of the relevant Act.)

    Thanks for your useful comment Victoria. I think it’s extraordinary that no one thought the carriages were dangerous in the first place! Incidentally, the third class fare you mention was known as the Parliamentary Train, and had an honourable mention in the Gilbert and Sulllivan patter song in The Mikado. For years I wondered what that was all about!

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