“Railway mania” - a frenzy of speculation, extraordinary over-optimistic share/bond dealing, over and then consequent under, investment and rapid development in railways took place across the decade of 1837-47. In the present day, social commentators have likened it to the almost manic dot.com boom/bust of the 1990's. This very rapid expansion caused problems sometimes, as we shall see later. Rather like today, when trunk roads and dual carriageways are built across the country and, subsequently, it is realised that these should have been wider, been able to carry more traffic and have better inter-changes, so the railways in Britain were not often well thought out; and certainly were sometimes a “rush job” in a bid to make fast money.
“AN ACCIDENT OF A VERY ALARMING CHARACTER”
The first public (passenger/goods) railways were built in the UK between 1820 and 1850, primarily as very local transport routes by small local rail companies. Each company was responsible for its own line, but they often expected to meet up with other firm's lines to form a local network of lines.
“The Railway Regulation Act” of 1840 gave powers to The Board of
Trade to appoint Railway Inspectors and that same year the Railway
Inspectorate was formed. Additionally the Act said that The Board of
Trade must approve all railway bye-laws, that there must be no
trespass or obstruction of or on the railways, no railway was to be
opened without prior notice to The Board of Trade, 'Returns' were to
be made by all railway companies; and that railway staff were not to
The Select Committee on Railways of 1844, responding to a great deal of concern about over-speculation and enormous and sometimes considerable profiteering, made recommendations that would have allowed the Government to control such activities. Indeed, that early in railway history there was also a suggestion that the Government should own the railways, but this didn’t come to pass until the next century.
In the Banffshire, Aberdeenshire, Morayshire, Inverness-shire and Kincardine-shire area of Scotland the idea of a railway networked service became an attractive possibility and so an application was made in 1844 to build a railway between Inverness and Aberdeen. This application failed, but a more successful proposal was put before Parliament in March the following year.
The Great North of Scotland Railway is born
On 26th June 1846 Parliament gave approval to The Great North of
Scotland Railway being built.
This line would, in the first instance, be expected to run from Aberdeen Waterloo Station across the Grampians to Inverness. However, the sum needed to accomplish this – roughly equal to £90-100 million in today's money - simply couldn't be raised by local 'capitalists' and so the line was built just as far as Keith.
The section of the line, from Keith to Huntly, allowed for small stations at Grange, Cairnie and Rothiemay. The section from Rothiemay crossed the wide River Deveron and a five span stone viaduct was built diagonally to carry the line from near Avochie into Rothiemay Station.The line got as far as Huntly by 1854 and opened on 9th September that year. Progress was then made to build further and in October 1856 it opened to Keith.
As parts of the country saw how rail transport brought about industrial growth and thus improved incomes for industrialists, more and more towns felt that they, too, should be part of the railway boom. And certainly places like Aberdeen did benefit hugely from the railway. But out in the more rural and agricultural areas the use of the railways for personal travel was far less than initially anticipated, however, they were used for transporting goods. Farm goods, such as eggs, went from Rothiemay Station to Edinburgh; and other products like milk and dairy products, fruit and some farm animals travelled to distant towns and cities and other parts of the rural countryside. Goods came in on the trains too; and folk carrying goods too – like fish from Buckie.
Mail and Telegraph use the Line
The postal mail arrived at Rothiemay by train as did newspapers and,
of course, telegrams. The postman for Rothiemay for many years was
Alexander Paul, born in Marnoch, but lived with his wife Christina at
Mannoch Hill. All railway lines had telegraph wires running alongside
them and the line through Rothiemay was no exception. Indeed, in 1862
telegrams were dispatched “instantly, both to Keith and Huntly, for
medical assistance” when a Mr John Moyes, a labourer who had been
working all day at Grange Station on Saturday 16th August 1862,
intended to move on to Rothiemay Station, but got caught in an
on-coming train and tore off his arm. (©Banffshire Journal &
Re-print in ©Dundee Advertiser 21st August 1862). Mr Moyes, who was
boarding with John Milton at Woodside, Rothiemay and was not,
according to the newspaper report, expected to survive the accident,
came from East Calder, Edinburgh. In fact he did survive this awful
incident and died in 1871 in Grange from cancer of the neck.
The base of that first viaduct bridge, over the River Deveron, can still be seen. However, building stone viaducts and laying lines is an expensive business. The line appears to have been under-capitalised; and management had had a poor reputation over the years with much litigation and Parliamentary opposition to the activities of the proposed Highland Railway. All six of the Directors resigned in 1866 and were replaced. Economies were made. Things were slowly turned around so that shareholders were being paid a dividend of 5% in 1875. However, pleasing shareholders can often cause a business problems and that's what seems to have happened here. The line was laid, from Rothiemay Railway Station across the viaduct bridge, as single line only. This error in concept and design caused an accident on Saturday July 17th 1886, but it also caused questions in Parliament about railway safety, signalling and single line operating that, eventually, made railways very much safer across the UK.
The strictest investigation
A newspaper report at the time explains:-
“Railway Collision at Rothiemay – An accident of a very alarming character took place at Rothiemay Railway Station on Saturday last. Being Aberdeen holiday, a special train left Aberdeen at eleven o'clock for Keith. It was timed to cross at Rothiemay Station, the ordinary train leaving Keith at 12.55. Both trains were made to run on the 'up' rails at the Station. The Keith train had just passed the points when the engine driver observed the Aberdeen train approaching. The drivers of both trains appeared to have simultaneously observed that they were to meet. To the power of the Westinghouse brake it is probably due that a very disastrous collision did not occur. The brakes were at once applied, and with such effect that the trains were almost brought to a stand-still before they met. They did, however, collide, and the shock fell most severely upon the Keith train. The buffers of the engine of the Keith train were smashed, and the carriage next to the engine was so injured that it had to be taken off and left at Rothiemay. As may be imagined, very great alarm existed among the passengers. A passenger in the Keith train, a labourer belonging to Huntly, had opened the door and was leaving the train when the collision occurred. He was thrown down upon the platform, and struck by the carriage door. He complained of injury to his side, but afterwards proceeded to Huntly with the train. A number of other passengers were considerably shaken, but none of them apparently had received injury. No damage was done to the Aberdeen train or its occupants. An occurrence of this kind naturally excited a good deal of alarm, and of course the strictest investigation will be made into the whole circumstances.” ©The Banffshire Journal 20th July 1886.
The following year The Aberdeen Journal reported in its 17th February 1887 edition that damages had been awarded, in Aberdeen Sheriff Court against the Great North of Scotland Railway Company, and for Mr William George, plasterer, of Princes Street, Huntly – the gentleman mentioned in the above excerpt.
“The Rothiemay Collision Damages against the Great North of Scotland Railway Company.An action was recently raised in the Aberdeen Sheriff Court at the instance of William George, plasterer, Princes Street, Huntly, against the Great North of Scotland Railway Company, concluding for £50 of damages sustained by the pursuer, who was a passenger on one of the trains in the collision which occurred at Rothiemay Station on 17th July last. The railway company admitted liability, but denied that the pursuer had suffered any injury, and made a tender of £10 in full of all claims. Sheriff Brown has pronounced an interlocutor finding that the pursuer was injured on the occasion in question through the fault of those for whom the defenders are responsible. He finds pursuer entitled to damages, and assesses these at the sum of £30. The pursuer is found also entitled to expenses. In a note his lordship says: - Applying to this case the strictness with which I think all similar claims should be investigated, I remain, not withstanding, of the opinion that the company have not taken a sufficiently liberal view of the compensation they admit to be due to the pursuer. Their offer is obviously based on the assumption that the case is trumped up, and that the pursuer has not passed through any real suffering, or been appreciably incapacitated from work. I feel, myself, however, unable to affirm this conclusion upon the evidence. As is usual in such cases, the witnesses on either side stand at extreme points in estimating the character of the accident, and there must be a general abatement in this matter, but the evidence of the constable,who speaks to the extent of injury to the plant, is instructive, and, indeed, considering how the accident happened, the wonder is that the results were not more serious. The violence of the collision is quite relevantly taken into account, in fact is material to both sides to show antecedently, that the cause of injury favours the view which they respectively present, and in my opinion,the pursuer was injured quite as seriously as might have been expected. It is important, in the first place, to note that his condition at the time of the accident was considered worthy of special attention, even by the servants of the company. He was first seen by Dr Thomson, who admits that there was some shock to the system, and the number of visits paid by him sufficiently indicated that he did not regard the case in quite the trifling light in which it is now represented. No doubt the suggestion soon afterwards arises that the pursuer was making the most of his injuries, but the fact that it was Dr Thomson who gave the first hint of calling in another doctor is more consistent with the view that there was a divergence of opinion between the medical adviser and his patient, and that the latter was honestly dissatisfied with the progress he was making. Dr Thomson admits his “diagnosis” may have been inadequate, and I see nothing in the opinion I think it is quite doubtful upon the evidence whether that result has not followed. It is quite clear, however, that the pursuer's injuries are not of a permanent nature; and upon the whole, he appears to me to be reasonably compensated by the sum at which I have assessed the damages. WA Brown.”©The Aberdeen Journal 17th February 1887.
Questions in the House
This accident was, in effect, the straw that broke the camels back. This railway was not the only, the first or the last to have accidents as a result of single line working and ineffective signalling arrangements. However, for Francis Channing MP, First Baron Channing of Wellingborough, Member for Wellingborough East (Northamptonshire), this accident – among others – gave him the opportunity to bring before the House a Resolution that The Board of Trade, and thus the Railway Inspectorate, be given more powers to police and control bad working practises on railway lines by railway companies.
He said (May 1888) up to June 30th 1887:- “there has been no sensible reduction in the general loss of life and injury”. “Members would read and consider the interesting and admirable Reports of the Inspectors of The Board of Trade on the causes of the accidents on which they held inquiries.” “In the last Return of railway accidents they would find a report of an accident which occurred at Rothiemay, on the Great North of Scotland Railway, which disclosed almost every possible form of evasion and neglect. That railway was returned (made a Return) on the absolute block system, with the use of the train staff, which, of course, would prevent two trains from being on the same section at the same time. But it appeared from the Report that there was no train staff or ticket (token), that the starting signals were not used, that there was no interlocking of points with signals, and that there were no efficient continuous brakes. He might quote the words of Major Marindin, the Inspector who reported on the accident - 'I am afraid it is hopeless to expect that the Company will voluntarily adopt on their single lines the train staff and ticket system of working, admitted by nearly all railway authorities to be the safest way of working a single line and The Board of Trade has,unfortunately, no power to insist upon this mode of working, or an equivalent, except upon new lines where it is invariably required.' Mr Channing went on to say “At any rate, as regards single lines, there was no doubt whatever that the Board had no check on improper ways of working the line unless the Railway Company made a false Return, in which case the Board could prosecute the Company for the false Return.”
©Hansard May 1888.
Line and signalling improvements – but cracks appear
In January 1898 the Company installed a temporary signal box at Avochie. The track was doubled and a new bridge was built to carry the up and down trains that would use it. On 13th July 1899 the Aberdeen Journal commented: -
On 29th April 1900 readers of the same publication were informed that the new bridge had been completed and been inspected on behalf of The Board of Trade by Colonel Yorke. There were various dignitaries, present, the Deputy Chairman of the GNSR – Thomas Adam who'd recently bought the estate of 'Eden' from the Duke of Fife – and the whole was photographed by George Penney, of Duke Street, Huntly.Rothiemay – The new railway bridge over the Deveron at Rothiemay Station is steadily moving on towards completion. There are a lower row of girders and an upper row each side, and the train will run on the upper row, and not as at Craigellachie, Boat o' Brig, or Fochabers, on a level with the lower row. There is, perhaps, 20 feet or more between them, and all the four are stayed, braced, and supported in the most scientific manner. Meantime the whole above the river appears to rest on the service bridge. The new signal box is now up at the station,the fencing put back, and all seems ready for the removal of the old (Rothiemay) station to give place for the new part of the railway, but a serious mishap has occurred. The great wing or retaining wall of the bridge on the down and left side of the water has cracked. Yet so well had it been put together that some of the stones are actually split. This is the most imposing piece of masonry about the bridge. What is noticeable, too, is that it is close to the spot where the old bridge gave way, and had to be bolted, implying to the uninitiated a presumption of softness in the foundation. It is understood the subject is engaging the serious attention of the company's engineers. ©Aberdeen Journal 13th July 1899.
© Copyright Diana C-S
Victorian Cities by JR Kellett
Industry & Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution by E Hobsbawm
GP Landow, Professor of English & Art History, Brown University, USA
Mr K Alderson, Member of the GNSR Association
The Banffshire Journal
The Aberdeen Journal
The Glasgow Herald
The Bristol Mercury
The Dundee Advertiser
The Bury & Norwich Post