Continuing our series on the capital's forgotten disasters.
Barbican station holds the unenviable distinction as the scene of the tube network's first ever passenger disaster. All but forgotten today, the tragedy would eventually claim the lives of five people.
19 December 1866, shortly after noon. The recently opened railway between Moorgate and Farringdon was operating a normal service. A train pulled out of Aldersgate station (now Barbican), heading west. This section of line was open to the skies, save for a series of huge wrought-iron girders spanning the tracks. These would eventually support part of Smithfield Market, currently under construction above and around the railway.
Workers from main contractor the Thames Ironwork Company had been warned not to raise loads above the site while trains were running. The directive was either ignored or else somebody didn't get the message. As the westbound train pulled away below, workmen grappled to position a 12-metre-long cross-girder using a steam-powered crane.
At the crucial moment, the suspending tackle gave way. The four-ton girder fell just as the trailing carriage of the Metropolitan train passed beneath. It smashed through the roof, utterly destroying the second-class carriage. One lady, 68-year-old Sarah Johnson, was killed immediately, "her skull having been frightfully fractured and her neck broken". Two other passengers in the car (Henry Lukey and Charles Passmore) and the guardsman (Charles Dant) were thrown onto the tracks. They were found still alive beneath the girder, but "crushed by its superincumbent weight... fearfully mutilated". St Bartholomew's Hospital was mercifully close to the site but the three could not be saved.
Press reports of the time go into a peculiar degree of detail. We are informed of the late Mrs Johnson's address (40 Pembroke Road), the bizarre contents of her pockets (a lump of sugar and a corkscrew) and even the denomination of banknotes stashed in a secret purse and amounting to £200.
This first passenger disaster on the London Underground had claimed the lives of four people. Incredibly, the line was up and running again within half an hour. General manager of the Metropolitan Railway, Myles Fenton, was quick to reassure the public that the accident was entirely the fault of the contractors, and that the inconvenience caused "not any interruption to the ordinary train service of the line". His cursory letter to The Times is accompanied by an editorial note observing that "This announcement must be very satisfactory to the survivors and the friends of the deceased".
Following the coroner's inquest, two workmen were indicted of manslaughter through negligence. While awaiting trial, foreman Richard Chaney fell into a "low, nervous state" and was eventually found dead — an indirect fifth casualty of the accident. His surviving co-defendant, John Wilmot, was later found not guilty of the charge.
Notes: quotes and information taken form various contemporary press reports in the British Newspaper Archive, Times Archive and Illustrated London News archive (all subscription services). A freely available account can be found in the official accident report. Note also that this is the first multi-casualty passenger disaster. There had been a number of previous accidents during construction of the early Underground.
Other Forgotten Disasters
- World’s worst roller-coaster accident, in Battersea.
- The Colney Hatch Mental Assylum fire
- The Denmark Street fire
- The great beer flood near Tottenham Court Road
- London’s worst ever disaster
- The Regent’s Park ice skating disaster
- Britain’s worst mid-air collision, over London
- Toxic sewer tragedy in Pimlico
- A map of London’s worst disasters