Today’s episode is a bit of a bummer, because today we’ll be discussing our first ever disaster here on the show. That’s right, Willy, a lot of people are going to die, and a lot more are going to be physically and mentally traumatized for the rest of their lives. The question, really, is: Can a purer form of comedy be found?
The event we will be talking about today is the Charfield Railway Disaster, which is something I had never heard of until I started researching it, but which is apparently still a big deal in England where it took place. And while, yes, we are definitely going to have plenty of laughs along the way today, this is a sad story because there is a lot of carnage that just didn't need to happen. There was no malicious intent that caused this to happen, just negligence and human error. It kind of reminds me of the Hillsborough disaster. Did you see that 30 for 30, Willy? Man, nothing sucked the life out of me more than that documentary. The Hillsborough disaster took place at a soccer game where too many fans were allowed into the game, they got trapped and trampled, and 96 people died and hundreds more were injured. Again, there was no malice here. Just a lot of people who wanted to go to a soccer game, and some well-intentioned but sorely mistaken crowd control people who wanted to expedite the process of getting them into the game. Death for no reason. Oh, that's a good band name.
Now that's enough of the philosophizing, so plug in your record player and put in your vinyl copy of Lin Manuel Miranda’s “MyHISTORY Theme” because today we’re taking it back in time, all the way to October 13, 1928. We’re in the tiny little village of Charfield, Gloucestershire, England. The time is 4:28 am. It’s a somewhat foggy night, but all is calm and sleepy...for now. However, little do these provincial little villagers all tucked asleep in their beds know, something horrific is about to happen.
There’s a train approaching the village of Charfield at a rate of 60 miles per hour. It’s a night mail train operated by the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway, and it’s traveling from Leeds to Bristol. On board the night mail train, the fifty-some passengers are nearly all asleep.
Meanwhile, at Charfield, a 51-wagon goods train was shunting onto a side track to make room for the more important night mail train. Because of this, Henry Button, who was the signalman at Charfield, flashed a red signal to the night mail train, which should have stopped the night mail train until the goods train was clear of the tracks. However, perhaps because of the patchy fog or perhaps because of sleepy eyes or mere negligence, the driver of the night mail train, a man named Henry Aldington, and his fireman Frank Want read the red signal as green and continued to barrel their way toward Charfield.
At the Charfield station, when it became clear that the night mail train had misread the signal, the driver of the goods train tried desperately to move his train off the line. Similarly, when Aldington saw that the goods train was still on the line, he tried to slam on the brakes. Unfortunately, neither driver’s efforts were enough, and the night mail train collided into the goods train. If the night mail train had been just ten seconds later, it would have passed by the goods train safely, and Charfield, Gloucestershire, England would have remained an insignificant little village. However, luck and history can be cruel puppeteers.
The goods train was driven off the line and slammed into another goods train. The mail train partially derailed, sending several carriages and the engine off the track while the rest of the train wedged together with the goods train. The impact of the crash was so great that a passenger on the night mail train named James Gaston was thrown through the roof of his compartment. He was found by villagers a few minutes later. He was seriously injured and died later in the hospital.
Now, the collision was bad enough. However, the night mail train was an older train that was still lit by gas instead of by electricity--which at that time was becoming the norm for train lights. There were gas cylinders hung beneath the front coaches, and these ignited on impact, causing the crash to explode into flames. To make things worse, the gas pipes fractured and were set ablaze by ashes from the firebox, which caused the fire to rage even further.
Within twenty minutes, the flames were twenty feet to forty feet high and could be seen from miles away. Villagers from Charfield, railwaymen, and escaped passengers worked frantically to free those passengers who were still trapped in the wreckage. Some of these passengers had limbs that were trapped, and they desperately begged rescuers to saw off their limbs to save them from the raging fire. The nearby Railway Tavern was turned into a first-aid station where more than thirty people were treated for minor injuries, while eleven seriously injured people were rushed to the Bristol Hospital about twenty miles away.
It took five hours for the fire engines from Gloucester, Bristol, and Stroud to get the flames under control, and when this task was completed, the far grimmer task of recovering the bodies began. When all was said and done, sixteen people died in this disaster. Some reports say there were fifteen, but we’re going to go with sixteen to make the episode more sensational to our morbid, death-obsessed listeners.
Relatives of the deceased traveled to Charfield--a village whose name became a wonderfully savage pun--in order to identify their loved ones. Some of the bodies were so badly burned that they could only be identified by belongings that had survived the blaze, such as rings, watches, cigarette cases, or distinctive articles of clothing. Many family members agreed on a mass grave that was paid for by the railway station. A memorial for victims of the crash is still in Charfield to this day.
Now, Aldington, the driver of the night mail train, was blamed for the crash, since he had driven past a red light and crashed into the goods train. It was confirmed by the signalman’s records that the signal had definitely been red for danger, and Aldington claimed that the evening was foggy, which made it difficult for him to see the correct color of the light.
At an inquest into the crash, a jury found that the signalman at Charfield was not at fault in the crash, and that his signals and apparatus were in good working order. Instead, they turned the blame on the negligence of Aldington for passing through a red signal. The Coroner interpreted the guilty verdict as manslaughter, but Aldington would later be discharged without consequence.
Now, Willy, you and our listeners might be saying, “This is all well and good, who doesn’t love a good disaster where many people die and many more people are traumatized, but where is the mystery? This is MysteriYES after all! Where’s my mystery?” Well, you’re just going to have to hold your horses, because...what’s that? There’s something coming hurtling toward us at 60 miles per hour and it didn’t see the red light signal! It’s going to crash into us! What is it? Oh no! It’s an ad read! RUUUUN!
So, there are actually a couple of intriguing mysteries that came about as a result of the deadly Charfield railway disaster, starting with two charred bodies that were never identified. The bodies were of two children, whose bodies were so badly burnt that their sexes couldn’t be identified, although based on witness statements, they are believed to be a boy and girl, perhaps brother and sister. One report I read said that they were found huddled in each other’s arms in a third-class carriage, but I only saw that once. Some reports say that parts of a school uniform were found bearing the phrase “Luce Magistra,” which is the motto of Queen Ethelburga’s school near York, but the school has always denied any connection to the children. The report also said that a brand new pair of boys’ shoes was found, as well as part of a sock embroidered with the initials CSSS.
One witness reported that he saw two children on the train before the crash, and said that they were both well-dressed. Another witness stated that the boy looked ten and the girl looked a little younger. The train’s ticket collector stated that he had seen a boy about age twelve and a girl about age six or eight together on the train. A fireman reported that he had seen a boy and a girl talking to a guard at a stop in Birmingham, however the guard died in the crash so he wasn’t able to provide any additional information. Consistent among all of the witness statements was the report that they were never seen with an adult who seemed to be in charge of them.
The problem, though, is that no one knew who the children were, and no one ever came forward to claim them, despite the nationwide coverage of the disaster. No missing children who might fit the description of the children found in the wreckage were reported to the police that we know of either. For all intents and purposes, no one knew who these children were, so they were buried in the mass grave with a memorial that simply read “two unknown.” We’ll talk a little bit more about theories regarding who these children are here in a little bit, but first, let’s get a little bit spooky.
Starting in 1929, a year after the crash, a woman dressed in a big, long, flowing black robe began to regularly visit the grave marked for the “two unknown” children who died in the crash. She was described as frail and elderly-looking and always dressed in black. She would arrive at the memorial by limousine a few times a year, put flowers on the grave, weep, and pray. Many speculated that she knew something about the crash that no one else did, and may have even known who the dead children were. However, one day either in the late 50s or 60s, the media tried to approach the woman, but she fled in her limousine and never visited the memorial again.
So, who were the two children who died in the crash? Well, first, let’s not assume that they’re children, or even human, or even existed. There is a theory that the two bodies were not actually the bodies of children, but actually the bodies of two very small adult horse jockeys, which is an adorable thought, but it then begs the question, who are these two tiny grown-ups?
Another theory is that these bodies were not the bodies of humans at all, but rather those of ventriloquist dummies. What’s the evidence for this? Well, there isn’t any. This is just a suggestion that some people expressed to local newspapers. Now, Willy, if I'm ever found dead, I want you to forcefully and consistently,deny that my corpse is human and that I am just a 6’3” ventriloquist dummy.
Then of course there’s the fake news theory, that the bodies of the two children were just a hoax created by the local media to make the accident appear even more tragic, which, you know, that’s cool. Whatever. That just makes me think of the idiots who think Sandy Hook was a hoax and I don't feel like getting angry right now.
In 1937, a young woman from London claimed that the bodies were those of her two young brothers, but for some unknown reason this claim was never followed up on, and there’s some question whether the claim actually even happened. I don’t really buy this theory, because she claims that both bodies were boys’ bodies, even though all the witness statements say that it was a boy and a girl on the train.
There’s also the theory that the children were living in England for their education, while their parents lived elsewhere in the British Empire, such as India. This, apparently, was a pretty common practice during this time, because, you know, who needs parents anyway? My problem with this theory is that someone, whether parent or guardian or school provider or nanny, would have like had to have given permission for them to get on that train in the first place, and should have come forward when they found out that the train had crashed and the children were not counted among the survivors. We can chalk this up to “a different time”, I guess, but come on. If you've got kids and you think they might have been incinerated in a horrendous railway fire, you should follow up on that.
The final theory is that these children were orphans who had no family to claim them. However, if they were orphans, how did they afford a train ticket? Where were they going? Where were they living before they got on the train? Perhaps they were put on the train by an ambivalent family member who hoped to never see them again, and didn’t really care that they died in the fire.
So, Willy, what do you think? Who were these children? Why weren’t they ever claimed? And who was the lady who came to visit their graves? Did she know them? Was she a family member? If so, why didn't she publicly,name them?
I tend to think that they were orphans, or perhaps at least indigent children whose family didn't have the means to claim them or provide them a proper burial. Or maybe, as awful as this sounds, their family was somewhat relieved that they had died in the crash because there were fewer mouths to feed. I don't really know. I'm also not convinced that the woman in black knew the children. Part of me wonders if she was a survivor of the crash who had survivor’s guilt, and she went to honor those who had died, particularly two unknown children.
I have just one little spooky postscript to tack on here before we wrap up today. Locals have said that in the intervening years since the disaster, there have been strange sightings of ghost children standing hand-in-hand and staring down at the railroad tracks. Legend has it that they are the children who died in the crash, and they are just waiting to be identified so that they can finally sleep the sleep of death in peace.