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Victorian Railway Heroes

“Never mind, I stopped my train.”. . . . . . . .

The memorial to two railway heroes in Postman’s Park, City of London. Photo: Mike Peart.

The heroism of two railwaymen, Driver Walter Peart and Fireman Henry Dean, lives on in memorials to this day. On 18th July 1898 there was an accident on the Great Western Railway (GWR) at Acton, about five miles from Paddington, involving the 4.15 p.m. train from Windsor to Paddington. Locomotive number 238, an 0-6-0 tender goods engine built at Swindon in 1867 and rebuilt in 1885, was hauling the train of eleven coaches all of which were fitted with the vacuum brake. This wasn’t the usual engine for the working and Westbourne Park engine shed had substituted it for a failed engine, 2-4-0 number 3250 which had broken down at Trowbridge. Earlier in the day, locomotive 238 had run down to Windsor with a passenger train without any signs of defect. The fated up train ran non-stop from Slough to Paddington and was allowed 32 minutes for the entire 21¼ mile journey.

The train was approaching Acton station at 4.40 p.m. and was running at about 52 mph on the up main line when the right hand inside connecting rod broke and pierced the firebox. The boiler of locomotive 238 was pressed to 140lbs per square inch. Passengers noticed immediately that the front of their train was enveloped in steam. On the footplate, steam and water rushed at great pressure through the open firebox door where Driver Walter Peart and Fireman Henry Dean were standing. Both were immediately badly scalded, but Driver Peart was able to apply the brake to stop the train 858 yards from where the mishap occurred. Steam had been exhausted by this point. There had been no time to shut the regulator or put the engine into reverse gear, and the enquiry found that both men could only have been on the footplate for between 10 and 12 seconds before climbing out or being forced off. There were no injuries to any passengers or damage to any of the coaches. Driver Peart and Fireman Dean were found on the side of the track 12 yards apart from each other. A doctor who had been summoned attended to them and accompanied them while they were taken quickly by a train on the relief line to Paddington for treatment at St Mary’s Hospital. Driver Peart, while conscious, repeated to a platelayer and a Paddington foreman that he had stopped his train. Sadly, both men died of their injuries during the following morning.

A locomotive of the same GWR “Standard Goods” class as number 238.

At the inquest at Marylebone, evidence was given that locomotive 238 had last been overhauled at Swindon Works in October 1897 and had run nearly 26,000 miles since. Since its 1885 rebuild it had run over 329,000 miles. The broken connecting rod was produced in evidence: it was 6ft long, 1½ inches wide and between 3⅛ and 4 inches deep. Despite being made of the “best metal obtainable”, it was found to have been broken in two places. GWR Locomotive Superintendent John Armstrong examined the breaks and noted an internal flaw that may have been caused by dirt entering the metal during the manufacturing process. This would have been difficult to see during normal visual examination. He said that there had only been two such cases of breakage in the preceding 15 years. At both the inquest and the Board of Trade enquiry, Armstrong gave evidence that the locomotive was suitable for this type of service. However, the inquest jury, after long deliberation, delivered a verdict of accidental death, with the rider that the engine was not a fit and proper one to be used to haul an express train.

Driver Walter Peart, age 43, left a wife and five children. Fireman Henry Dean was 25 years old and had recently married. Their dependants were assured that the long-established GWR Provident Society would provide for them. George Goschen, 1st Viscount Goschen, who had previously been Chancellor of the Exchequer and was now the First Lord of the Admiralty, had been a passenger on the train. He was returning from an audience with Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. He was so impressed by the act of heroism and the men’s conspicuous bravery that he raised a subscription for their widows and children.

Driver Walter Peart as pictured in the Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper of 24th July 1898.

Driver Walter Peart was buried in the Grade 1 listed Kensal Green All Souls Cemetery in London W10, coincidentally where Isambard Kingdom Brunel was buried in his family’s vault. The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants paid for Driver Peart’s headstone of Carrara marble with a train carved in relief. The plaque lettering over the grave also records that Fireman Henry Dean was buried in his home town of Dawlish, Devon. The grave is now a listed Grade 2 structure.

Fireman Henry (Harry) Dean pictured in the Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper of 24th July 1898.

For saving their train, the men’s heroism was later marked by a ceramic plaque in the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Postman’s Park in the City of London. The Memorial to mark heroic men and women was originally intended to commemorate Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887 but it took until 1900 to have the memorial shelter erected and the first plaques installed.

This tragedy was the subject of a BBC radio drama “Never Mind, I Stopped My Train” written by Martin Sorrell and broadcast in 1992. Driver Peart was Martin Sorrell’s great grandfather. While I share the family name and GWR family connections, I don’t believe I’m directly related.

Mike Peart

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