Boiler Explosion at Ashcombe

3rd October 1859

Involving Brighton Enginemen 

Driver James Jones and his Fireman John Oliver.

& Driver, Charles Redding and his Fireman Henry Temple

The explosion of No.108, locomotive goods engine of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, which occurred upon the Falmer incline near Lewes on the evening of Monday 3rd October, 1859. The engine, with six wheels coupled, and weighing 25 tons, was received from Messrs. Longridge in June, 1848. For the last two years it had been housed at Eastbourne for duty as a ballasting engine upon the eastern branches of the L.B.&S.C.R., and its principal employment had been upon the  Falmer incline taking chalk from a spot upon the incline to some new works beyond Lewes, and returning with loads of ballast for the permanent way.

About a month before the explosion the engine had a tire loose, and had to be sent to the Brighton shops.

The goos traffic at that time is said to have been particularly heavy after the hop season, and the engine, when repair, instead of being returned to Eastbourne, was retained temporarily at Brighton to assist in the goods traffic to and from Brighton upon the eastern branches.

A new driver, James Jones, of experience upon other railways was put to the engine, and it had been at work about a week with goods traffic, when it exploded, whilst brining a heavy goods train up Falmer incline.

This incline rises 1 in 88 for a distance of 4 miles from Lewes towards Brighton and from its summit level there is a further distance of about 4 miles to Brighton with a falling gradient.

It has been the practice, especially on Monday when the goods trains from Lewes are generally heavy, to send to the Brighton yard engine to Lewes t oasis the goods trains up Falmer incline.

The Brighton yard engine was in attendance at Lewes. Engine No. 108 was taking the pick-up goods train from Newhaven to Brighton, and after shunting about Lewes station for about 3/4 of an hour it started up the incline with the goods train, was a very heavy one, consisting of 46 trucks, which left the station shortly after 9.0 p.m., drawn by R. B. Longridge & Co. Goods loco.' No. 108, and worked by driver James Jones and his fireman John Oliver. The train was propelled at the hind most extremity by another 'R. B. Longridge & Co. Goods loco.'  Engine No. 50, worked by driver, Charles Redding and his fireman Henry Temple, this was owing to the steepness of the incline from Southover to Falmer, necessitating this description of aid. 

On arriving at that part of the line situated some few yards beyond the first mile stone near Ashcombe, the leading engine No. 108 began to labour badly and slipped with the safety valves blowing off. The driver closed the regulator to ease the slipping and within seconds the crown blew off the firebox, and the ash-pan and fire-bars disappeared into the countryside. Driver James Jones, and his fireman John Oliver, were both thrown with terrific force to a considerable distance, with driver James Jones falling some 30 yards to the front, upon the line, and fireman John Oliver, being discovered 83 yards away on the right hand or north bank; the engine being driven forward, and finally whelming over across the up line, the tender falling in a transverse direction across the up line. A luggage trucked filled with pockets of hops, was next to tender, but owing to the propulsion of the train by the hind engine, No. 50, a cattle truck containing two cows was driven with such violence that it was forced completely over the hop truck and upon the top of the engine. The noise of the explosion was clearly heard at Lewes, and windows in Ashcombe House were rattled and cracked by the concussion.

Driver Charles Redding, on the hind engine, when hearing the explosion had shut off his steam, and was thrown on to the top of his engine, and his fireman on to the break wheel. After they had made their engine safe, they made their way towards the exploded engine were they found fireman John Oliver lying on the metals of the down road. They picked him up in our arms and put him beside the bank; they asked him if he was hurt and he said he did not think he was much, but complained of being cold. When John Oliver complained of being cold we took of our coats and wrapped round him. They then proceeded nearer to the engine and found driver lying on the metals of the up line on the left hand side of the engine. They asked him if he was hurt, and he said he thought his leg was broken. 

The force must have been terrific, there are unfortunately but too many proofs, both on the persons and in the clothes of the unfortunate sufferers. The coat of fireman John Oliver, was found during the night rent to tatters, little else than the collar and part of the sleeves remaining together. One of his waistcoat pockets had been blown away, and was found by Police Superintendent Jenner, on the bank, at some distance from where the sufferer first fell. In his was a pocket book containing the name of “John George Golightly,” As also a memorandum, singularly enough referring to some spot “140 yards from where the man was killed” – doubtless in allusion to some former railway accident.

News of the accident reached the residents of Lewes about 10.0 p.m., causing great excitement was occasioned in Lewes by the report that a steam boiler explosion had occurred. The catastrophe occurred near the site where Ashcombe Turnpike Gate formerly stood, and thither numbers of persons quickly bent their steps, only to find that the rumour was unfortunately but too true.

Assistance was immediately sent for; brandy was obtained from Mr Ingram of Ashcombe, who promptly repaired to the spot, and information of the catastrophe was despatched to the station at Lewes by the means of the hindmost engine. No time was lost in telegraphing to Brighton for aid; while Mr. Turner and his son, surgeons of Lewes, were at once summoned. But a very short time elapsed ere Mr. Brooks, the Lewes Station Master, accompanied Messrs. Turner, and by such force as could be got together proceeded to the scene of the disaster, in a carriage drawn by the hind engine No. 50. The first object was to render assistance to the unfortunate sufferers. On examination it appeared that the driver James Jones had received severe injury and contusions, but not to the extent suffered by the fireman John Oliver, whose legs were said to be broken, and one thigh smashed in the most terrible manner. 

By about 10.0 p.m., a train had arrived from Brighton conveying Mr. Craven, Chief of the Locomotive Department, Mr Saddler, his Chief Assistant, and a numerous staff of men. On their arrival it was decided to place the wounded men in a railway carriage, and conveyed to Brighton station and thence to the County Hospital. At first some hopes were entertained that life might be spared, but it was regretted to say that the injuries sustained by John Oliver were so extensive that he died shortly after his admission to the hospital.

Engine driver, James Jones, had only been as few weeks in the service of the South Coast Railway; having come to them from the Oxford were had been engine driver for 19 years on the Wolverhampton line, John Oliver had also not been long in their employed, but was an extremely careful and steady man, and attentive to his duties. He was well known in Brighton, where he has brothers, who are builders, and who, it is said, were with the poor sufferer in his final moments. 

The driver James Jones made a full recovery and ended his days with the company as an inspector.

Fortunately the injury to life and person was confined to the two poor fellows above named. There were two guards to the goods train, riding in the guard-van at its end, and neither these nor the engine driver Charles Redding nor  fireman Henry Temple of the hind engine appear to sustained any injury , although distinctly feeling the shock caused by the sudden check given to the train.

So soon as the train containing the unfortunate sufferers had been despatched, immediate steps were taken by Mr. Craven to clear the line. While the removal of the wrecked was going forward, crowds of person had assembled on the bank on the south side of the line, and these, with the numbers of workmen and others on the railway itself, were brought into prominent relief by the glare of the torches and fires, lighted for the purpose of enabling Mr. Craven and his staff to execute their arduous task. The first thing attempted was to extricate the cattle imprisoned in the truck mounted aloft on the top of the engine. Sledge hammers and saws were quickly in requisition, and in a very short time one side of the truck was cut away, and to the astonishment of all, the two cows dropped out quietly on terra fireman, and the fence being cut through. Walked coolly into the adjoining meadow, where they apparently unhurt, immediately began to graze! These animals having been rescued from their perilous position, and the cattle truck, being found to be damaged beyond repair. it was forthwith knocked to pieces, with the double object of disentangling it from the engine, and of affording fuel for the beacon fires, which it became necessary to make, it in order to enable the workmen to prosecute their labours. 

At about 11.30 p.m., a further train, bearing a fresh relay of workmen, with ropes, chains tackling, and appliances of every description, arrived from Brighton. Thus reinforced, Mr. Craven was enabled to make rapid progress with removal of the debris, and the mode in which the chaos which prevailed was gradually reduced to order seemed a marvel to those who, on beholding the extent to which the line was blockaded, would have been disposed to pronounce a clearance impossible within the next 24 hours. One by one, however, the trucks were disengaged, placed upon the rails, and removed, until at last only the engine and the tender remained to be dealt with. These, however, required the application of great power to effect their removal, as both had been thrown over on their sides. 

By five o’clock in the morning the down line was entirely clear; all the debris of every description had been removed, and the rails and permanent way restored to something like order. The engine however, at that hour still remained off the metals, blocking the up line.

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