27th SEPTEMBER 1879


Involving New Cross Engine Driver 

William Rookwood 

and his Fireman Wheatley


On Saturday afternoon, 27th September, 1879, a shocking accident at Lewes Railway Station, on the arrival of the 2.5 p.m. train from Hastings to London (running some ten minutes behind schedule). The train was hauled by a Craven Standard Passenger Engine, No. 174 (2-4-0), and was formed of a six wheeled brake van, six assorted carriages and a second brake van, which carried a full load of passengers. At Lewes, Fireman Wheatley took water from the platform column, while Driver William Rookwood went round the engine with his oil can, and as soon as the latter had regained the footplate, the guard gave the right away. Driver Rookwood released the brakes, and on opening the regulator, the engine slowly moved forward for about ten feet and then the firebox exploded with a tremendous crash, showering the station platforms and train with vast quantities of steam, soot, boiling water, coal and ballast. The engine was lifted off the rails by the explosion, partly slewed round and flung against the platform, while the tender was also derailed, but the train was completely undamaged apart from having some paint work slightly burnt by the red hot debris. The ground for fifty yards round was strewn by charred pieces of wood and small black coal.

Driver William Rookwood, was blown a considerable height, and fell dead on the top of the second carriage from the engine, Fireman Wheatley was thrown on to the opposite platform apparently in a lifeless condition, while Fraser, the guard, who was just entering his brake, was thrown on to the platform with great violence. The noise of the explosion immediately attracted hundreds of persons to the scene of the accident, and every, assistance was promptly rendered. The unfortunate Driver Rookwood had sustained the most frightful injuries, his skull being fractured and both legs broken. Fireman Wheatley and Guard Fraser were at once conveyed to Lewes Infirmary. As may be imagined, the explosion caused the greatest excitement and alarm to the passengers, but they were prevailed on by the officials to keep their seats; and after a delay of half an hour, another engine was procured, and the train taken to its destination, the traffic being carried on by the down line. The body of the Driver Rookwood in the meanwhile had been taken to one of the waiting rooms and singular to state, his watch was found to be still going. A passenger, who was travelling third class, and found he could not proceed to London by this train, had gone on to the bridge over the station, and saw the unfortunate man hurled into the air, and, after describing several  somersaults, alight on top of the carriage next the guard's van  subsequently removed to New Cross for interment. On an examination of the wounds received by the Fireman Wheatley, it was found that he had several very serious scalp wounds, and was shockingly bruised and scalded about the legs and arms, so much so that he was thought to be in a very precarious condition. The guard was also seriously scalded and cut but happily neither of the man had any bones broken and although the shock to the system was very great, under the careful treatment of the medical gentleman assisted by Dr. Sanger, the resident medical officer, and Mrs Webb, the matron, they are making satisfactory progress.

In addition to the above, Inspector Hayden and one or two others received some injury. Inspector Hayden, who was standing close to the guard at the time of the explosion, was blown down the platform and rolled off into the siding. The appearances he presented when assisted to his feet was a truly pliable one, for not only was he bruised and cut about, but he was literally blackened from head to foot, while a porter named Skinner and a lad a lad employed in the refreshment rooms were similarly disfigured. The platform too, was completely covered with grit and coal dust and the grass in a small field adjoining the station was blackened in a like manner. Immediately after the accident, Mr. Moore Station Master, telegraphed to Brighton, and the breakdown gang, under the charge of Mr. Woodhead, District Superintendent, were quickly on the spot with their tool van, and they managed to get the damaged engine, tender, and guard's van on to the rails, off which they had been bodily lifted, in three hours’ time, and at six o'clock the up line was clear.

The wreckage was examined by Stroudley at 5.30 p.m., when he discovered the left hand side of the firebox ruptured between the 2nd and 3rd rows of stays, the smokebox door lying on the platform, the tube and back plates ripped up, the fire-door lying in the tender, which had lost most of its coal, and the ash-pan and fire-bar bearers blown off. The spring balance safety valves had been tampered with and reset to blow off at below 140 lb. per sq. in., instead of 120 lb., while in addition a hard wad of cotton waste had been tightly wedged beneath the right hand balance. At the time of the explosion the steam pressure gauge recorded 132 lb. which on test at Brighton Works was found to be reading 8 lb. low, thus indicating that the firebox ruptured at about 140 lbThe friends of Driver Rookwood, who had been married about three months, arrived at Lewes on Monday, and were permitted to see the body. The sufferers in Lewes Infirmary, were also visited by their relatives and on enquiry had everything the report as to their condition was favourable, although they were suffering much from the scalding.

Mr. A.T. Otway, M.P. for Rochester, one of the Directors of the Railway Company, with Mr. Stroudley, Locomotive Superintendent, and Mr. Moore, the Station Master, Lewes, also paid a visit to the sufferers at the infirmary, on Monday afternoon, and expressed themselves as highly satisfied with the arrangements made for the comfort of the poor fellows. Both Fireman Wheatley and Guard Fraser recovered from their injuries and later returned to duty.

On Monday morning the remains of Driver Rookwood were placed in a shell, and 

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