27th SEPTEMBER 1879


Involving New Cross Engine Driver 

William Rookwood 

and his Fireman John Wheatley

Extracted and adapted from the Board of Trade report 

by  F. H. RICH, Colonel, R.E


The bursting of the boiler of No. 174 locomotive engine of the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway Company, that occurred on the 27th September at Lewes station. No passengers were injured, but the driver of the engine was blown into the air, and fell dead on the roof of the leading passenger carriage of the train, to which tho engine was attached. The fireman was blown on to the platform at the opposite side of the railway, and the guard, who was standing close to his van, which was next to the engine tender, was driven along the platform, and fell on to the rails behind the leading break-van. Both these men were severely injured, and are still in tbe infirmary, but they are recovering.

No. 174 engine, which is a tender engine, was attached to the passenger train, which was timed to leave Hastings at 2.5 p.m. It left that station about six minutes late, and arrived at Lewes eight minutes late, owing to detentions caused by the luggage.

The train consisted of an engine and tender, a break-van with luggage, in which the injured guard had been travelling, six passenger coaches, and another break-van with a second guard at the tail of the train. It stopped about six minutes at Lewes station, with the tender opposite to the water column, which is at the London end of the up line platform. The fireman was engaged filling the tender with water, and he and the driver, who had been engaged oiling his engine, had just returned on to the footplate, when they received the signal from the guard, who was standing on the platform close by, to start the train. The train left accordingly, and when the engine had moved about 10 feet, it blew up with a great noise, amidst a volume of steam and smoke and a shower of coal and ballast.

The explosion lifted the engine off the rails. It was partly slewed round and pushed against the up line platform, which was injured.

The tender was also lifted off the rails, but no part of the passenger train was injured except one pane of glass in the front break-van. The engine was considerably damaged, the tender was also damaged, and the permanent-way was slightly damaged.

The evidence is as follows : -

Frederick George Moore said : - I am station-master at Lewes station. On the 27th of September the up 2.5 p.m. train arrived at Lcwes station at 3.4 p.m. It is due to arrive at 3.1 p.m., and to leave at 3.5 p.m. There were six coaches and two vans attached, including a break in front and one in the rear, with a guard in each. The train started at about 3.14 p.m., and it had gone about. ten feet from where it had been standing when the engine blew up. I was about four carriage lengths from the engine, moving towards it at the time. I had crossed over from the down platform, and inquired of the guard what was delaying the train. He told me there was a quantity of luggage from the Ashford line. The engine blew up with a tremendous rumbling noise, and there was an immense volume of smoke and steam, and a great deal of ballast and coal was thrown about. There was only one report. As soon as I recovered front the shock I walked towards the engine, and I met the guard, who was being led by someone. I had not perceived him before the explosion took place. The guard was all black, and complained of feeling cold at the back of his body. I gave him some brandy and sent him off to the infirmary, where he is still under treatment. On coming back I met the fireman, who was being led down the opposite platform by some people, and I told them to take him off to the infirmary also. I then went to look after the driver, and saw that the locomotive carriage inspector had found him on the top of the second vehicle from the engine; he was then dead. I had spoken to the driver on the down journey. I have known him as a steady man for some years. I have never noticed the spring balances jammed by cotton waste, and did not know that it was the practice with any of the drivers. No passengers were hurt, and no damage was done to the coaching stock except the cracking of a window in the front brake next the engine. I do not think that the train was driven back by the explosion, but the engine seemed to be slewed round and to have fallen against the up platform, aud slightly damaged it. I cannot say exactly which wheels were off the road. I have been station-master at Lewes eight years.

John Jeffrey said-:-I am general foreman in the locomotive works at Brighton. I was at Brighton when the explosion occurred, and was telegraphed for about 3.30 p.m. I gave instructions at once for the tool-van to be sent off to Lewes, and caught the regular train for Lewes myself at London Road station, reaching Lewes at about 4.10 p.m. I found the engine on the up line, the driving and trailing wheels being off the metals, as well as all six wheels of the tender. The platform was disturbed. I at once stepped upon the foot-plate of the engine. There were several people there. I went first to the spring balances, and saw some cotton waste had been placed behind them. Some one was meddling with the cotton waste behind the right-hand balance, and I told him to let it alone. The left balance had some hard cotton waste jammed behind it. It is a common practice for drivers to place loose waste where this was found. This hard piece of waste might have been placed there to jam down the spring balance to get more pressure, but I cannot say that it was done intentionally. On examining the boiler, I found it empty. I found the spring balances registering  about 150lbs. each; when they left the workshops they were screwed down to 120 lbs. to the square inch. After looking at the spring balances, I put my head into the fire-box, and observed that the left side of the box was ruptured. The rupture had taken place between the second and third rows of stays, counting from the bottom. The tube plate and back plate were both ripped up. The fire-door was lying on the tender, blown out from the engine. The smoke were attended to on the 17th September, and also the 1.1hys in the fire-box, which were leaking on the left-hand side; they were rivetted up fire box door was lying on the platform. The ash-pan and fire-bar bearers were blown off, and the feed-pipes damaged. None of the axles were bent. The deceased could have pressed down the safety-valve by putting in a piece of wood, but in this case it would be easily detected. I have never tried what extra pressure could be produced by putting in a piece of cotton waste behind the spring balances, but I know it would be great. I have never had occasion to find fault with this driver. I should say that the cause of the engine blowing up wu that a little more pressure was put on than was safe. The plate in the fire-box in the thinnest part was nearly an eighth of an inch thick before the fracture took place, and it would stand the pressure, without danger, of 120 lbs. which the boiler was set to. I have known a fire box run 411,000 miles. The average run would depend upon the quality of the water, and whether the boiler was kept clean. In January, 1878, I examined this fire-box along with the foreman of boiler makers. In May, 1878, the fire-box was considerably repaired, and a new fire-door ring was put in, and the whole of the stays round the lower part were renewed. At the time the stays were put in, no part of the plate would be caused, I think, by the fire outside, and not by corrosion of the water inside. I have been foreman five years at Brighton. I do not think a fire-box fit to work when any part of the plates are less than than 3/18 thick, and this is my practice with the Company's locomotives. 

George Henderson said :-1 am a fitter in the Brighton Company's employment. I last saw this engine (No. 174) in the Brighton shops in May, 1878, when it was tested. It was tested by hydraulic pressure to 200 lbs, and afterwards by steam to 120 lbs. They are tried by experienced men, to see if they are correct. I set the spring balances myself to 115 lbs, which together with the weight of the lever will show 120 lbs. when working. After the accident, the spring balances of No. 174 engine showed 12 lbs to 13 lbs. more than when they left the shops. I am quite satisfied my spring balances are always fairly adjusted to record the true state of pressure. 1 am employed on this work only, and have been for some years.

Thomas. Chilton said : - 1 am foreman boiler-maker at New Cross station of the Brighton Company. I have been a boiler-maker for 41 years, at which time I commenced my journeymanship. I saw this  engine (No. 174) on the 15th September last, when I examined it all over, including the fire-box It came in for damaged tubes, and for the usual monthly examination. I found the fire-box in good working condition. I had the damaged tube taken out and another one put in its place. I sent the engine out, as I considered, in good working condition. I examined these fire-boxes with a hammer. I found these plates a bare eighth on the left-hand side; the right-hand side plates were a full eight thick. My instructions are that when I find  the plates too thin I am to send them the engines to Brighton. no dimensions are given to me to regulate when fire boxes are to cease working. I exercise my own judgement. When I inspect a boiler, I know what pressure it has to stand. When I made my last examination on the 15th September, I made no report to my superintendent about this fire box. I never said to Mr Trangmar that it was time this engine went into the shops. I never thought so. The tubes in the fire box were attended to on the 17th September, and also the stays in the firebox, which were leaking on the left hand side; they were riveted up.

Edwin Trangmar said :-1 am district locomotive and carriage superintendent at New Cross station, Brighton Railway. The deceased (Rookwood) commenced as a driver in January 1870. He was a very good man. He had never been fined for plugging safety valves. He was once reduced to a fireman for quarrelling with his mate, but was afterwards reinstated. I have never seen spring balances pressed out by cotton waste before. We have bad very little trouble with our men for putting on extra pressure; punishment is very severe for such a thing, if found out.

William Stroudley said :-1 am locomotive and carriage superintendent of the Brighton Railway at Brighton. The fire box in question has thin plates, but not too thin. Had it not blown up on this occasion, I think it would have stood a pressure of 200 lbs. to the square inch. I wish to state most positively, in answer to a suggestion that has been made, that my foreman has never reported this fire- box as being too thin in its plates.

The fireman, John Wheatley, was visited at the a Lewes Infirmary, but he was not well enough to recollect anything that occurred on the day in question

The guard, Alexander- Frazer, who was also lying at the Infirmary, said he could not remember whether the engine took water at Lewes; it used to be the practice almost always to do so. He was too busy with luggage at his van on this occasion to see. He was knocked down as though by a very strong wind. Had never seen cotton waste used behind the spring valves. Noticed the steam blowing off at the station.

John Wheatley, fireman, re-examined 25th November, stated: I have been firing for six months, and have been for the whole of this time with the driver ''Rookwood.'' I had previously been in the service of the Company for about 3 l/2 years, but left to go abroad. 1 recollect leaving Hastings with the 2.5 p.m. Haatings to London train. It was the proper time when we left. I did not recollect what pressure there was on the engine when starting. I had heard about the pads of waste spoken of as being found on the engine at the back of the spring balances, but can positively say that I saw no waste behind the spring balances from the time I left Hastings until I arrived at Lewes. Took water at Lewes, and I attended to it. I did not know what the driver was doing at Lewes, but should say he was oiling the engine-which was his duty. After taking water, I put back the crane, and went on to the footplate, and almost directly aftperwardsstarted the engine. I do not know what pressure there was then, neither did I see any pads at the back of the balances. I have never heard my mate say anything about the fire box of the engine being thin or in any way unfit to do its work. The only remark I have heard the driver say as to the fire box was that the fire door was so low down, and he had wished the fire box was a little higher (meaning, to hold a deeper fire). I recollect the starting of engine from Lewes, because I took the signal from the guard, and remember putting my hand on the break; This was to take off the break, as I always kept it on at Lewes station. I do not recollect the explosion or anything after it until I found myself in the Infirmary.

Alexander Frazer, guard, re-examined 25th November, stated:-1 have been 10 years guard in the Company's service. Was guard of the 2.5 p.m. Hastings to London train on 27th September 1879. We left six minutes late, owing to the delay in taking luggage from the South-eastern train. We arrived at Lewes eight minutes late, having been two minutes extra at Warrior Square, taking luggage. On arriving at Lewes I commenced to get rid of the luggage, most of which belonged to Brighton and Portsmouth, and there being such o. quantity of it, this occupied nearly all the time (six minutes) allowed at Lewes. I rode in the front break. When I had finished taking out the luggage from the front van I gave the driver a signal to start. The station- master or head porter had given me (Frazer) a signal, but I have forgotten who it was. The van I was riding in was next to the tender and was standing close to it. Immediately after giving the signal to the driver to start, and before getting into my van, the explosion occurred. I did not hear anything, but recollect being knocked down and pushed along with some force from where I had been standing until I came between the break and next carriage, when I fell down on the metals. I do not recollect seeing any plugs at the back of the spring balances; in fact I take but very little notice of the engine.


The cause of the explosion was the breaking of the left side of the fire-box, which was made of copper plates 7/16th of an inch thick. It gave way along a horizontal line between the second and third rows of rivets from the bottom of the box. The plate at the part that gave way was reduced by wear to less than 1/16th of an inch in thickness. It broke from the pressure of steam, and was torn from the rivets. The two broken edges turned upwards and downwards inside the fire-box, and the steam and water in the boiler burst into the fire-box. The door of the fire-box was blown out at one end, and the door of the smoke-box was blown out at the other end. The outer shell of the fire-box was forced outwards and jammed the wheels.

The pressure of steam in the boiler had been fixed at 120 lbs. to the inch, and whether this had been increased by the engine-driver placing plugs of waste at the back of the spring balances, I cannot say.

The evidence of the Company's foreman is very decided, to the effect that he found the plugs of waste jammed in between the spring balances and the boiler. The plugs that I found there appeared to have been used for such a purpose, as they were hard and shapely, quite different to the ordinary pieces of waste that are used for cleaning purposes, and which are frequently placed behind the spring balances in a loose manner. Many people had been on the foot-plate of the engine before the Company's foreman, and the evidence of the fireman and others is adverse to the deceased engine-driver having been guilty of such acts.

The engine is a six-wheeled tender engine. The driving and trailing wheels, which are 6 feet diameter, were coupled together. The cylinders are 16 inches diameter, and the stroke is 20 inches. It was built in the Company's shops in 1864, and had run 187,211 miles in April 1870, when it was sent into the Company's workshops to be thoroughly repaired. A new fire-box was put in at this time, and it ran 304,285 miles between January 1871, when it left the shops, and September 1879, when it blew up.

I attach a drawing of the engine, showing where the fire-box gave way; a list of the repairs done to this engine since 1870, and an extract from the engine- driver's report for the month of September, on the 27th day of which month it blew up. It will be seen that the last repairs of importance were made in January 1878, since which time the engine has run 45,725 miles. The engine and fire-box were examined at New Cross 12 days before it exploded, when it was sent into the shops in consequence of the tubes leaking. The examination was made by an experienced boiler-maker, who had been a considerable time in the Company's service. This man stated that when he examined the fire-box he thought that the plate of the fire-box at the left side was "a bare eighth" in thickness. I do not think it can have been 1/16th inch thick at this time along the line where it gave way. He thought that the plate at the right side of the fire-box was a full eighth thick. There can be no doubt that under these circumstances he made a serious mistake in not reporting the state of the engine to his superiors, as no engine should be allowed to work when the fire-box plates are in any part less than 3/16ths of an inch thick.


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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