1907

STOAT’S NEST INCIDENT
17th APRIL 1907
INVOLVING DRIVER WILLIAM PODMORE BATTERSEA

WRITTEN BY M. J. Cruttenden 

(extracted and adapted from the newsletter of the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society)

On Wednesday 17th April 1907, at 11.00 am, Mr. Charles Gorer, of the Clarendon Film Company's photographic enlarger  together with three of the company's employees who were to act as extras, called at Whitehouse Villas to collect Mr and Mrs Zeitz and the dog Felix. The whole party then proceeded to East Croydon station to catch a train to Stoats Nest. On arrival they sought out the station master, who then took them to the end of the station's No. 12 siding where, some 300 yards from the ends of the platforms Messrs Stow and Lawley had set up their camera. The extras placed some sleepers on the line to represent the 'wrecker's' barricade and filming started immediately. By about 12.10 pm all the required scenes had been completed, with the exception of the one that was to feature the train and, because there were some eleven or so minutes to go before its arrival, Mr Lawley called a short break. Mr Stow now walked back to the station platform and meeting Station Master Bromley they stood together for the last few minutes before the arrival of the London train.

At 12.22 the train duly appeared, hauled by one of Billinton's D3 class 0 4 4 tanks. The engine, No. 379 'Sanderstead', was being driven on this occasion by William Podmore of Battersea. After attending to his engine, Podmore descended from his cab to be met by Bromley, who told him that a Croydon firm was going to take a picture. The station master led Podmore to the end of the platform, pointing out the barricade on the line and is later quoted as saying 'You see that, they want you to pull down to it.' He went on to explain how he (the driver) was to pull up just short of the sleeper. They then returned to the engine, Mr Stow explaining as they went the basis of the film plot and how they wanted the train to stop about 20 feet in front of the sleepers as if it were coming up to an imaginary signal. He also said that when the train came to a halt, they wanted the crew to keep out of sight because the company wanted to film their own actors descending from the footplate. On their return to the engine, Stow was later quoted as saying to Bromley 'I'm going down. I may as well go with the engine and explain what we want, we don't want them to be seen in the picture.' With this, he climbed aboard to, and stood between the driver and fireman. Bromley then left them to walk alongside the track towards the camera and film crew. Shortly after his departure, the train slowly started to pull away; the time as 12.26 pm. As soon as the train was observed to be about to enter the siding, Mr Zeitz lay down on the line between the barricade and the camera, thus becoming invisible to the engine crew. The camera was being cranked by Mr Lawley and it stood on its tripod some forty feet or so behind the pile of sleepers. Watching the proceedings from about 30 feet away stood Mrs Zeitz, the dog and the film extras. On the engine, Mr Stow, observing its slow progress, told the driver that it would be an advantage if they could enter the picture fairly quickly as this would give greater dramatic effect to the film. Mr Stow, standing as he was between the driver and fireman, could not see out of either of the spectacle plate windows and therefore left it to the driver to judge the train's speed and stopping distance. The train increased its speed to an estimated 10 to 12 mph, quickly catching up with and passing station master Bromley. As it did so, he realised that the engine's pace was now excessive and that the drive might have difficulty in pulling up in time. He therefore began to run after the train but was not able to catch up. Meanwhile, the engine crew had adopted a stooping position so that they would not be seen by the camera. Podmore could just see over the bottom edge of the spectacle glass but, because of his position, he could only see the top of the camera and not the pile of sleepers. Referring to the train speed as they neared the end of the run, he was quoted later as saying to his fireman, 'I should think that's the right rate'. He then slipped the regulator closed and shut off stream. The train was now about 40 feet from the barricade and both Mr Lawley, on the camera, and Mr Gorer simultaneously realised that the train was travelling too fast to stop in time. Both men shouted to Zeitz to get out of the way. Up to this point nobody on the footplate had realised that anything was amiss and it was only when the noise of the engine's steam had died away that someone was heard to shout 'Go back, go back you're on him'. Mr Gorer ran forward shouting 'For God's sake jump'. Zeitz now momentarily aware of his danger, tried to dive into the [word missing?] 6 feet away, but before he could do so the engine was on him. Its guard iron struck the first sleeper which caused it to cannonade into the others, hitting Zeitz on the back and pinning him down, while their momentum dragged him about eight yards, causing him head to strike every sleeper as he went. The train came to an abrupt halt, its buffers almost in line with the camera. One of Clarendon's employees ran to the engine and shouted 'You have run over the man'. Podmore turned to Stow and was later quoted as saying 'I never knew a man was there, you have deceived me.' Meanwhile the engine's guard iron was frustrating the frantic effort being name to free poor Zeitz, so Podmore reversed his engine, allowing the sleeper to be lifted.

As a result of all the commotion, many of the station staff had hurried to the scene to render any assistance they could. Station Master Bromley, who had now take charge, sent two of them back to fetch a stretcher, while another was dispatched to summon the local doctor. In the middle of all this Mrs Zeitz promptly fainted. Zeitz had now been freed from beneath the sleepers and as soon as the stretcher arrived he was carried to the station waiting room. After only a short delay, the doctor arrived in answer to the urgent summons and examined Zeitz, whose only visible sign of injury was a wound to his scalp. This was quickly dressed and still on the stretcher, he was transported by wagonette to Croydon hospital here, at 2.45 pm, he was admitted to one of the wards. Here he was again examined, this time by a Dr Bathurst and found to have extensive injuries to his ribs. He was made as comfortable as possible and put to bed.

By this time too many people had been involved for the LB & SCR to keep the afternoon's event quiet and by early evening rumours had begun to circulate freely throughout Purley and Coulsdon. The local reporters were soon on the scene and quickly compiled their stories before the paper went to press that evening. Their publication the following morning not only confirmed the rumour but revealed to the world the whole story. When questioned by reporters later in the day, a prominent official in the LB & SCR's assistant manager's office was later quoted as saying 'When I opened my paper and read about it, I could hardly believe my eyes.' When he was quizzed further as to whether the previous afternoon's proceedings had been in any way sanctioned by the Company, he replied 'Certainly not.' The official went on to say that had the permission of the Company been asked for such an event it would have been refused flatly. He added that to make that sort of thing permissible was absolutely impossible. He did however, admit that he did not see what action if any could be taken against the offender, for they could hardly be charged with trespass when it appeared that one or more of the Company's employees had allowed them to do it. Such a thing he said, was unheard of before on the Brighton line.

The unwelcome publicity which resulted from the accident had, by this time, produced swift reaction from London Bridge. Orders were issued for the immediate suspension from duty of William Podmore and Station Master Bromley, together with those members of his staff who had in any way been involved.

Following this, instructions were given to the District Superintendent ordering him to compile a full report on the incident. Meanwhile, the Company's legal and publicity departments were kept busy, publishing statements of denial with the aim of reassuring the travelling public that the LB & SCR were not only not responsible for the accident, but that in no way had it sanctioned the events which led up to it.

Contemporary reports of public reaction to the incident seem to suggest that, while expressing sympathy for Mr and Mrs Zeitz, the local populace was greatly amused both by the incident itself and even more so by the obvious embarrassment it had caused the LB & SCR. The Company was not popular in the Purley Croydon areas at the time because of its recent refusal to extend the running of workmen's trains southwards from East Croydon to Stoat's Nest. As a result, the local people appear to have treated the whole episode as a huge joke, chiefly at the Brighton's expense, which increased all the more as the Company squirmed under the glare of publicity. However, the joke was short lived as at 12.15 am, Saturday 20 April 1907 at Croydon Hospital, Wilhelm Valdemar Zeitz died. The post mortem examination of Wilhelm Zeitz revealed that he had sustained no less than nine broken ribs, one of which had punctured a lung, and that this was the main cause of his death.

The inquest was convened at the Croydon Hospital on the afternoon of Monday 22 April 1907 and appearing before the Coroner were the following legal representatives. For the LB & SCR and acting under instruction from the Company's solicitors, Rose and Co., was a Mr Austin. The Clarendon Film Company, together with Messrs Stow and Lawley were represented by one S. H. Price, a solicitor from Wallbrook, and to represent the engine driver, William Podmore, his union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, had engaged the services of a Mr Arthur Typpits. As far as I can discover, Station Master Bromley was not legally represented. At the opening of the inquest Mr Austin addressed the jury stating that he had been instructed by the Railway Company to give all possible assistance to the court to discover the true facts of the case. He continued by saying that the events took place without the knowledge of the Company and as soon as the incident became known to them all those concerned had been suspended from duty. He finished by declaring that although he had no desire to prejudice the enquiry's outcome he would emphasise that, although it was an empty train and that the incident had occurred on a secluded siding, the Company had given no sanction whatever for it.

The business of the inquest proper now began and the first witness called was the widow, Mrs Emma Zeitz. Mrs Zeitz gave the court an account of the events of that morning as they had affected her. Afterwards Mr Price expressed on behalf of Messrs Stow and Lawley their deepest regrets and condolences, emphasising how deeply obliged they were to her. With this she was spared any further grief and excused.

The second witness was Mr Lawley who told the court about the film, its plot and the arrangements he had made for the filming. He concluded his evidence with an account of the accident and how the train failed to stop where he had indicated. The Coroner then said, 'Then the flaw was that the engine did not stop where it ought to have done?', to which Mr Lawley replied, 'Yes'. Mr Lawley then went on to finish his story with the details of the instructions he had given to the engine driver. The Coroner further questioned him as to whether it was more or less a common thing for him to be making imaginary scenes, Lawley replied that it was. It should be pointed out that very few people at that time really knew how a movie film was made and, as will become apparent later, this lack of understanding may have been a contributory factor in the accident. The Coroner then asked, 'Did it not occur to you that the company itself ought to have been consulted?' Lawley replied that they had asked the station master and that they were satisfied that his permission was all that was necessary. The Coroner went on, 'and you were satisfied that, properly managed, there ought to have been no danger?' Lawley replied, 'As far as we know, an engine ought to be stopped as easy as a car. They do so every day, we never anticipated any danger.' Questioned by Mr Typpits, the witness stated that no payments were made or promised directly or indirectly to anyone for their part in the production. The Coroner summing up said, 'The witness had arranged that the train was to pull up some paces before it got to the sleepers. Had the driver done so there would have been absolutely no danger at all.

Mr Stow was called next. He gave a graphic account of his part in the proceedings including the details of his conversation with the driver. There then followed a number of questions from each of those present including the Coroner and the jury, but they were only to clarify, points in his narrative and added little to the overall story. The only point of contention occurred when Mr Typpits questioned him as to his exact conversation with driver Podmore. Mr Stow said in reply '....he also said I had come with him to tell him when to stop and that he had been waiting for my signal.' To the Coroner's question, 'Is that true?' Mr Stow replied, 'No, it is not.

The third witness, the station master, was questioned directly by the coroner who asked if he had given permission for the experiment to take place. Bromley admitted he had, but in answer to further questions declared that he had been promised no payment and as he saw it the event entailed no danger at all. He, went on to explain how Mr Stow had told him how the film was to be made in sections and that Mr Zeitz' part would be over before the arrival of the train. He concluded his evidence by giving details of his instructions to the engine driver and how he had realised the danger of the engine's excessive speed only after it had passed him in the siding. There followed a discussion as to whether the witness realised that a man was to be on the line. Mr Austin ended this by stating, 'Had he known it he would not have given permission. Had twenty men asked him the same thing he would not have allowed it. Austin continued, 'On this occasion the train was not required to go up this siding and the driver had done so only on the authority of the station master, authority which he did not possess.'
Bromley was excused and his place taken by William Podmore who explained that on his arrival at Stoats Nest Station, the station master had asked him to drive his train down a siding where some gentlemen wanted to take a 'snapshot'. He had asked Mr Stow what was required of him and it was explained that he was to pull down to 'those sticks' and stop dead. Podmore said that he believed this referred to the camera's large wooden tripod for he did not see any sleepers on the line when he looked down the siding. He then returned to his engine where he was joined on the footplate by Mr Stow. He left the station and at Stow's request increased his speed to between 10 and 12 mph and stopped at the camera. He had no indication until after he had stopped that anything was amiss nor that he had stopped in the wrong place. He swore that Mr Stow had not explained the plot to him and he simply thought they were amateur photographers who wanted to 'take' the engine.

Station Master Bromley was then recalled and in reply to questions said that he did not use the term 'sticks' but had said pieces of sleeper. Mr Price stated that the engine's buffers were parallel with the camera, Podmore stated that because of his crouched position he could not see the rails but at 10 mph he could pull up in about 2 feet. He also said that when Bromley referred to those sticks', he (Podmore) had replied, 'You mean the camera' and Bromley had answered 'Yes'. Bromley, in reply to the Coroner, emphatically denied this. Mr Typpits emphasised that Mr Stow had not explained the plot to Podmore and that he had simply stopped at what he had considered then was the correct spot.

The last witness called was Mr Charles Gorer an employee of the Clarendon Film Company. Gorer said he would have taken Zeitz place if he had not been able to act and he did not see any danger involved. He described the events, stating that he thought the engine driver was going too fast and how after the accident the station master had said, 'I told the driver to pull up five yards from the sleepers. Had I known there was to be a man on the line with the engine I could have run down and prevented what happened.' Gorer went on to say how the fireman had said he had heard Mr Stow tell the driver to pull down to those sticks and that he also thought this referred to the camera tripod for he had seen no other obstruction on the line.
Mr Stow was recalled and in reply to the Coroner swore that he was sure that he had explained the plot to the driver. The matter was to remain unresolved and the inquiry brought to its conclusion by the Coroner who, in his summing up, said that if the plan had been carefully carried out, he saw nothing very objectionable in it. He thought perhaps the driver went a little faster than he had reckoned for, and was unable to pull up in time. He did not, however, think there was any great blame to be attached to anyone, but that it was a very sad and lamentable accident. The jury concurred with this view and without hesitation returned a verdict of accidental death on the body of Wilhelm Valdemar Zeitz. With this the public case closed but the aftermath of the incident was to rumble on in private.

No further information at all has come to light regarding either the past life or indeed the fate of the engine driver William Podmore and he for the time being remains a mystery. On the other hand investigations into the life of the other principal member of the Brighton's staff involved have proved more fruitful.

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