Thirsk rail crash (1892)

Thirsk rail crash (1892)

The Thirsk rail crash happened at Manor House signal box on November 2 1892, on the North Eastern Railway about 3 miles north of Thirsk railway station in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England.


James Holmes was the signalman at Manor House signal box. The day before the crash, his baby daughter Rose was taken ill and died. Holmes was extremely distressed and had been awake for 36 hours, administering to the child, trying to find the local doctor (who was away from home attending to another patient), and comforting his distraught wife. He reported to the stationmaster at Otterington that he would be unable to work the shift on the next night, but the stationmaster merely asked his superiors for a relief signalman, without stating that the reason was that Holmes had reported himself unfit to work. As a result, no relief signalman was appointed.

Forced to work his shift, Holmes called at the Otterington signal box before walking to Manor House. He asked the signalman there to notify him when his mother arrived on the train from York to look after his wife. He also told the Otterington signalman that he was already exhausted. It was night with a thick mist which later thickened to fog.

About three hours into Holmes's shift, two express passenger trains were due from the north, but the second had been delayed, and a goods train was sent down the main line after the first. Holmes let it into his section but then was "overmastered by sleep". The goods train came to a halt just outside his signal box. Thirteen minutes later, Holmes awoke rather confused. The Otterington signalman warned him to be ready for the second express, and Holmes saw that his instruments still indicated that there was a train on the line. He had forgotten about the goods train, and thought he had fallen asleep before clearing the instruments after the first express. He cleared the instruments and accepted the second express.

The express crashed into the still stationary goods train at sixty miles per hour. Nine passengers and the guard of the goods train were killed, and 39 people injured. Nearly an hour later the goods train's engine's firebox set the wreckage on fire. Two of the bodies were burnt up and not recovered. The express was fitted with an oil gas lighting system, which fuelled the fire.

Holmes was charged with manslaughter and found guilty, but was absolutely discharged i.e. received no punishment, a decision strongly supported by the jury and public opinion. The railway was criticised for its cavalier treatment of Holmes, and there had been contributory negligence; by the Otterington signalman who knew of Holmes's condition and did nothing when there was silence from his signal box for nearly a quarter of an hour, and by the crew of the goods train who remained halted outside Holmes's signal box for several minutes without sending a crewman to the signal box in accordance with Rule 55, to ensure that their train was properly protected by the signals and block instruments.


The accident would have been prevented if the line had been fitted with track circuits which would have prevented the block instruments and the signals from being cleared. However, at the time track circuits were relatively new, and its widespread introduction that soon may have been expecting too much.

Although Manor House was a heavily used part of what was to become known as the East Coast Main Line, the need for such aids to safety there would have been regarded as low; there were no junctions, sidings or crossovers to confuse movement, and the block was one of the shortest and straightest in the country.

Similar accidents

* Clayton Tunnel rail crash - signalman gets confused about which train is which - 1861
* Hawes Junction train disaster - signalman forgets about light engines on line - 1910
* Quintinshill rail crash - signalman forgets about train on line - 1915
* Winwick rail crash - signalman and booking boy forget about train on main line.

See also

* List of British rail accidents


*"Red for danger", L.T.C. Rolt, Pan, ISBN 0-330-25555-X
* (full report: scanned-in paper printing)

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