Did a 10yr old cause a train crash?

The Railway between Brighton and Lewes was opened on 8th June 1846.  The London Brighton & South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) took over the new railway just a few weeks later.

Railways were dangerous places, indeed the opening of one of the first railways – The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was marred by the death of the local MP William Huskisson who lived in Eartham, near Chichester.  Our local, London Brighton & South Coast Railway however was relatively accident-free until a fatal derailment near Lewes.

By 1851 there was a shuttle service between Worthing, Haywards Heath and Lewes with Brighton as a hub. This train usually consisted of an engine and a tender pulling three carriages, first, second and third class and then the brake-van containing the guard.  These were called ‘short trains’. It should be noted that the third-class carriage would just have been an open truck and the brake-van was literally there to put the brakes on and slow the train down.

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Above: A train approaching a railway bridge near Brighton.

On Friday 6th June 1851 a short train left Brighton station on time at 12.05pm.  On this occasion however the tender was ahead of the engine. The journey was uneventful and at Falmer Station (which in those days was to the east of Falmer Tunnel) two people got off, including the Falmer Station Master Mr Ampleford.)

The train headed towards Lewes along a 1 in 80 incline – not too steep but enough for the steam engine to cut its power and the guard at the rear of the train to apply the brakes.   This section of track down Newmarket Hill had a 20mph speed limit and witnesses say this was the approximate speed of the train when it derailed as it was passing over Newmarket Bridge.  The parapet walls across the bridge did not stop the engine, tender and two carriages from crashing down to the track below, a distance of some 25 feet.  The first class carriage and the brake van remained on the track and the Guard, Henry Earl, quickly sent a red flag ahead and behind the wreck to prevent another train becoming involved.  Some plate-layers and people from nearby cottages rushed to the scene and when the dust settled a terrible scene became clear.

Falmer Newmarket

The three occupants of the third class carriage were found dead under the wreckage of the second class carriage which (according to the Brighton Gazette) had been ‘shivered to atoms’  They were 73 year old Mrs Mary Chatfield and her 33 year old daughter Sarah and a London Bank-Clerk called Langhorne who had been staying in Brighton.   The driver and the stoker were found under the wreckage of the engine which had been ‘bent up like paper and straw’  The driver Samuel Jackson was barely alive but the stoker George Chase had been killed.   George came from a railway family. His father had been killed in an accident at New Cross some years before and his widowed mother worked in the Ladies Waiting Room at Brighton.   The driver was taken to the Sussex County Hospital in Brighton where his leg was amputated but he died three days later.

Amazingly there was another third class passenger, Samuel Parcey who quickly jumped under a seat and managed to walk away from the carriage with a few bruises despite his carriage having been ‘dashed to pieces’.

The incident was witnessed by two children, 10 year old James Edward Boakes and his younger brother.  They raced home to their nearby cottage shouting at their mother, Hannah “Oh Mother, the train is over, what shall we do?”   James was sent to tell the Parish Constable, Henry Holder who lived nearby,  He said “Dear Me, Master Holder, come up; the train has run off the line”  Despite not being a police officer he ran to the scene, helped the injured and carefully surveyed the scene.

As soon as news of the crash reached Lewes and Brighton the Police were despatched including Mr Chase, the Chief Officer of the Brighton Police and Inspector King and other men of the East Sussex Constabulary.  Superintendent William Acton of the Railway Police also attended the scene, he lived nearby in Southover.  The bodies of the deceased were taken to the Black Horse Inn on Western Road, Lewes. Hearing of the crash a relative of the Chatfields, rushed to the scene but saw the cart conveying the bodies and stopping it, pulled back a blanket and, to his horror recognised his kinfolk.

So what had caused the crash?  Examination of the scene found that the railway lines were intact and undamaged. The previous train had passed the spot at 11.15 without incident.  It was clear however that the derailment had been caused by a wooden sleeper which had been placed across one of the rails.  Two sleepers had recently been replaced and apparently been left beside the line.  The Railway Directors were sure that foul-play was the caused and offered a £30 reward for ‘the discovery of the delinquent’

The Inquest opened the following day and the 15 strong jury (larger that the usual 12 as this was an important investigation) were first taken to the Black Horse to view the dead. This was traumatic and it was reported that the ‘shocking mutilation of the corpses excited a lively feeling of horror in the minds of the jury’

They were then taken by fly-cart to the scene (understandably turning down the offer to visit by train!)    The Inquest heard that the sleeper on the line was heavy and could not have blown onto the line – it must have been placed there.  The railway witnesses were coy when questioned by the jury about the tender leading the engine.  The engine had a ‘metal guard’ at the front to push away any obstructions, this however had been ineffective as the tender was in front.

The inquest heard evidence from witnesses and it was suggested that the  sleeper may have been placed across one of the rails so that children could play ‘see-saw’ however no witness recalled seeing any children near the scene. 10 year old James Boakes was called as a witness but cried throughout a short examination before the jury decided that he should not be further questioned.   The Railway Police Superintendent William Acton told the jury that the boy had admitted placing the sleeper over the rail but this was angrily denied by the boys father. It appears that the Superintendent, along with the East Sussex Police Superintendent James Flanagan, had tried to speak to the boy on many occasions but his father had refused to admit them, so on one occasion the police officers had tried to speak to the boy when he was in a pub, The Dolphin. The boy’s mother said that on the morning of the crash he was particularly keen to see the train.

The young James was recalled to give evidence.  His evidence was understandably confused for one so young.  He said he had been sent to Ashcombe to fetch some bread but had “stopped to see the train fall over”. He denied going onto the line or moving the sleeper.  The Coroner was obviously concerned about the cross-examination of one so young but when one of the jurors asked him if he could move the sleeper he did so ‘with the greatest of ease’.    

The next person to give evidence was another police officer, but not from either the local or the railway police, he was a Detective Inspector from the Metropolitan Police who had been sent down from London by the Commissioner himself (Colonel Mayne). Edward Langley told the Court that been sent down to Sussex to investigate. He said he had no doubt that the crash was caused by the sleeper being placed on the line and that he was sure that it had been put there by the ‘little boy by the name of Boakes’ as he was the only person who was close to the scene of the crash. Indeed he had even been to see the boy with Superintendent Acton and threatened the boy with arrest.

Who had asked for the assistance of the Metropolitan Police?  I suspect that it was the London Brighton & South Coast Railway, as in the Court, the East Sussex Superintendent said he had ‘nothing to do with the Metropolitan Police’

The rest of the inquest heard evidence about the speed of the train and the fact it was running ‘tender first’.

The jury retired and after an hour gave the following verdict “ We find that the deaths of Mary Chatfield, Sarah Chatfield, Arthur Langhorne and George Case were caused by the train running off the rails at Newmarket Archway. A broken sleeper was found  on the line after the accident but by what means it came there does not appear to the jury”  They went on to say that the practice of running ‘tenders first’ and the speed of the trains was dangerous.

A few days later there was a shorter inquest for the Train Driver.  Once again young James Boakes was there with is parents.  He said that he had gone to Ashcombe to fetch bread and had then gone to see the train. He had witnessed the crash and had run home to tell his mother.  However this time he said that he had been worried in case the people on the train would blame him.  He was asked “Why do you think the people on the train would blame you?”  He said “I don’t know why”  He was asked the question again but the Coroner interceded and reminded him that he did not have to answer.  He cried and despite being asked again, refused or declined to answer.  He left the court but returned and was again examined. This time he said that we was worried in case people thought he had ‘laid the stick to play see-saw’

The jury again returned a verdict that the accident was caused by ‘a wooden sleeper having been wilfully, feloniously, and maliciously placed across the line by some person or persons unknown.’

So who caused the crash?   It seems that both Superintendent Acton of the Railway Police and Detective Inspector Langley of the Metropolitan Police believed he was guilty and there were reports that even his mother had doubts about his innocence.  James’s father strongly protected him, as did the coroner.   James appears to have been the only person known to have been in the area when the obstruction was put on the line and it is surprising that despite his age he showed he could actually move the heavy sleeper. 

Just over a year later another body lay at the Black Horse Inn.  This time the victim was young James Boakes.  He had been standing in a field at Ashcombe, tending pigs with his younger brother when he was struck by lightning and instantly killed.  He died just a few yards away from the scene of the crash the year before.

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James was buried at St Annes Church, Lewes  on 10th September 1852. We will never know who caused the Newmarket Train Crash. Maybe James took the answer to his grave?


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