On sunny days people sit outside Sainsbury’s café looking across the river, unaware they are at the scene of a fatal railway disaster 150 years ago.
Before any docks or the barrage were built in Swansea, vessels lay on the mud of the river, as depicted in early photographs of pioneer photographer Rev. Calvert Richard Jones, for at low tide such vessels could not be reached to load or discharge cargoes. This situation led to plans for a floating harbour, which became the North Dock, the first of
The Vale of Neath railway line was carried over the New Cut by a box girder bridge, and over the North Dock by a drawbridge. The Act of Parliament authorising the line stated that the company had to open the drawbridge to shipping and keep it open for 2½ hours before high water and 1½ hours after high water, for each tide. Coal traffic usually ceased about 8.30pm and resumed around 4am.
On Wednesday, 29th November 1865, signalman John Howells came on duty at 4am, with the drawbridge open, but there was insufficient pressure in the hydraulic pumps to close it: an hour later there would have been sufficient.
Though the drawbridge spanning the lock was still open, an incorrect ‘line clear’ signal had been given. A red warning light was exhibited automatically by the bridge being open, but coal train driver William Cole was struggling to get his engine working on slippery rails; it was a tank engine, running bunker first so the driver consequently had his back to the direction of travel. At 6.30am the Vale of Neath coal train with 32 wagons, driver William Cole and fireman/stoker Clement Longstaf, plunged into 18ft of water in the North Dock. The guard George Garrish had leaped clear and survived.
An eye-witness reported: “I could hear the train moving, and it passed me at about six miles an hour. The driver had his right hand on the engine rail, and with his left he was working the regulator in and out, as it was so slippery. I was standing on my platform with my white light shown towards the train, and when the last truck reached opposite, looking round I saw the red light on at the North Dock drawbridge. At this moment I heard the crash of the engine and trucks falling."
During the following week 20,000 sightseers visited the scene – the £40 raised in tolls was divided between the dependants of the two victims. All wreckage was cleared within six days. Signalman John Howells, who admitted, “It is my own fault and nobody else’s”, was found guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. The jury recommended mercy because of his long working hours - his standard working day was 4am to 6pm (14 hours), and with overtime it could extend to 9pm: his average working day over the previous year was 15¼ hours!
A local “photographic artist”, Mr Andrews, took a series of photographs of the wreckage, which were on sale from 8th December. The drawing published in the Illustrated London News is from one of the photographs.
The North Dock closed in 1928, though its half-tide basin continued in use for vessels going to Weaver’s flour mills for some years. Subsequently rubble from damaged buildings during the Second World War was used to fill in the North Dock.
“Illustrated London News” image