Tom Wright, Curator of the Hibernian Historical Trust, looks back on the Gretna Rail Disaster and the affect it had on the community of Leith.
Over one hundred years ago a disaster unparalleled in the history of British railways and one of the most catastrophic to have occurred on railways anywhere in the world, took place early one bright summers morning in 1915 at a quiet siding at Quintinshill, just over a mile and a half from the border town of Gretna. Because it had occurred in wartime, news of the accident soon disappeared from the front pages to be all but forgotten, and it was only during the 1960’s that many people became fully aware of the terrible catastrophe that had taken place near the Scottish border that May morning. The dreadful calamity involving five trains remains to this very day the country’s heaviest loss of life in a rail accident.
Although there is no direct link to Hibernian Football Club the register of soldiers involved in the awful tragedy reveals that the vast majority came from Leith and the surrounding areas and it has been claimed that at least eight of the soldiers had been on the books of the football club at one time or other. The father and two uncles of the future Hibs and Scotland player Bobby Combe were fortunately among the survivors, and it would not be stretching the imagination too far to believe that many of those involved would have supported the Easter Road side.
The Gretna Rail Disaster remains to this day the country's heaviest loss of life in a railway accident
The 1/7th Royal Scots was a volunteer battalion that had been raised at Dalmeny Street in Leith within days of the outbreak of the First World War, and would soon become known as ‘Leith‘s Own’. Initially used to guard coastal defences around the city, the regiment would later leave from the Central Station in Leith bound for Larbert where they would complete their training, each man receiving the gift of a pipe, lighter and cigarettes from the Leith Provost Malcolm Smith on behalf of the Town Council before making their way to Stirlingshire.
Their training completed, on the morning of 22nd May 1915 two troop transports left Larbert on their way to Liverpool and eventual embarkation to Gallipoli. Ironically, the journey was originally to have been made the previous day only for the orders to be delayed 24 hours on account of the troopship Aquitania running aground in the Mersey. The first train had reached its destination safely, but as the second troop transport containing 470 men and 16 officers approached Quintinshill around 6.50am, it collided with a stationary local train standing on the same line. A slight curve in an otherwise straight track meant that the driver of the troop transport, estimated to have been travelling at around 70 mph, would only have been able to see the local train almost at the last minute and a collision was inevitable. Within seconds, the 21 carriages of the troop train that had measured well over two hundred yards in length had been telescoped into a space less than a third of its size, the first half dozen carriages disintegrating completely, the wreckage spread over both main line tracks. The survivors from the troop train immediately set about attempting to rescue their colleagues still trapped in the wreckage, completely unaware of the further calamity bearing down on them and just under a minute later the north bound Euston to Glasgow express ran through the wreckage of both trains wreaking further destruction and devastation in the area creating scenes of confusion and unimaginable horror.
Within minutes the entire area had been turned into a blazing inferno, the fire so severe that the paint of the nearby signal box was blistered by the incredible heat. Several minor explosions were heard, most believed to have been caused by the detonation of small arms ammunition, but there were several reports that some of the trapped soldiers had been shot by their colleagues before they could be engulfed by the approaching conflagration.
As the seriously injured were rushed to Carlisle Infirmary and other hospitals in the area, many of the more serious cases dying on the way, the dead were laid out in a nearby field, the recognisable on one side and the unidentifiable on the other. At the end of the day over 200 had been killed including the driver and fireman of the troop train, and over 240 injured, many seriously. At a roll call taken around 4.00pm that afternoon only 67 soldiers were capable of answer. Those that were still able were initially sent on to Liverpool to continue their journey to Gallipoli, but thankfully reason prevailed, and the men were returned to their homes to recuperate. Because the register had been lost in the fire and many of the bodies totally consumed by the flames, the exact total will never be known, but it is believed that 216 soldiers and nine civilians had lost their lives in the terrible accident. As well as the bodies that had been totally consumed by the flames, over eighty had been charred beyond recognition and the final total may be significantly higher.
It later turned out that signalman James Tinsley had been due to start work at 6am but had an unofficial arrangement with the nightshift man George Meakin that he could start 30 minutes later, an understanding that allowed him to catch a lift to work on the local train thereby avoiding the mile and a half walk from Gretna. Meanwhile, because the down loop was already occupied by a goods train the local had been shunted across to the main up line to allow the much faster Euston to Glasgow express to pass, a procedure not unknown at the time. Incredibly, although he had just travelled to work on the local that was still sitting just yards from the signal box and in clear view, Tinsley later claimed to have completely forgotten all about it as he copied the entries into the official log, and sent the troop transport forward to collide with the stationary train.
As news of the accident slowly started to filter back to Edinburgh, anxious crowds of relatives began to gather at the drill hall in Dalmeny Street eager for news, many of the women quite understandably in tears, and hardly a house in Leith would have been left unaffected by the terrible tragedy.
On the Monday evening many of the bodies arrived back at Leith Central Station, ironically the scene of their original departure for Larbert, and although it had not been publicised, a large crowd already lined the route all the way from the station to the drill hall where the bodies would lie overnight. Because of the dreadful condition of many of the remains, the coffins remained closed to spare the relatives any additional suffering.
Many of the soldiers received private funerals, several buried either at Easter Road cemetery close to the football stadium and others at Seafield, but over a hundred were laid to rest with full military honours at a service at Rosebank Cemetery in Pilrig to which the general public had been excluded. The cortege took several hours to travel the short distance from the drill hall to the cemetery, the entire route lined with soldiers from the Royal Scots, the surrounding streets packed with thousands of the general public who had come to pay their respects in their own individual way.
Today an impressive memorial sculpted by John Rhind, who had also carved the statue of Queen Victoria at the Foot of the Walk, stands in Rosebank Cemetery recording the names of those interred in the graveyard, and a bed in Leith Hospital was later dedicated to their memory by comrades and friends.
An official enquiry held at Carlisle a few days after the accident laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of Tinsley, Meakin and to a lesser extent Fireman George Hutchison and all three were committed for trial charged with involuntary manslaughter due to gross negligence. At the trial at the High Court in Edinburgh a few months later that lasted just one and a half days, the jury took only a few minutes to find both Tinsley and Meakin guilty and they were jailed for their part in the catastrophe, Tinsley for three years and Meakin for 18 months. Fireman Hutchison was acquitted of all charges.
Perhaps the saddest story is that of the four young children whose bodies were never identified and later buried in an unmarked grave in the Western Necropolis in Glasgow. It is now thought that the carriages of the troop train had been brought through from Maryhill and that the children had possibly been stowaways seeking adventure. In 2011 a memorial to their memory was finally raised at the graveside.
At a ceremony held in Rosebank Cemetery to commemorate the centenary of the accident in 2015, a representative from Hibernian FC laid a wreath at the memorial on behalf of the club.
Written by Tom Wright