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The Clayton Tunnelmarker rail crash, which took place in 1861, five miles from Brightonmarker on the south coast of Englandmarker, United Kingdommarker, was the worst accident to occur up to that time on the British railway system. An excursion train crashed into another which had stopped in the tunnel, on Sunday 25 August 1861, killing 23 and injuring 176 passengers. The first train had stopped because the driver had briefly seen the red flag waved by the signalman at the south end of the tunnel. The second train was cleared to enter the south end, because the signalman, Henry Killick, thought that the first train had not seen his flag. In any case, the signalman at the north end had sent a telegraph signal that the tunnel was clear. But the situation was actually more complex. There were in fact three trains involved in the scenario. They all left Brighton station within a few minutes of one another, all travelling north. They were

  • Portsmouth Excursion left at 8.28 am
  • Brighton Excursion left at 8.31 am
  • Brighton Ordinary left at 8.35 am

The very first train was not involved in the collision, but it was the relative movements of the trains, and the confusion about which train was where, which led to the crash between the last two.


The entrance as seen from the north.

Henry Killick had an alarm bell linked to a signal, a needle telegraph and a clock in his cabin close to the south entrance of the tunnel. He could control the signal by a wheel in the cabin, but it would normally be at "danger" unless he approved a train to enter the tunnel. When a train passed, the signal returned automatically to "danger", but if it did not, the alarm bell would ring. The telegraph was linked to the north signal box, and would show there was a train in the tunnel if the signalman at the other box activated it by pressing and holding a switch down. Otherwise the needle would hang vertically.

The first train passed the signal at "clear", but the alarm bell rang to warn Killick that it had not returned to "danger". He sent a "train in tunnel" message to Brown in the north cabin, but did not return the signal to "danger" in time to stop the second train from passing the signal and travelling up to the tunnel. It was only 3 minutes behind, and may well have caught up with the first train. Realising that the first train was still in the tunnel, he rushed out of the cabin waving his red flag to stop the second train just as it was passing. He couldn't be sure that the driver had seen the flag however. He telegraphed Brown "is train clear?"

At that moment, the first train cleared the tunnel, so Brown signalled back "tunnel clear" to Killick. But unfortunately, Killick thought that Brown was referring to the second train and not the first. He was very wrong, for the second train had seen the red flag and stopped in the tunnel.Killick then saw the third train approaching, and thinking that the tunnel was clear, waved to him to enter the south end of the tunnel. The third train had stopped at the signal, so Killick used his white flag to tell him to move off. The second train actually started to reverse back to the south end to investigate the problem when it collided with great force with the speeding third train. The collision pushed the second train up the line, and obliterated the guard's van at the rear before smashing into the last carriage. It then rode up over the carriage roof and smashed its chimney against the tunnel roof before coming to a stop. Many of the 23 deaths were in this last carriage, where passengers were burnt or scalded to death by the broken engine. The bodies of a number of the victims were stored temporarily in the cellar of The Hassocks Hotel.

A nine-day inquest was held at Brighton town hall into the deaths of the 23 victims. It concluded with the jury returning a verdict of manslaughter against Charles Legg, the assistant stationmaster of Brighton station, finding him negligent by starting three trains so close together (against one of the rules of the company). The jury found no negligence by either Killick or Brown. Legg was committed for trial for manslaughter, but found not guilty.

The catastrophe highlighted the problem of trains travelling too close together, and putting immense pressure on the signalmen to appraise the situation far too quickly for safety's sake. A simple communication mistake between the two signal boxes caused havoc that Sunday but the telegraph was also blamed for the tragedy because it did not register without continual pressure on the switch. And the signal was also at fault for not returning to "danger" immediately after the train had passed. The accident encouraged the use of the block system (rather than the time interval system) for the rest of the railway system.

Charles Dickens probably based his story "The Signal-Man" on this accident, dramatising the events (especially the bells and the telegraph needle), as well as adding other incidents. His own experience at the Staplehurst rail crashmarker may have inspired him to write this seminal ghost story. The memory of the Clayton accident will still have been fresh to the readers of the story at Christmas 1866.

Similar accidents

Other accidents where the signalman forgot, or got confused about the presence of, a train include:


  • L. T. C. Rolt, Red for Danger: the classic history of British railway disasters, Sutton Publishing (1998) ISBN 0-7509-2047-5
  • Peter R Lewis, Disaster on the Dee: Robert Stephenson's Nemesis of 1847, Tempus 2007.

External links

  •; account of accident
  •; report by railway inspectorate

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