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Stories from the past: The Downton Train Crash

Stories from the past: The Downton Train Crash

The 1884 disaster that made the national news

This image from the front page of The Illustrated London News depicts the destruction of the carriages.

On the 3rd of June 1884, there was a train accident on the London and South-Western railway line that travelled from Salisbury to Weymouth, which ran through Downton station, until its discontinuation in 1964. Between Downton and Breamore stations, a portion of a train came off the rails, causing a further several carriages to fall off the embankment next to the line. Tragically, five people died and 41 were injured.


The train was a double-headed passenger train; two locomotives with tenders and a break-van at the front of the train, with two separate crews operating them.

The 4:33pm train had left Salisbury station around six minutes behind schedule at approximately 4:39pm. By the time it had reached the Downton station it had gained 2 minutes and therefore, must have been travelling at around 43-44 mph - faster than the train companies’ average speeds of around 35mph. According to the accident report, this faster speed continued upon leaving the Downton station up until the point of the crash. The crew of the front locomotive noticed a cloud of dust forming, and brought the train to a halt. They then discovered that the second locomotive had come off the track on the left hand side. This, in turn, had caused the carriages following behind to topple over. The train’s guard, George Waters stated that he felt a “great oscillation” when he reached 50 yards from the spot of the incident.


The crash had taken place near what was then the Downton Agricultural College and many of the staff and students came to help, among other locals. The railway company gave the college a silver cup, named the Wrightson Cup. To this day the Wrightson Cup is awarded annually to a pupil at Trafalgar school, who displays bravery.


In a report, the  Board of Trade came to the conclusion that the force and weight of the two engines displaced the rails of the permanent way, which was not suited for these heavy weights driven at high speeds, due to its weak construction. It stated that having this second engine was an unnecessary danger and “the train engine was unsteady, deficient in steam-power, and unfit to run the train at the speed at which it was timed."


The Board of Trade requested the Directors of London and South-Western Railway to take into consideration unsafe stock and commented on how there was a need for reform in the management and an improvement of the condition of the railway. Calls for reform and further safety requirements, as a result of such crashes, shows how Downton was part of the journey towards improving Britain's railways.


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