ON Christmas Eve 1874, Oxfordshire witnessed its worst ever Rail disaster when a train derailed at Shipton-on-Cherwell killing 34 passengers – six of them local. Debbie Waite and Brian Sperrin report.

Christmas Eve 1874 – and while the county prepared for the yuletide festivities, a train was passing through Oxfordshire, ferrying families home here and beyond.

There was no indication of the carnage to come when passengers boarded the London to Birkenhead express at Paddington that morning.

Apart from running several minutes late it was only when the train pulled into Oxford station that its fate and those of its passengers were irrevocably changed.

Because of the sheer number of passengers on the train (records show up to 500), it was decided an extra carriage would be added. Unfortunately the only available carriage was rather ancient.

As the train passed through Kidlington the train’s fireman James Hill saw a man waving his hat out of the window of third class coach 845.

However, it was not until it had travelled a further mile-and-a-half that the crew realised something was wrong – and by then it was too late.

Engine driver Henry Richardson later told the inquest he saw snow and dirt flying off the wheels on the offside of coach 845 as it approached the wooden bridge over the River Cherwell and Oxford Canal.

The carriage that had been added at Oxford station then derailed, sending most of the train and several coaches plunging down a steep embankment into the waters below.

Reports recalled how several carriages were “smashed to atoms” and the canal was littered with wreckage.

The accident occurred close to the villages of Hampton Gay and Shipton-on-Cherwell and locals were the first to respond to the plight of the train passengers.

The local Member of Parliament Sir Randolph Churchill, who was staying at Blenheim Palace to celebrate his baby son Winston’s christening, brought staff and guests from the palace to assist in the aftermath of the crash.

Thirty-four people died and more than 70 were injured, many seriously. The six Oxfordshire fatalities were Edward Sylvester, 45, an accountant who lived at Norham Manor, St Giles, Oxford, and was a partner in the firm of Hawkins and Sylvester, in St Giles. He was buried in St Paul’s cemetery on Dec 29.

Mary White, 35, was the keeper of a lodging house in New Inn Hall Street, Oxford, and was married to Edwin White, a butler at Knowlton Hall near Wrexham. She was travelling to be with him for Christmas but was buried at Clifton Hampden on December 31.

Samuel Busby, 55, was the postmaster at Curbridge, near Witney, and was travelling to Birmingham to spend Christmas with his daughter and son-in-law.

Richard Cartwright, a 25-year-old farm labourer for Mr Kilby of Launton, near Bicester, was travelling to Banbury to attend a wedding at Cropredy.

The youngest victim, Fanny Yeates, five, died in hospital after the crash. Her mother Sarah Yeates, 36, of Filkins, died on the train. Her other daughter, who was just two, survived. The Swinford Museum at Filkins has a memorial plaque in their memory.

The Shipton Rail Disaster, as it would become known, was the worst in the history of the Great Western Railway.

The paper mill at Hampton Gay was used as a temporary mortuary, and the church a refuge against the bitter weather until a train arrived to take the surviving passengers to Oxford, where the injured were admitted to the Radcliffe Infirmary and others into hotels, including The Randolph.

The official inquiry into the disaster concluded that the most likely cause of the accident was a broken wheel on the carriage that had been added to the train at Oxford.

  • My great-grandfather was a victim

Among the locals killed was Samuel Busby, 55, the postmaster at Curbridge, near Witney.

At the inquest into the crash, on December 26, which was held at the manor house in Hampton Gay, home of the paper manufacturer, Mr Pearson, his son-in-law James Miles, gave evidence.

Mr Miles, a shoemaker, from Birmingham said: “Having seen the bodies which the jury have viewed, I identify among them that of Samuel Busby, aged 53, who was the father of my wife Fanny. He was coming down to spend Christmas with me.”

Samuel Busby’s great grandson, Don Dell, now 82, and living in Birmingham, said: “It was quite a shock to find out that my great-grandfather had been killed in a rail crash.

“His son, my grandfather Charles Busby, never mentioned it to me, although my parents and I lived with him until I was eight.

“I was actually researching my family history and contacted the Oxford History Library in 2004. I couldn’t believe it when they first told me about my links to the rail crash.”

Dave Beames, 76, and now living in Cheshire, is a distant cousin of the late Mr Busby.

He said: “Samuel would be (I think) my first cousin three times removed. I only found out about his death about 10 years ago.

“His burial record just says ‘killed in the railway’, and I’d assumed that he was a labourer who’d wandered on to the rails at an unsuitable time.”

  • A passenger's story

Mr C Day said: “We continued helping one another until I was literally exhausted, and then two or three of us who kept together went to get some refreshments, three or four hours having elapsed since the accident.

“Some help was obtained from the neighbourhood, but they telegraphed Birmingham and a special train brought 100 labourers.

“Surgeons were also telegraphed for.

“One surgeon from the neighbourhood was most active, and used the splinters to set broken limbs and tore up one lady’s petticoat for bandages, and in the midst of his labour one fellow stole a watch and chain.

“They detected him and he would have been lynched had not the police arrived in time, for broken telegraph wires were tied round his body and they were just going to drag him through the canal.”