A Family Casualty: 12 October 1915 Dewsbury Tram Disaster – “It’s just like Ypres”

Tuesday 12 October 1915: the day when the runaway 4.10 afternoon tram from Earlsheaton wreaked havoc in Dewsbury town centre, eliciting comparisons to war-torn Belgium. One soldier witnessing the aftermath exclaimed “It’s just like Ypres”, whilst other sightseers observed it was “A bit of Belgium” or likened it to a Zeppelin raid.

Losing control on the steep incline of Wakefield Road, the tram shot past the Dewsbury terminus, careered past the end of the lines and over the setts, before finally crashing into buildings on Market Square. Here it demolished Messrs Hiltons Boot Shop, several upper rooms of the popular Scarborough Hotel hostelry and badly damaged the neighbouring Messrs Lidbetter, Sons and Co., provision merchants. In the course of its destructive path the tram also collided with two horse-drawn vehicles near the Town Hall.

Aftermath of Collision Aftermath of Collision

One early theory for the accident was the slight  drizzle on Tuesday afternoon caused the Number 3 tram to skid – greasy tracks had caused an incident in the same spot previously. But this was discounted by an eye-witness account from one of the injured. Mrs Oldroyd said that the trolley pole had left the overhead wire higher up the hill leaving the driver with no means of braking.

A notoriously treacherous location, it was counted fortunate that the latest mishap occurred in the late afternoon of what was half-day closing in the usually busy town. At 4.20pm the shops were shut and only a few people were around. As a result only seven people were injured. These were listed in the newspapers as:

  • John James Callaghan (21), living in Ossett. The tramcar driver gallantly stuck to his post until the very last before he was either violently thrown, or jumped, from his platform into the road. He suffered head cuts and concussion. Born in Falls of Schuylkill, Philadelphia he moved to Ossett with his family when about six months old. He worked for the tram company from the age of 13, becoming a driver less than a year prior to the accident;
  • Maggie Saddler (28), living in Ossett. The tramcar conductress also incurred head wounds and concussion. She too stuck to her post as the vehicle hurtled out of control. She had been in the role for under three months, a change brought about by the war. Prior to that she worked as a domestic in Bridlington. But the downturn in trade in the seaside resort as a result of the war, combined with job opportunities afforded by it with men serving with the military, led to this change ;
  • Ethel Oldroyd and her daughters Edith (7) and Phyllis (3) from Earlsheaton were the only three tramcar passengers. Ethel sustained cuts on her right leg, hand and shoulder, a sprained ankle and bruises. Edith received head and knee cuts. Whilst Phyllis incurred cuts and abrasions. Fortunately these injuries were only minor. Her husband, away in Uxbridge with the 5th West Yorkshires, was granted permission to return home as soon as news reached him that evening;
  • Mrs Violet Pinder (49) of Purwell Lane, Batley fractured her leg in the incident;
  • Mrs Ethel Noble (25) of Wakefield Road, Dewsbury, the daughter of Violet Pinder, suffered bruising and shock.

Callaghan and Saddler

It is the latter two passengers who link to my family history. Violet Pinder was the youngest daughter of my 3x great grandmother Ann Hallas and her husband, the wonderfully named Herod Jennings. A large family of 12 children Violet was born in Heckmondwike in 1866. Along with her siblings William, Eliza and Rose she was baptised at Staincliffe Chirst Church on 5 November 1868. The family seemed to go for mass baptisms or none at all![1]

Staincliffe Church (with Halloween guest) Staincliffe Church (with Halloween guest)

Violet worked as a cloth weaver prior to her marriage, and this continued intermittently afterwards. She married coal miner Samuel Pinder on 4 August 1886 at Batley Parish Church. Subsequently Samuel worked as a fish salesman. Ethel, the daughter caught up in the runaway tram incident, was the second of their six children.

Violet Pinder Violet Pinder

At 4pm that Tuesday afternoon Violet and her recently married daughter decided to go for a walk. Some discussion ensued as to the route to take before, arm-in-arm, the pair decided to look at shop windows in town. They had not gone very far, just above the Town Hall, when they heard the noise of the approaching tram and screaming. Before they could take any action the tram smashed into the back of the pony and cart of general carrier, Mr Benjamin Buckley. He had tried, but failed to avoid the collision by turning into Rishworth Street, at the corner of the Town Hall. It was too late. His cart, carrying a load of rags, was sent flying and knocked down the mother and daughter.

Ethel came round to find herself lying in Wakefield Road near to the pony. There was some suggestion her injuries were caused by the pounding of the horse’s hooves as she lay unconscious in the initial aftermath. Violet lay prostrate some distance away in Rishworth Street, her left boot badly cut and torn with the heels of both taken clean off by the force of the accident. Ethel summoned up enough strength to run over to her mother where she promptly collapsed, unable to move any further.

As luck would have it in the motor vehicle behind the tram was trained nurse, Miss Maude Kaye. She rendered first aid to the victims until medical assistance arrived. Ethel and Violet were conveyed initially to the Town Hall before a horse-drawn ambulance took them, the conductor and conductress to Dewsbury Infirmary. The Oldroyd family were less seriously injured and returned home after receiving treatment at the scene of the accident.

Ethel was able to leave hospital the following day, and the newspapers reported early in November that John James and Maggie had also left hospital to recuperate at home. Violet was less fortunate though spending several weeks in hospital recovering from her injury.

She did recover and died in 1938, aged 71.

The enquiry into why Tram No.3 ran away was held in Dewsbury Town Hall on 11 November 1915. By this stage all the victims had ‘practically recovered.’

John James Callaghan, in giving evidence, explained he became a conductor for Dewsbury and Ossett Tramways Company in 1912, began training as a motor-man the previous Christmas and took up duty as a motor-man on the Ossett and Earlsheaton routes on 20 August – less than two months before the accident.

On the afternoon of the accident, when he began his shift for the day, he had made five journeys between Dewsbury and Earlsheaton on No.3 car without mishap. He started the fateful journey from Earlsheaton at 4.10pm, and made the usual stop at the junction before turning into Wakefield Road. With the car in check and power applied to the brakes he continued at not more than four miles per hour. The rails were in bad condition, greasy after a rain shower, and he repeatedly applied sand to the rails to keep the car under control. However, on testing the hand-brake, the car gained speed and shot away. John James applied the hand-brake again, but the car continued at pace, it reached the points and went out of control. In order to try and avert a disaster John James continuously sanded the rails and used the emergency brake, to no avail. The brakes failed.

Other witnesses from the Tramway Company were called including Fred Dale, the motor-man who John James Callaghan had taken over from on the tram earlier that day. He said the vehicle was in working order, as did Albert Davis, the car-shed foreman who had thoroughly overhauled and examined No.3 car the previous day. He had re-examined the car after the accident and, but for the damage it the collision caused, it was still in good order. In his opinion defective brakes were not the reason for the crash. He believed the driver had under-estimated the state of the rails and simply applied the hand-brake. Then he sanded the rails and applied the brake too sharply and was unable to recover control as the wheels were skidding. Once control was lost Davis admitted there was no infallible mechanism for regaining control.

Another driver, who was in the tram behind, said the rails were bad because of the rain, he could tell by the rising dust John James was sanding the tracks, and – before the tram went round the bend and out of sight – it was already skidding. He also said a car had never got out of control whilst he was descending that hill.

It seems that the accident was a combination of poor weather conditions affecting a difficult stretch of track, and an inexperienced driver.

A century on all the locations are very familiar to me. I walk past Staincliffe Church regularly. I occasionally drive down the very steep incline of Wakefield Road from Earlsheaton to Dewsbury. I am regularly in Dewsbury in the area around the Town Hall. There are no signs of the accident which caused such a stir in the area, and had a direct impact on my family history.

Sources:

  • Ancestry.co.uk – Staincliffe Chirst Church baptism register http://home.ancestry.co.uk/
  • Batley News 16 October 1915 and 13 November 1915
  • Dewsbury District News 15 October 1915
  • Hartshead St Peter’s Parish Register – baptisms
  • Batley All Saints Parish Register – marriages
  • FindMyPast – Censuses http://www.findmypast.co.uk/

[1] 16 June 1857 marked the baptisms at Hartshead of children Henry, Ellen and Louisa. Henry was 13 at the time, and not the son of Herod. My 2x gt grandmother, Elizabeth, was not baptised until 1901. Other children do not appear to have been baptised. I’ve not traced any non conformist records either, so perhaps an indication of religious ambivalence.

2 responses to “A Family Casualty: 12 October 1915 Dewsbury Tram Disaster – “It’s just like Ypres”

  1. Christopher Tomlinson

    Very informative , thank you ..

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