The 5.18 To Hayes
4th December 1957
As Dick made for the train at Charing Cross he could see that the 5.10pm.to Bromley had already gone. But! If he ran he’d get the 5.18pm.to Hayes and change at Lewisham. Cursing his gammy leg, he struggled onto platform one, the ticket collector on the gate was urging people to get a move on as the guard was franticly flagging the train out of the station. Too late! An able bodied man would have jumped into the open door in the last carriage, but “The War” had put pay to Dick’s heroic jumping days. The station briefly fell silent, before the next batch of home bound commuters mumbled their way onto the platform to catch the 5.30. Gravesend via Lewisham, and Blackheath. “Lewisham mate”, the ticket collector interrupted Dick’s thoughts of Normandy, “Lee! I would have got that one if I hadn’t coped this in France” he replied in way of an excuse. “Best stay here next train is coming in from Waterloo now”. The thought of moving off the platform, made him feel tired his leg was throbbing. Dick stayed put and engaged the ticket collector with ideal chat, “What’s it been like ‘ere, terrible at Tottenham Court couldn’t see a thing it so thick.” “Murder mate, total bedlam, worse than when they were bombing the place, Name’s Bert, what’s yours?” “Oh! Richard every one calls me Dick.” “Got a Fag?” Bert interjected. “No, I’m a pipe man.” By now the open end off the Station was enveloped in the swelling cloud of dampness from the river seeping along the rails from Hungerford Bridge. The Dover express was adding to the grayness of the atmosphere with clouds of sooty steam, belching high up to the Victorian iron work that was once brightly painted, now the same colour as the gray black atmosphere that surrounded everything in the station. All the light was concentrated in a misty pool around the concourse end of the platform. Beyond was a black void.
Out of this void the 5.30pm.electric Dartford Loop train screeched its way along platform one, it hissed to a halt, purring as the air brakes recharged. By now only the first two carriages could be seen from where Dick was standing, but there must have been more as the few passengers who had disembarked in the black beyond where struggling against the homeward surge. While Bert and Dick had been mussing about the weather the guard and driver joined them to change over for the return journey. “What kept you, ten minutes late,” Bert jibbed. “—– off, it not funny tonight we’ve got to get back to the Gravesend then the depot at Dartford” was his reply “No offence mate” then too Dick, “Get in with the guard, standing room only in that carriage and you can bet there’s another train load at Waterloo and London Bridge”. “Thanks better give us a hand” Dick lifted his stiff leg onto the step in an exaggerated way, getting his hands around his right knee to lift the lower leg. The guard jumped into his compartment and pulled Dick through the door. “You can sit there, wait while the old man gets up his end and we will be off.” “Mind the gap, more room down the front, best move down, you’ll not get in there, lady”.
Dick smug in the thought that his old war wound had got him a privileged place on the now totally packed train, got out his pipe and started his pipe smokers ritual of loading the pipe. The 5.30 to Gravesend slowly inched its way onto Hungerford Bridge. Only when he looked out over the river did he realize how dense the fog was, there appeared to be nothing beyond the flash, flash of the lights on the footbridge as the train slipped between the iron latticework of the bridge. The train screeched its way through the tight curves to Waterloo then again onto London Bridge. What had been a packed train was now full to bursting point. Not a single square inch of floor space was not occupied by a home bound office worker or shoppers loaded with shopping bags.
Once clear of London Bridge the train still made little progress, it was edging at a snails pace towards New Cross. Out side the usual landscape of street lights and neon signs was a black wall of nothing, in side was a mass of sweaty humanity. Some one had open a window but the carriage had filled with an even worse smelling cold damp fog, so it was rapidly slammed shut Dick sat in the relative comfort on the guards compartment smoking his pipe and ideally chatting to the guard, about the one subject that had preoccupied his generation ever since 1939, “The War”.
“Dads late tonight must have missed the train, best start your dinners now or they will spoil, boys” Irene was organizing at home. “Mum! It’s Mrs. Higgs to see you”. “Rene I thought I’d let you know. Robert has just got in from work, he says there’s been a derailment at Lewisham, Dick might be delayed it was the 5.18. Dick catches the 5.18 doesn’t he?” Out side people had come out to question anyone about what had happened. Jenny who live with her Mum and Dad, the Hebert’s, at number 67.was in tears, “It was ‘orrible they where lines of ambulances going down Lewisham, we had to get off at Ladewell and get a bus.” Tom from number 70 came strolling up the road “You’re the lucky one, get a bus some chances, had to walk all the way, got lost twice can’t see a thing out there.” The scene was like in a mining village after an accident, or a fishing village after a great storm. Every one was out waiting asking questions, news was patchy. Mrs. Higgs said the TV had said that there had been a derailment and there had been some minor casualty nothing more specific. It was getting late now 9.00 and still Dick had not arrived home. Every one else in the road had come home late tired and full of tales of what they think had happened. The thing was the fog was so thick no one had seen more than a few feet around them and most came home by different routes than usual as all trains had been stopped. Rene got the boys ready for bed, taking her usual stoical worse has happened before attitude. But! Deep down she was frightened what if he was on the derailed train. Memories of the day she got a telegram from the war office saying Dick was missing. When he was in Tonbridge Hospital, then it was we have no records of a private Richard Smith Dorset Regiment being admitted. We have a Major Smith Dorset regiment he’s over there, “That him that’s Dick”. She was going to have to go through all that again. “Phone! Mum! Phones ringing”. “Dick where are you, its dad, he’s at Lee Green.” “Get to bed now Dads won’t be long”.
After crawling along for hours the train stopped completely. “Need to go and check with the driver”, there was a warning light flashing in the cab. The guard grabbed his railway lamp and got down into the fog. After a while he reappeared breathless with the driver in tow. “The bloody bridge has gone”. The driver was shaking with fear or cold he couldn’t stop himself. Dick remembered that fear when Chalky had found him in the ditch at Maultoc. “Christ mate that was a close one, front bogies are hanging in mid air”. “I saw the rear end of a carriage sticking in the air, some poor sods have copped it, and we’re going to escort this lot back up the line to St Johns.” He was talking fast and confused, he was obviously in shock. “Hold it mate need to get to the signal box, get the power off first.” Then! “Is the driver or guard there?” It was a fire officer followed by an ambulance crew. “Here mate”. “Careful the powers not off yet”. The guard called out. “OK. Mate we’ve seen to that, this is a big one; we are setting up ladders down the embankment so that your passengers can get down onto the road. Any casualties up there”. “Don’t think so we stopped, my mate is a bit shaken could do with a cupper”. The guard shouted back. “I’ll walk back set up detonators at St Johns to warn on coming traffic”. “Powers off”. “All trains are stopped”. “No! There could be diesel goods going throw to Hither Green, best follow rules”. “Look after my mate here he’s not looking too good he’s gone quiet”. Dick tried to help him down the bank but his gammy leg gave way and he slid into the garden below. The ambulance crew came to his help. “Here mate lets have a look at that leg”. They exposed his spring loaded caliper before Dick could explain it was his old head wound that caused his leg to collapse not something that had just happened. “Best see to the drive he is shaking like mad” “Can we help come into our Kitchen it warm”. Maud had come out to see what had happened. “Heard a bang thought the house had been hit again, got an incendiary threw the roof in ‘41 you know, bloody well like the war again. Come in love have a cupper, Pops put the kettle on”. It was an agonizing three hour walk for Dick blindly following the curbs until he could find a street name. In the end there was a convoy of people all lined up behind him? “Any one for Lee High Road follows me”. Dick called out as he realized he had company. “Blind leading the blind mate, we are getting there”. Thus it was Dick finally found a phone box with out a queue a mile long, and phoned Rene.
Later the full horror of the night came out over the news. The 4.56 Ramsgate express had plowed into the back of the 5.18 Hayes Electric causing it to telescope, the Ramsgate Steam Loco stayed on the line but its tender leaped into air and took the support of the bridge down. Dick’s train arrived on the scene two minutes after this had happened stopping with the leading coach hanging over the wreckage below. Ninety people died that night over two hundred were injured. All this was in the papers the following day. Sunday Uncle George came around for his usual Sunday Lunch. He had done this ever since his divorce. George had spent most of the war as prisoner of war after being captured somewhere on the French, Belgium border. “You’ll find Dick in the greenhouse; he’s potting up some chrysanthemums cutting”. Up stairs we boys John, Pete and myself (Dave) were busy making a lot of noise pretending to by famous fighter pilots. We had spent the morning at Church with the scouts and where bored. “Uncle George is here you lot, keep the noise down”. Life was back to normal at home. The area around Lewisham station was a scene of frantic activity and had been since the accident on Thursday night. The grim task of recovering the dead had been completed. The wreckage had to be moved and the lines repaired. The press where calling for action automatic braking systems so that trains don’t pass red lights, should have been fitted to all trains after the Harrow crash in 52. How could two identical accidents happen five years apart? Hundreds of families where now reaping the grim horror of this official inactivity.
But! Life for the Smith family carried on, Rene and Dick where glad they had come through worst.
Read more about this train crash on wikipedia