THE OVERTURNING OF A TRAMCAR AT EWOOD BRIDGE
For those Blackburn Rovers supporters with a keen love of, and a keen eye for the Club's history there is nothing more satisfying than recounting the many triumphs accorded to the Club over the past 144 years - the unbelievable scenes associated with the ultimate triumph of celebrating as Premiership Champions in 1995 is perhaps the best example where euphoria gets a grip of us all, even the least excitable. Those triumphs, those never to be repeated days, are precious in any football supporters life, but they should sometimes be tempered by those fortunately, not so often occasions, where human tragedy strikes. One such prime example was the horrific outcomes from the collapse of a railway bridge at Old Knowsley Street Railway Staion in Bury one January Saturday in 1952 when one Rovers supporter was killed and 175 others injured. This occured following a Second Division match at Gigg Lane between Bury and the Rovers and is well documented on this Cottontown website. Those of us of advancing years will well remember that day as will those supporters who know their Rovers' history. What I didn't know, and have never seen or heard it mentioned in general or in Rovers -associated terms, was that there was a Tramcar accident on the approach to Ewood Park in 1882, some seven years following the founding of the Club. Not only was I unaware of this incident but I had no idea that a family member was involved until, whilst carrying out some family history research, I discovered that my Great Granddad, John Thomas Cumpstey, was injured in the incident and there was a Rovers connection too.
The events on the evening of 7 August 1882 coincided with the Final of the East Lancashire Charity Cup being played at Ewood between the Rovers and their fiercest rivals of that time, Blackburn Olympic. The tram cars, run by the Blackburn and Over Darwen Company, passed the entrance to Ewood and, as a consequence, for some time before and just ahead of kick off the trams were heavily crowded and, in fact, overcrowded with supporters. All went well until one of the tramcars had passed down the incline from the Infirmary Hotel to Hollin Bank Mill. After a short distance of level ground there was another steeper descent, curving sharply to the right before passing over the bridge which spans the River Darwen before then turning sharply to the left. The tramcar went down the hill from Hollin Bridge Mill "at a great rate”, according to a competent witness at "16 miles per hour, double the statutory and proper speed." Fearing that the tramcar would overturn, some passengers grabbed the overhead brass handrails as a precaution. Despite the protestations of a Police Officer for the tramcar to reduce speed, the tramcar overturned on its right side and was derailed. The passengers on the open upper deck were thrown off, mostly into the road, "but two were precipitated into an adjoining field." Although the view of thousands attending the match that night was obscured, the noise from the crashing glass and timbers alerted them to the tragedy that had happened. "Dr Morley, Mr Morley, Surgeon, his son, and several other medical men also at once went to the scene, and Mr Eastwood, Secretary of the Infirmary, being at hand (at the match) at once took a cab and went to the Town for other medical men". Although initially surviving the accident, Mr William Riley, died later of his injuries at the Infirmary. Following the printing of a list of casualties I discovered that my Great Granddad, John Thomas Cumpstey, then aged 25, was injured in the incident, having been thrown from the tramcar. Investigations into the cause of the accident were undertaken almost immediately, including the arrest of the driver and, thereafter, the following day, a Court appearance.
During that same month, Major General Hutchinson, Inspector for the Board of Trade, held an Inquiry into the incident. Accompanied by two Directors of the Tramway Company, some of the Officials and a representative of the makers of the engine, Messrs. Kitson and Company of Leeds, General Hutchinson visited the scene of the accident and the Company's Depot and examined the rails and curves and the damaged car. The Major General further inspected one of the Company's engines and was made aware of the construction and mode of application of the brakes of the engine and car and the working of the engine. Subsequently, and having returned to Blackburn Town Hall, he examined several witnesses to the incident, the first being PC Metcalf of Blackburn Police who confirmed that after signalling to the driver, he did not notice whether the brakes were applied to the wheels of the engine. He further stated that he watched the car until it went over and although it did not oscillate it appeared to go over on two wheels before turning over on one side. PC Metcalfe further reported that he did not see anyone attempt to jump off the car before it turned over nor did he assist in picking up the man who died, nor could he say where he was. The driver he said appeared perfectly sober and did not make any remark to witnesses about the accident.
The engine driver, William Robinson, said that, as far as he knew, the brakes of the car and engine were in good working order at the time of the accident. Mr Robinson explained that he believed the steam brake applied itself when the speed exceeded ten miles an hour. He explained that he went over the brow leading to the bridge at the rate of 8.75 miles an hour, with the steam shut off and the brakes applied. He explained that the incline was 1: 18. It was reported that the brakes did not seem to take proper effect and consequently the speed increased in descending the incline. In turning the curve at the bottom, the engine passed over a stone on the left side rail and the car capsized immediately afterwards on its right side. Mr Robinson confirmed that he did not see the policeman signalling him to stop and the car turned over without witnesses seeing it and the first intimation he had was by the engine being lifted off the lines.
Mr John McDermott, the conductor, stated that there were 52 passengers on board, instead of 42, when the accident happened. Mr McDermott said that he felt the car jerk, which he attributed to an obstruction on the rails, before the car capsized. Mr McDermott said they started the journey at 6.30pm with a full load which should have been 20 inside and 20 outside. He had more than that number because he carried 25 inside and 25 outside which was increased as they were travelling. It was remarked by Mr McDermott that the passengers were going to a football match at Ewood Park. He said that the distance from where the accident happened to Ewood Park was about 130 yards. It did not strike Mr McDermott that they were travelling faster than usual whilst descending the brow at Ewood Bridge, he felt the brakes being applied at the top of the brow and thought they were still on when the accident occurred. He thought the speed was between 8 and 9 miles an hour when the tram turned over.
On being re-questioned the driver, Mr Robinson, said the roads were very dusty and dry.
Mr Albert Hughes, a foreman of the Starbuck Car and Wagon Company, Birkenhead, stated that he had examined the damaged car and found the brakes to be all right and had acted properly. He said he did not examine the play in the axle boxes but merely for repairs. There were one of the platform supports underneath broken and several standards dividing the windows were broken. He had allowed the eighth of an inch play between the axle and the axle box to provide for going round curves. He had also examined one of the trams that morning and found that it had half an inch of play. He believed it would have worked to a little more than it was originally made with it.
James Henry Moores, Superintendent of the Tramcar Drivers, confirmed that he had examined the No 1 engine the day after the accident and the governor apparatus allowed the engine more than the usual speed. It allowed it about 11 miles which was owing to the springs wanting setting up. The brakes were in first class order and also the steam brakes. Mr Moores attributed the accident to the car running over the top of the brow too hard and was also of the opinion that there was something in the metals as he had got quite a collection of articles from the metals.
In concluding his Inquiry, Major General Hutchinson confirmed that he would read other witness depositions and following confirmation that the incline at Ewood Bridge was 1:12.5 he remarked that it would be impossible, if they got over the usual speed, to get back again. Before leaving the Bench, Major General Hutchinson requested the Chief Constable to express the thanks of the Board of Trade to the Town Clerk for use of the small police court.
This dreadful but little known tragedy in the Town ended with the following statistics:
One man died - William Riley, coal agent, 38, Harwood Street, Blackburn, aged 40 years.
The following detained in the Infirmary as a result of serious injuries:
Eleazar Cooke, aged 18, clothlooker, 28 Whalley Road, Blackburn.
Henry Hayes, aged 58, contractor, Pendle Street, Blackburn.
Richard Slater, aged 26, commercial traveller, 5 Bath Street, Blackburn.
Joseph Blenkhorn, aged 44, moulder, 1 Riley Street, Blackburn.
John Thomas Cumpstey, aged 25, tallow chandler, 38 Inkerman Street, Blackburn.
Thomas Wilson, aged 32, working engineer, 10 Follywell Street, Blackburn.
William Goodier, aged 26, piecer, Cannon Street, Blackburn.
Some 23 other people received treatment to injuries and were allowed home.
Written and researched by Fred Cumpstey, October 2019
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