The Charfield railway disaster has long held the imagination and lingered in the memory of the town’s residents for generations. A mere 60 seconds was the difference between life and death for sixteen people in the late hours of October 10th, 1928 as a train filled with passengers crossed the English countryside. After colliding with another stationary train, gas cylinders ignited and within seconds the train was an inferno, consuming everything and everyone in its path. The crash was a national tragedy and a chilling and horrific scene for those who were there to witness it. But amid the burning wreckage and the charred remains of those aboard a mystery was revealed.
The strange events after the crash have left an everlasting question mark on the identity of two young victims who, to this day, remain unidentified. And then there were the subsequent sightings of a woman dressed entirely in black, who mysteriously arrived each year to lay flowers upon the children’s grave.
At 4.28am on Saturday, October 10th, 1928, a mail train headed from Leeds to Bristol was passing through the station at Charfield village, located in Gloucestershire, where another freight train was already parked. The night was described as misty by witnesses but the railroad officials had deemed the visibility good enough to not employ the use of the foggy weather signalmen.
If they had, it might have prevented the entire disaster.
According to post-crash investigations, juries found no fault with the signalman Henry Button, who accepted both this train and the goods train at the station before putting the red sign up for danger to bring the mail train to a stop so the goods train could leave safely. However, in the misty night air, the conductor Henry Aldington Aldington and his fireman Frank Want read the signal as green for clear and continued their journey through the station. Seconds before the collision, Want and Aldington saw the train in front of them and applied the brakes before they both ducked down to avoid the brunt of the initial impact.
When the trains hit, the mail train derailed partially, sending several carriages and the engine off the tracks and clear to the area surrounding the track. The rest of the train, was not so fortunate as the two vehicles telescoped and became wedged together under the nearby bridge. Horrifyingly, the gas cylinders of the first four cars were punctured in the crash, causing the gas to ignite and starting a fire that would be responsible for 14 of the 16 deaths in the crash. The 40ft high flames could be seen burning in the night sky from miles around.
Villagers nearby and attendants at the railway station immediately came rushing down to the tracks to try and free those who had been trapped inside cars with the quickly moving fire burning all in its path. Several survivors told guilt-ridden stories about leaving behind fellow passengers who were unable to be freed before the flames go too close.
Meanwhile, Aldington and Want immediately got into an argument with Button over the mix up of signals, but the systems employed for signaling made it nearly impossible that human error on Button’s part was responsible for the crash. And as the flames ate their way through the train, 14 more passengers died as their screams for help went, ultimately, unanswered, despite the best effort of first responders.
Of the 14 charred bodies, 12 were so badly burned they were recognizable to family members only by jewelry and personal effects found near them. Because of this, many family members of victims agreed on a mass grave, as provided by the railway company, to lay their deceased loved ones to rest. However, not all the body identifications were routine.
Two bodies believed to be that of a young boy and a young girl, perhaps brother and sister, were found in the wreckage but remained unidentified and unclaimed in the days and weeks following the crash. When it became clear no one was going to come forward for the two bodies, they were placed in the mass grave with the other victims.
The question of who the children were plagued those involved in the tragedy. Several theories began to pop up across the country about the identity of the children and why no one came to claim them. Among the theories that cropped up were that the two bodies weren’t human at all, but ventriloquist dummies. Another popular theory was that they were not the bodies of children, but instead of small riding jockeys. Some even claimed the entire story was a hoax generated by the media to make more of a story out of tragedy. There was also talk of a woman who came forward at some point claiming the bodies belonged to her two brothers but the assertation was never given much weight and never followed up on. Whatever passed through the rumor mill, the bodies remained unidentified.
And, like all good mysteries, it doesn’t end there. For years after the crash and burial, a woman in dressed entirely in black was seen periodically visiting the memorial for the two children in Charfield. Those who claimed to have seen the mysterious woman said she was old, frail, and had about her an air of great sadness. At the memorial, she would leave flowers before hastily departing in her chauffeur-driven limousine. No-one knew who she was or why she visited the memorial. Many began to speculate she knew something about the crash that no one else did and perhaps even the identity of the children. However, like many stories lost to time the woman in black ceased her visits in the early 1960s and her identity and purpose has remained a mystery ever since.
Over the years the Charfield railway disaster has been the topic of many films and books. Nick Blackstock’s novel Something Hidden paints a fictionalized history for the two unknown children, and many think it may not be far from the truth. Was the entire crash part of a massive conspiracy or cover up? Were the children simply orphans with no family to claim them? Did the woman in black really know something about the crash the rest of the world did not? Unfortunately, we may never know the answers.
However, in one last twist to the tale, local legend has it that in the area surrounding the crash site, people have witnessed strange sightings over the years of ghost children who stand together, hand in hand silently looking down the tracks. Locals say they are the children, patiently waiting for the day someone identifies them so they can finally rest in peace.
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