It’s been almost 100 years since a horrifying railway disaster traumatised a sleepy village less than 20 miles from.
The collision of three trains and the fiery explosion it caused inbecame a national tragedy when it took place on this day in 1928.
As the years passed however, the tragic event and the mysteries surrounding it has continued to capture the imagination of those living in the area.
Scandalous rumours concerning the identity of two young victims, a mysterious woman in black and numerous conspiracy theories means the crash has lingered in residents’ memories for generations.
The disaster unfolded on October 13, as the Leeds to Bristol night mail train made its way through the morning fog.
For reasons never properly understood, the train hurtled past a red signal in Charfield and the 60 passengers on board found themselves seconds away from catastrophe.
Their train suddenly slammed into a goods train still on the line and then veered off the rails into a third empty train, igniting gas cylinders hung beneath the front carriages of the mail train.
A raging inferno soon consumed the wreckage of the trains, claiming the lives of 16 people despite frantic efforts to save them.
Alan Hamilton, an author and editor who has been intrigued by the Charfield disaster for decades, said there were scenes of chaos as residents and emergency services rushed to the scene.
“When the impact happened all the connections to the gas tanks ruptured and what you effectively got was a bomb,” he said.
“All it took was sparks from the collision, maybe fires from the engines, and the whole thing went up.
“The passengers at the front of the train were burnt beyond recognition. One was thrown out of the coach, over the bridge and into the road. He died in hospital.
“You can imagine when the rescuers began to search the wreckage they found only charred remnants.”
According to Bristol Times writer Eugene Byrne, the nearby Railway Tavern pub was quickly transformed into a makeshift hospital and morgue in the aftermath of the crash.
“Some people described flames as high as 30 or 40 feet because of the gas cannisters,” he said.
“It was horrible – a lot of people were badly burnt beyond recognition.
“The pub was used as a hospital – they had large tables and lots of space, and also brandy for medical use.”
In the following days, news articles were filled with tragic and horrifying stories.
A story in The Times from November 5, 1928 tells of a Bradford engineer, a passenger on the train, who heard his fiancée next to him scream before being thrown out of the carriage himself due to the force of the collision.
An article in the Bath and Wilts Chronicle and Herald from the day reads: “The scene was one of horror. Mingling with the cries and moans of the injured was the hissing of steam and the crackling of flames.”
The ‘two unknowns’ and the woman in black
Tragically, the bodies of two young children were among the remains discovered in the burning wreckage of the trains.
However, despite nationwide publicity, no one ever came forward and claimed the remains. Charfield residents were therefore forced to bury the children in a common grave at one of the village’s churches, which lists them as ‘Two Unknowns’.
Decades later and many unanswered questions still surround these two young victims. Who were they? Why were they on the train alone? Why does nobody know who they are?
The mystery deepened when a woman dressed in black began reportedly visiting the grave every year on the anniversary of the crash from the 1930s until the 1950s.
Legend has it she laid flowers and prayed by the side of the grave.
The identity of the two children and this mysterious woman in black is still the subject of much speculation among Charfield’s residents, many of who claimed to have seen her or know someone who has.
“People have told me there was a widow in black who used to visit the grave in a Rolls Royce,” Marshall Huxley, the new landlord of the Railway Tavern pub said.
Julie Tarrott, a cook at the pub, said her mother used to see the mysterious woman in black visit the grave every year.
“She never saw the face because she had a veil on,” she said.
“They used to think it was someone from royalty because the licence plate was covered up.”
Alan Hamilton has also considered the theory the Charfield disaster may have a royal link but is not entirely convinced.
“The theories range from the idea these kids were related to royalty or illegitimate royalty to the idea they were two rough sleeping kids who happened to be buried in the wreckage,” he said.
Eugene Byrne said the two unknowns and reported sightings of the woman in black has inspired many other legends – some more outlandish than others.
“The two children are one of the enduring mysteries of this accident,” he said.
“This woman visited on the anniversary on the crash, laid flowers and prayed at the grave.
“After the 1950s she stopped visiting. The implication is that she was the mother of these two children but we don’t know.
“The fact the woman in black is very wealthy is what drives a lot of these theories.
“The most outlandish theory was that they were actually two ventriloquist dummies. Another suggestion is that they were two particularly small jockies.”
However, there may be a more macabre answer to this unsolved mystery.
“A local carpenter said the two small coffins were not children but human remains that could not be fixed to any recognisable person,” Eugene said.
A dreadful mistake?
The fact there may have never been two children after all hasn’t stopped the folklore and conspiracy theories to thrive over the decades.
Many of them focus on train driver Henry Aldington. He was blamed for the crash, with a jury unanimously finding him negligent in passing signals when at danger.
He was committed for trial at Gloucestershire Assizes on a charge of manslaughter but the case did not proceed and he was discharged.
The fact the train driver walked free further fueled rumours of foul play and speculation among residents that the disaster was a cover-up.
“The other mystery is how on earth did this train go through the signal at danger,” Alan Hamilton explains.
“It was stated there was fog but they didn’t put out fog warnings.
“My theory is they saw what they wanted to see and they were hurrying. In those days, drivers were often penalised for being late.
“It was a dreadful mistake.”
Whatever the truth, the tragic disaster has endured in the memories of those living in Charfield and will likely to continue to do so for decades to come.