Tragedy of train crash in Mayfield

22nd September

No one expected tragedy to strike when they boarded the 8.18am London train from Eastbourne on Wednesday 1st September 1897.  

The train was made up of the engine (the ‘Bonchurch’) and was coupled to five passenger carriages and a milk van.  The train was unusually busy that day as discounted tickets to London were offered on Wednesdays and, by the time it reached Mayfield, there were about 50 passengers on board.

The train was four minutes late and needed to pick up the lost time in order to meet a connecting train at Groombridge.  The train driver that day was not the regular one. James McKinley, who was an experienced and well thought of railway employee, had fatefully agreed to fill in that day due to the sickness absence of the usual driver.  

Later investigation concluded that the train had been going too fast for this stretch of track and the train left the single rail at Tooth’s Bank, Mayfield. Some of the carriages were ‘hurled’ 60 feet down the embankment.

Driver James was killed when he jumped out of the train and was instantly struck by a carriage behind.  He left a wife and five children bereaved at their home in Commercial Road, Eastbourne.

Fortunately there were no further fatalities, but a number of injuries including Mr Ford of New Pond Hill who sustained a broken nose and William Hollamby from Heathfield who had a dislocated shoulder and chest injuries.  The fireman, Lewis Minns, was taken to the Railway Inn at Mayfield where he was treated for serious internal injuries.

Bravely, passenger Miss Alexander of Heathfield Park (who was bruised) climbed out of the lamp hole in the top of the carriage she was travelling in and walked home! 

It was concluded later that excessive speed was probably the cause of this tragedy and poor maintenance of the track (which had rotten sleepers) had probably enabled the speeding train to tip. The timetable between Mayfield and Groombridge was subsequently adjusted to allow for more time along this stretch.

The damaged and deteriorated track was quickly repaired by 60 railway engineers and labourers who were transported from Brighton to reconstruct this important London, Brighton and South Coast Railway route.

Article reproduced courtesy of local Historian and author Nicola Walker.