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Sheerness train crash remembered 45-years on

By John Nurden

It began as an ordinary day. But Friday, February 26, 1971, was to turn into a nightmare.

Eighty commuters on the 5.16pm train from Victoria were returning home. They were about to become part of Sheppey’s history when their 10 coaches failed to stop at Sheerness and careered through the buffers.

The train ploughed past the end of platform one, smashed through a wooden wall and came to a halt on the station’s forecourt, opposite a sign saying “Welcome To Sheerness”.

The front page of the Sheerness Times-Guardian
The front page of the Sheerness Times-Guardian

On its way, the front carriage struck Joyce Kathleen Carr, 29, of Cliff Gardens, Minster, who had been standing in front of the booking office buying a ticket.

Mrs Carr was dragged under the front cab and was the only one to die in the disaster.

Two people survived after being pinned under the wreckage.

John Hawkins, 17, was pulled free by firemen after they borrowed a jack from the nearby Hollands fairground to raise the carriage.

He was taken to hospital but later released unhurt. He returned to his parents’ home in Minster in time to watch footage of the crash make the lead item on that night’s News At Ten.

The other person trapped under the train was Olive Holloway, 57, of Borough Road, Queenborough. Mrs Holloway suffered cuts to her thigh.

Joyce Carr, who was killed in the train crash
Joyce Carr, who was killed in the train crash

Not surprisingly, Sheppey made the front pages of the following day’s national newspapers.

The Times Guardian which had published normally on the Friday morning, hurried out an emergency edition.

There were tales of miraculous escapes. Taxi driver Terry Baker, of Russell Street, Sheerness, was sitting in his cab in the rank when the train burst through the outside wall.

He missed death by inches as the iron buffers rammed the side of his car and debris rained down on the roof.

One pregnant woman was so shocked by the episode that she went into labour early. Train crash baby Jen Gordon was born a few hours later. Within seconds of the disaster – just before 7pm – police, fire and ambulance crews were on the scene.

Off-duty doctors, nurses, volunteers from the St John Ambulance Brigade, led by Superintendent Kenneth Maltby, of Sheerness, Roman Catholic priest Father Patrick McDermott and the vicar of Sheerness, the Rev Norman Baldock, all edged their way through horror-struck crowds to offer help.

The scene of devastation at Sheerness train station. Picture by John Gamble
The scene of devastation at Sheerness train station. Picture by John Gamble

Cafe owner Ron Lodge and his team served tea to the rescuers.

A fleet of ambulances took the 11 injured to Medway Accident Centre. Among them were train driver James Rothwell, from London, and the guard Ernest William File, from Ramsgate. Both were discharged after treatment.

Booking office clerk Mick Robinson, 54, was brushed aside by the train as it roared through the building at up to 20mph, sweeping his office and Mrs Carr with it and scattering tickets into the air.

Mr Robinson, of Alexandra Road, Sheerness, said: “I looked up and suddenly there was the train coming at me. Before I had time to think, I was knocked over and found myself under it.”

For more than an hour he refused to leave his post but eventually agreed to go to Sheppey General Hospital after securing all his tickets and cash. He was kept in overnight and treated for scratches and bruises.

Colin and Lynne Johnson were married and reporters on rival newspapers at the time
Colin and Lynne Johnson were married and reporters on rival newspapers at the time

In those days there was a book stall on the station. Its owner, William Wood, 72, of Thames Avenue, Sheerness, was shutting up shop when the train crashed through.

He said: “I heard shouts and saw some great thing coming towards me. I thought ‘This is it’, so I just closed my eyes and ducked.

“I served in the trenches in the First World War and the noise reminded me of the shells coming over.

“There was shouting and screaming. It was horrible. I was so numbed I couldn’t dial 999 properly.”

Victor Tullett, of Marine Parade, Sheerness, had been in the front carriage but managed to scramble free and escaped with only a bump to his head.

He said: “We had no idea the train was not going to stop until the last moment. It slowed down and all the passengers were on their feet ready to get out when we felt the first bump. Then it just went on and on.”

Terry Osmond, brother of Joyce Carr, the woman who was killed when a train crashed through Sheerness railway station on Friday February 26, 1971
Terry Osmond, brother of Joyce Carr, the woman who was killed when a train crashed through Sheerness railway station on Friday February 26, 1971

Fellow passenger Ray Titheridge, of Rosemary Avenue, Halfway, said: “I heard a loud bang and then a series of crashes. People were shouting and screaming.

“The carriage shuddered and continued shuddering. It got worse and worse until it was literally shaking.

“All the lights went off, the girl opposite was forced back into her seat and I pushed hard with my feet against the opposite seat. I stood up and looked out. It was very dark. I tried to see what was below me but I couldn’t tell if it was rails or the platform.”

Jean Stapleford, a sister at Sheppey General Hospital, had been waiting at the station to greet her daughter Linda, a student nurse at Chelsea Women’s Hospital, who was returning to Sheppey for the weekend.

Mrs Stapleford said: “The collector shouted something like ‘run’ and we both rushed into the nearby gents’ toilets.

North East Kent Times, page 9, 4th March, 1971.
North East Kent Times, page 9, 4th March, 1971.

“It all happened so quickly. I climbed over the debris searching for my daughter.”

Linda was found safe and, although shocked, the two nurses stayed to help the injured.

Engineers with a heavy-duty steam crane worked throughout the night under floodlights to winch the train back onto the rails. The front carriage was the last to be removed, at 6am on the Saturday.

Rail services were running again on the Sunday after a temporary booking office was built at the station.

The whole station was later demolished and replaced with the present one.

In this week's Sheerness Times Guardian, we have an eight-page report on the incident, including interviews with those involved.

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