(From SWWIAS Newsletter no.68, March 1997)
© Paul Reynolds 1997
DREADFUL ACCIDENT ON THE PORT TALBOT RAILWAY
"DREADFUL ACCIDENT ON THE PORT TALBOT RAILWAY. - On Monday a dreadful accident, attended with loss of life, occurred on this line. As the "Redruth" engine was proceeding with a long train of coal and iron to Port Talbot, when opposite Velindre, near Aberavon, one of the rails, which had become loose, sprang up, in consequence of the weight of the engine pressing on one end. This had the effect of diverting the engine from the main line, and causing it to run over a precipice twelve feet deep. The engineer and the stoker had a most providential escape; the former, with great presence of mind, jumped down the precipice, and within a few inches of him fell the engine with a tremendous crash. The stoker jumped off on the other side; but a third person, who was allowed to ride with the engineer, fell with the engine, and under the fire plate. The steam immediately escaped, and the poor fellow was in some parts completely boiled. Ten minutes elapsed before the parties who afforded assistance could extricate the sufferer from his awful position. He was carried to the Rising Sun public house, where every attention was paid him, but he died within two hours. The name of the deceased was William Garrett, a rollerman. He leaves a widow and thirteen children to lament his untimely end. There were no less than twenty-five men riding on the trams at the time of the accident, and there were many hair-breadth escapes."
The Cambrian, 23 June 1848
The line on which this accident took place was not, of course, the Port Talbot Railway which Arthur Rees described in Newsletter 42 (July 1986). That came much later than this incident. It was rather the line more usually known as the Cwmavon Railway, which was built in about 1840 to carry iron, copper and tinplate from Cwmavon works to Port Talbot. It replaced the earlier Cwmavon Tramroad of 1824 which followed a slightly different alignment along the course of Cwmavon Road
The spot at which the accident occurred can still be recognised, and it is marked on the accompanying map. Just north of the modern M4 viaduct the railway crossed the River Afan on a four-arched viaduct which still stands. The original Cwmavon Railway bridge of c 1840 was widened in about 1883 by the Rhondda & Swansea Bay Railway, which took over the Cwmavon Railway and used its trackbed between Cwmavon and Aberavon. The two phases of construction are easy to tell apart. North-west of this bridge the railway ran on a ledge cut into a sloping bank. Cwmavon Road is just above it and below it is the lane at the back of Avan Street and Velindra Street which were built in the late 19th century. Even today it must be about 9ft from the terrace occupied by the railway to the level of the lane and before the houses were built it was probably more. 'Precipice' is perhaps a rather melodramatic word to describe the location, but after making allowance for journalistic colouring, the spot fits the description in The Cambrian. There is no Rising Sun public house in the vicinity today, but James O'Brien (Old Afan and Margam (1926), p.109) records it as being on Cwmavon Road. It was probably in the area that is now occupied by the motorway viaduct or the council offices. Clearly it would have been very close to the scene of the accident.
Redruth, the locomotive involved in the accident, must be the one referred to by John Rowlands in his history of Cwmavon, Dechreauad a chynydd Gweithiau Cwmafan (translation by Graham Hughes (1985), p.19):-
"Before the end of that year [i.e. 1845] another locomotive was installed, this time on the railway line between Cwmafan and Port Talbot. The old townspeople of Aberafan were astonished at this new invention; at the outset they were ready to say that the world was going to the devil and that all these developments were aimed against the common people. But people soon changed their tune, and those who were most vocal in their opposition became the chief admirers. Indeed, the development was of great importance and added enormously to the potentiality of the works, since a locomotive could transport a much greater bulk of goods and materials than the horses had been able to carry."
Even so, after William Garrett's gruesome end there must have been those who said 'I told you so'.
The first locomotive belonging to the Cwmavon Company, which preceded Redruth and was supplied in the summer of 1845, was used on the railway from Cwmavon to Bryn. We know from the surviving drawings in Swansea Record Office that Neath Abbey built one locomotive for Cwmavon in 1845 (Laurence Ince, The Neath Abbey Iron Company (1984), p.117), but it would seem very likely that in fact there were two - the Bryn locomotive and Redruth. What happened to Redruth subsequently is not known. Presumably she was recovered, repaired, and put back to work trundling to and fro between Cwmavon and Port Talbot. A splendid photograph of five Cwmavon Railway locomotives is reproduced in Old Port Talbot & district in photographs, vol.1 (1981), plate 82. It may be that Redruth is one of them, but it is impossible to identify them individually.
It is interesting to note the large number of passengers on the train. Obviously it served as an unofficial 'paddy' train, which must have contributed greatly to the change of heart of the inhabitants after their initial suspicion. Why William Garrett should have enjoyed the privilege of riding on the locomotive is not clear, but he is more likely to have been 'allowed' to do so because he was a friend of the driver than because he had anything so official as a footplate pass. Note too the use of terms which have now come to be regarded as Americanisms, 'engineer' for 'driver', 'stoker' for 'fireman'. There is an interesting little research topic here for someone - when did U.S. railway terminology start to diverge from U.K. usage, and why did certain terms become specifically American when previously they had been perfectly acceptable U.K. usage?
[I am grateful to Arthur Rees for his advice in preparing this piece.]