Things that went bump in the night

I’ve long held the belief that if you’re looking for someone in a crowded place, the best thing to do is stand patiently in the same place, and eventually they’ll walk past you. So I’m finding it is with local history: queries I posted a very long time ago get found by people using search engines, then all of a sudden there’s an answer.

Railway expert, reader and contributor Ian Pell has been in touch, and written a fantastic article about the explosives train that derailed near Norton Junction (Higbridges, between Pelsall and Brownhills) in 1971. I’d been told the tale of the near evacuation as a boy, and one of my earliest articles here was asking for info.

Over time we established that there was truth in the story, but details were scant (I can’t find the comments now, but I seem to recall a good contribution about the considered evacuation – if anyone spots it I’d be grateful for the link, please). Now Ian has lit the whole thing up, his article shows exactly why I curate this blog and my huge thanks go out to him. This has solved something I’ve been hunting for on and off for years.

I’m hugely indebted to Ian for this. If you have any memories of this, or anything to add, please do comment here or mail me at BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com.

Ian wrote:

Hi Bob

I was looking through some of my old scrapbook cuttings on the South Staffs Railway and something in my far flung memory recalled the following:-

Information required – can you help?

June 15, 2009 by BrownhillsBob

In the 70′s, a freight train carrying some kind of munitions or explosives is said to have derailed between Pelsall Road and High Bridges. The incident was apparently quite serious. Did it happen? When? What’s the full story?

I can reveal with the help of the attached photo that the incident did indeed occur on 26th March 1971, and that in fact the residents of Brownhills and Clayhanger, as well as probably Pelsall, were lucky they didn’t all go ‘bump in the night’.  The train which derailed was probably the 19:38 6V74 Nottingham to Swansea ‘Merchandise’ working.  This working was noted for conveying MOD stores from Beeston (RAF Chilwell) and attaching beer at Burton for Swansea.  In the ‘good old days’ this traffic had turned right at Lichfield Trent Valley Junction and travelling via Stafford, Shrewsbury and the Central Wales line to arrive at it’s destination, but on closure of the Stafford to Wellington line, it was re-routed over the complete length of the South Staffs line and southwards via Worcester.

I seem to recall that a couple of barrier wagons were usually placed between the locomotive and the MOD wagons, and the beer was usually attached to the rear.  Other traffic could be, and was, also carried and the train was a regular runner.  On the night in question the train derailed as it was travelling south from Brownhills towards Norton Junction, the wagons being smashed apart as the accompanying photograph clearly shows. Fortunately, the train was only carrying one wagon of munitions, consisting of 12 tons of commercial gelignite.

Unfortunately, the 20:35 4P00 Wolverhampton Low Level to Derby parcels travelling in the opposite direction was bearing down on the crash and was unable to stop, ploughing into one of the derailed casks of beer wagons which on this occasion appear to have been marshalled at the front of the train; the impact being just four wagons away from the gelignite. Phew!

A full-scale emergency was declared with Royal Army Ordnance officers from Warwickshire being called in to check the gelignite to ensure it was still stable before work started on clearing the wreckage.  It took around five hours for the gelignite to be made safe for normal handling. A spokesman for the Fire Brigade confirmed that the gelignite could have caused wide-spread damage of up to a half mile radius around the crash site.

The guard of the parcels train. Mr. A.E. Palmer of Aston was slightly injured and taken to Walsall hospital.  The driver Mr. A.G. King was also treated at hospital for shock. Both were discharged shortly afterwards.  Single line working was initiated later in the day (Friday), but it wasn’t until the following Monday before the busy freight line was back to normal.

As a footnote, seven hours later AM4 Unit No. 002 forming the 07:12 Birmingham New Street to Walsall passenger train left the track at Pleck, slightly injuring a nurse, one of the 12 passengers on board.  Three of the four carriages derailed but all remained upright.     Not the best day for BR!

Thanks go to the Express & Star for the article, kept safely in the scrapbook,                                                                      and to the MOT for the accident report for the Pleck derailment, which confirms the exact date.

Hope the above is of interest and answers some of the questions posed.

Kind regards


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13 Responses to Things that went bump in the night

  1. Pedro says:

    I can imagine a couple of blokes quickly rolling a barrel the Burton Ale along the track!

  2. Clive says:

    Nice one Ian and Bob.

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  12. freeboprich says:

    I could be wrong but looking at the position of that guy’s arm he seems to be smoking next to a train that could have potentially been carrying explosives… The mind boggles!

  13. Amazing that this incident didn’t make it to the railway archive and the Pleck junction one did

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