This is the story of a young family whose future was recast in about ten seconds as the Scotch sleeper and mail train derailed at high speed a few minutes after 11pm on the night of 19th September 1906.
by John Clayson
The Fateful Journey, Wednesday 19th September 1906
Early in September 1906 John and Mary Robertson and three of their four children enjoyed a holiday with family and friends at Netley, a village on Southampton Water in Hampshire. Mary Elizabeth Gasson had been born into an army family in Aldershot in 1880. She grew up in Netley and John, an army sergeant from Scotland, was stationed there. The couple married at the local church early in 1898.
On the afternoon of Wednesday 19th September the family set off to travel home to Hamilton Barracks in Lanarkshire, where Sergeant Robertson was serving with his regiment the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) with whom he had fought in the South African War (1899-1902). The children were Ivy aged 8, Peggy aged 3 and Edward, known as ‘Teddy’, who was just 15 months old. A fourth child, John William aged 6 and known as ‘Willie’, had remained in Scotland.
The family caught the 4.25pm branch line train from the village station in Netley to Southampton Docks where they boarded the 5.15pm express for London Waterloo. On arrival they made their way across London to King’s Cross station, where it was reported that they enquired of a railway official about their options:
They had intended to take the 8.15pm train, but, finding that they would hardly have time to get tea, decided to defer their journey till the 8.45. They arrived at King’s Cross about eight o'clock, with a good deal of luggage, and Robertson asked for the best trains to connect with Hamilton, N.B. ['N.B.' is an abbreviation for 'North Britain', widely used in the 19th century for postal addresses in Scotland]. The official replied the 8.45 or the 11.30, adding that the latter train was the faster. Mrs. Robertson urged her husband to wait for the 11.30, remarking that they could then take a stroll and have a look at the shops. Her husband, however, thought it would be better if they took the slower train, so that they should be on their way, and the children could be got to sleep. The mother fell in with this decision, and they took their seats in the ill-fated train. [from The Weekly Dispatch, 23rd September 1906]
The Robertsons settled into the Glasgow portion of the 8.45. The coaches were towards the front, the 5th and 6th vehicles of the train: two six-wheeled passenger carriages similar to that pictured below.
These two vehicles were the oldest passenger coaches on the train, dating from 1884 and 1893. Six-wheeled coaches were being replaced on main line express services by new, longer vehicles, each carried on a pair of four- or six-wheeled bogies, which gave a much more comfortable ride for the passenger.
In those days the bodies of railway carriages were constructed from wood and most coaches were lit by gas lamps, the gas being compressed and carried in tanks attached underneath.
Below are layout plans of the two Glasgow-bound coaches.
- The 5th Coach: ECJS corridor 3rd class, No. 207
ECJS is an abbreviation for East Coast Joint Stock, a pool of railway vehicles (rolling stock) jointly built, owned and operated by the three independent railway companies whose lines formed the East Coast Main Line between London and Edinburgh until the companies were merged into the LNER in 1923. ECJS vehicles also travelled beyond Edinburgh to Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen.
- The 6th Coach: ECJS corridor 1st and 3rd class, No. 122
The Coaches behind the six-wheelers
Behind the pair of six-wheeled coaches were two sleeping cars and three compartment coaches. All five were modern 12-wheeled bogie vehicles, each twice as heavy as the two coaches in front.
The Front Guard
Guard William Knighton travelled ahead in the fourth vehicle, a large van where Glasgow passengers' luggage was stowed. Knighton had been a passenger guard for 19 years. He remembered the family because, the day after the accident, he told a reporter:
I had spoken to Peggy in King’s Cross Station before the train started. Sergeant Robertson had his service medals on. [from The Grantham Journal, 22nd September 1906, slightly edited]
The train departed from London on time and stopped at Peterborough, leaving at 10.20pm. The expectation was that the Glasgow through coaches would arrive at Queen Street station, Glasgow at 7.23am the following day. The Robertsons most likely planned to take a local train to Hamilton which is about 12 miles up the Clyde Valley, expecting to arrive home during the morning.
Just after 11.00pm the train dashed at speed through Grantham station against red signals. It failed to negotiate a junction and disastrously derailed; the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th coaches plunged down an embankment. During the agonising seconds of the crash the momentum of the heavy twelve-wheeled vehicles at the back of the train completely demolished the relatively frail six-wheelers in front of them. The Glasgow-bound coaches and the pair of sleeping cars behind them became heaps of wreckage in which fires began to take hold. Amid the devastation the Robertson family were separated.
Mary and Peggy Robertson are rescued
Peggy was not badly hurt, and she was heard crying out for her mother, who was found nearby trapped and seriously injured. Here are extracts from newspaper reports of their rescue:
An unnamed ‘Grantham gentleman’, one of the first on the scene:
I saw two men carrying a woman… A little girl was crying [and] a man took her into a cottage on Wharf Road where she was attended to… [from The Grantham Journal, 22nd September 1906]
George Simons of 1 Wharf Road, a baker and confectioner:
…I then came to the East Coast conductor [this was Guard William Knighton] and drew him out onto the level, and I found the child Peggy Robertson not far off. I picked her up in my arms [and] handed her to a boy, and returned to the conductor, and a friend of mine named Pridmore helped me to carry him to Mrs Rowe’s house, in the Old Wharf Road, where Peggy was also taken. Mrs Rowe placed everything she had at our disposal, and gave us a cloth with which we bound up the conductor’s face and arms. They were afterwards attended to by Dr Frier*, and, later, conveyed to the Hospital. Pridmore and I returned and rendered all the assistance in our power…Never shall I forget the sight and I never thought I could do what I did. [from The Grantham Journal, 22nd September 1906]
* This was Dr Charles Frier, a GP who established his medical practice in Grantham in 1896 and continued into the 1950s.
Thus Mary and Peggy were rescued by local people before midnight, given first aid and taken to Grantham Hospital.
Mary had suffered a severe head injury and at first she struggled to tell the nurses at the hospital her name. When she regained consciousness her first words were, "Where are my husband and little ones?" Staff at the hospital conveyed the information to the accident scene so that a search for the rest of her family could be made.
John, Ivy and Teddy Robertson are found
It was around 11am in the morning of Thursday 20th September, when equipment could be positioned to lift the heavy debris, that the bodies of Ivy and John Robertson were discovered. John was initially identified by his two South African War medals engraved with his name. Later in the day little Teddy was the final victim to be found.
Mary and Peggy Robertson at Grantham Hospital
Over the following days there were fears that Mary would not pull through. Initially her condition was described as ‘very grave’. A report on the condition of the injured was published in The Grantham Journal on 29th September:
Mrs. Robertson, two very severe scalp wounds, severe burns on the chest, both arms and legs, and body badly contused; Peggy Robertson (convalescent), cuts on face. All the patients are making satisfactory progress, except Mrs. Robertson [who] is still in a critical condition…
Mary remained in hospital at Grantham along with Peggy for seven weeks. She was unable to attend the funerals of her husband, elder daughter and baby son.
More about the Robertson family
from The People’s Journal, Aberdeen, 29th September 1906, slightly edited:
A Scottish town over which there came a feeling of gloom was the iron burgh of Hamilton. The first intimation that told Hamilton it had victims in the fearful smash was a telegram to the Chief Constable announcing the death of Sergeant Robertson, of the Scottish Rifles, and his daughter Ivy, aged 8 years. A little later there came an additional wire which stated that a son, named Teddie, was also killed, and that Mrs Robertson and another daughter, Peggie, were severely injured.
The sad affair created a profound sensation throughout the whole town, but more especially in the vicinity of the deceased's residence and the barracks. … By postcard they had intimated to the wife of another sergeant that they would be home on Thursday morning, and asked her to get the house ready, but, alas! the house is still empty.
Sergeant Robertson, who was a native of Renfrew, was a veteran soldier, having served his country in the Scottish Rifles for the long period of 17 years. He was the proud possessor of the Queen Victoria medal and also that of the King with six bars, which he gained in the South African War. When the war was over, the sergeant, who had a long and honourable record, was transferred from his regiment to the permanent staff at Hamilton Barracks, where both he and his wife had gained many friends, and were held in high respect.
The deceased sergeant while serving with his regiment was recognised as one of the most skilful shots in the Scottish Rifles. He was fond of sport, and in the early years of his soldiering he was a prominent footballer, and since joining the depot he materially assisted in the management of the local football combination.
and from The Hamilton Herald and Lanarkshire Weekly News, 29th September 1906:
The late Sergt. J. Robertson, who was one of the victims of the Grantham railway smash, was even to the end an enthusiast in football matters. His last Saturday in life was spent amongst the members of the Netley Abbey United F.C., for whom in his earlier years he played, and on whose behalf he actually officiated as linesman a fortnight ago. His football comrades gifted a beautiful wreath, and at least three-fourths of the players and members of the management committee took part in the funeral obsequies on Monday.
The Funeral, Monday 24th September
The Great Northern Railway Company arranged to transport the coffins containing the bodies of John, Ivy and Teddy from Grantham to Netley by rail on Monday 24th September.
Early in the morning five members of the 4th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment, based at Grantham, carried the three coffins out of the Guildhall to a hearse, which they accompanied to the station. There they placed them inside a special van provided by the railway company which was attached to the 5.49am southbound train. Four members of the family travelled on the train.
The funeral took place that afternoon, the van presumably being transferred across London and to the south coast by special arrangement with other railway companies.
We have included below most of the report carried by one of the local newspaper. It illustrates how the effects of the Grantham disaster were felt at a village far away from Lincolnshire.
From The Hampshire Advertiser 29th September 1906, page 10:
THE RAILWAY TRAGEDY.
SORROWFUL SCENE AT NETLEY.
During the early part of the afternoon groups of people were to be seen wending their way towards the station, and by 2.25, when the train carrying the bodies pulled in, the large open square which immediately fronts the station, the station itself, and every available spot of vantage, was occupied by a large crowd, whose presence was in itself an eloquent tribute to the memory of the dead.
In the centre of the square were drawn up 40 men of the R.A.M.C. [The Royal Army Medical Corps, based at Netley Military Hospital], under command of Lieut. Payne, R.A.M.C., and Sergt.-Major Jent. R.A.M C.; also Quartermaster-Sergt. Turner, of the 4th Scottish Rifles, and three men; two men of the 2nd Scottish Rifles; one man of the 4th Scottish Rifles; one man from the regimental depot; and P.C.'s French, Barker, and Bothwell, of the Southampton Borough Police Force, who were at one time members of the 2nd Scottish Rifles, to which battalion Sergt. Robertson originally belonged.
The gun carriage and team was provided the Army Service Corps [A.S.C. - responsible for army stores and transport], the men being under the command of Corporal Frial, A.S.C. There was also a detachment of eight men of the A.S.C., under the command of Staff-Sergeant Norman. After the train had pulled into the station, the carriage containing the bodies was detached and shunted into the siding. The coffin containing the body of Sergeant Robertson was first removed, and reverently placed upon the waiting gun-carriage. An open carriage, laden with floral tributes was then driven up. A number of the wreaths were removed, and soon the coffin was almost hidden under its beautiful burden. Following this eight boys from the village, under the charge of Mr. Thomas, marched up in military formation, and bore away the coffins containing the bodies of Sergeant Robertson's little boy and girl, to the hearse which stood in readiness at a little distance. The cortege was then formed and moved slowly away. Throughout the whole of these operations the silence was almost pathetic in its intensity. The order of the cortege was as follows: First the gun-carriage with its mounted corps, draped with the Union Jack, and upon which lay the flower-covered coffin containing the body of Sergeant Robertson, his military headgear and side arms. This was followed by the village hearse, in which were the coffins of the two little children, Teddie and Ivy. Next the eight village boys marching four on each side of the cortege, two coaches containing the principal mourners, and finally the detachment of 40 men of the R.A.M.C., with whom was the Rev. F. G. Wright, chaplain of Netley Hospital.
After the cortege had formed some little delay was occasioned, as Mr. C. Logan, brother-in-law of Sergeant Robertson, who identified the bodies at Grantham, was arriving by train. Numbers of people lined the route between the station and Hound Parish Church, and in the churchyard itself another large concourse of people had gathered. The service was conducted by the Rev. W. A. C. Chevalier, Vicar of Netley, with that beautiful dignity and simplicity for which he is justly noted. The first part of the service was held within the church, and the conclusion at the grave-side. At the conclusion of the service the “Last Post” was blown over the open grave by the bugler of the R.A.M.C.
Recovery at Grantham Hospital
Mary's condition remained critical for more than a week.
Mrs. Robertson is still very ill, but she was perfectly conscious and able to converse a little with the Rev. C. Elsmere, vicar of Spittlegate, Grantham, who has visited the injured two or three times a day since the accident. Little Peggy Robertson has so far improved that she was to-day able play with toys in the children's ward. [from The Nottingham Evening Post Saturday 22nd September]
Peggy appeared to be making make rapid progress:
Little Peggy quickly recovered at the Hospital, under the tender care of the nursing staff, and she was made the recipient of many presents of toys. Her engaging ways won the affection of all … [from The Grantham Journal Saturday 17th November 1906]
Little Peggy Robertson, in whom great interest is felt locally, has enough dolls to last her for years … [from The Grantham Journal Saturday 29th September]
Mrs Robertson is now considered to be out of danger. [from The Grantham Journal Saturday 6th October]
… Mrs. Robertson and her daughter Peggy … are progressing very satisfactorily. [from The Grantham Journal Saturday 20th October]
Mary and Peggy return to Netley
On Wednesday 7th November, seven weeks after the accident, Mary Robertson was well enough to travel although she was 'by no means fully recovered'. Mary and Peggy returned by train to Netley in a special carriage provided by the Great Northern Railway.
Mrs. Robertson … was discharged from Grantham Hospital on Wednesday morning, and arrived at Netley in the course of the evening. The railway company thoughtfully provided a special saloon carriage, and Mrs. Robertson, who bore the trying experience of the journey remarkably well, and her friends, were conveyed direct from Grantham via Portsmouth to Netley. [from The Hampshire Advertiser 10th November 1906]
Tragically, however, the Grantham accident was soon to claim its 15th victim. Twelve people had died on the night of the accident, another two had succumbed to their injuries in hospital. By early November all the survivors appeared to be on the road to recovery. People in Grantham were therefore shocked and saddened to hear that on the Saturday following her return to Netley three-year-old Peggy died from diphtheria at Southampton Infirmary. Signs of the illness began during the rail journey, and it was first thought she was suffering from a severe cold. Her rapidly worsening condition led to admittance to hospital on the Friday.
On Tuesday 13th November 1906 Peggy was buried beside her father, sister and brother. The photograph below shows the grave today in Hound Churchyard with the memorial erected by John Robertson's regiment, .
Mary, her son Willie and her life after the accident
There are sombre sequels to the story, but in the end, we believe, a happier outcome.
The elder son of the family, John William G. Robertson and known as Willie, was aged 6 at the time of the accident. Willie had not travelled to Netley - he'd remained at school in Scotland, looked after by his aunt, Amelia Hardie.
In the spring of 1907 Mary, now aged 27, married Lionel Henry Logan, the brother of her sister's husband. Lionel became licensee of The Prince’s Tower Hotel at Grouville, Jersey, where Willie spent the remainder of his childhood with his mother and stepfather. The couple had two sons, born in Jersey in 1908 and 1909.
Late in 1917 young Willie attained the age of 18. The summer of 1918 found him in northern France, near Arras, with the 4th Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) taking part in the Second Battle of Bapaume, an offensive in the vicinity of the Hindenburg Line fortifications. Along with 40 of his comrades, Willie was killed on 31st August 1918.
Another sad chapter in the life of Mary Robertson, now Logan, was the death soon afterwards of her second husband, Lionel. He was using his skills as a hotelier for the benefit of disabled servicemen by working as caterer at St Dunstan's Hostel for Blind Soldiers and Sailors in Regent's Park, London (an organisation known today as Blind Veterans UK). On 18th February 1919, having been taken ill a few days earlier, he became a casualty of the Spanish Flu influenza pandemic. As a Staff Sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Lionel Logan received a military funeral at Kensal Green Cemetery.
Mary continued to live in Jersey. At the beginning of World War 2 she was evacuated back to Netley Abbey but afterwards she returned to the island. In 1947 she married her third husband Fred Richard Webber Clarke, a widower and the proprietor of the Biarritz Hotel in St. Brelade's Bay. Fred died in St. Helier in July 1981, aged 99, and Mary lived until 1984, attaining the age of 104 years.
It has been a moving experience to research and to relate a sequence of events that cruelly shaped the destiny of a family, first in a horrific railway disaster swiftly followed by a common but deadly infection, and then, twelve years later, on a battlefield of the Great War and in a pandemic which swept through a population weakened by the war effort.
The writer has paused to reflect on whether it is proper to feature this story in Tracks through Grantham, including events which took place more than a decade after the Grantham disaster. Research revealed that all six members of the family who lost their lives prematurely through accident, infection or war are commemorated publicly today by monuments: four of them in a Hampshire churchyard, one in northern France and another in north west London. So it seemed appropriate to bring the family story together here, a story shaped by the unforeseeable consequences of a major railway accident. This page is therefore respectfully dedicated to the memory of the Gasson, Robertson, Logan and Clarke families.
Many sources have been consulted. in contemporary newspaper reports there are minor contradictions between some eye witness accounts of the rescue and recovery of casualties. Where these occur we have done our best to reconcile them using alternative sources, though this has not always been possible. There are also differences in reported information about the names and ages of some individuals; again, in the interest of accuracy we have tried to reference other sources.
Please get in touch if you are able to suggest further corrections.
The Grantham Rail Crash of 1906 by Harold Bonnett, 1978
The Illustrated History of East Coast Joint Stock by Ken Hoole, 1993
The Railways Archive (Board of Trade Accident Report)