So it was, on Tuesday 11th June 1861 the train which had passed over the bridge less than an hour earlier fully laden, left Leamington Spa station at 6.50am, tender first. It was pulling a rake of now empty coal waggons for the return journey to the Victoria Colliery at Hawkesbury.
The train falls
Travelling up the incline to Kenilworth at 8mph it began to cross the Hill Wootton Bridge. As the front of the tender reached the far side, the bridge structure failed, sending the train plunging the 16 feet to the road below.
Had the cast iron beams failed simultaneously (or even just a few seconds earlier) and the engine plus tender had fallen straight down, the crew might have survived. As it was, the beam second from the Leamington end failed first just as the tender reached the far side of the bridge. This caused the tender to jack-knife as it fell, pinning driver and fireman under tons of coal against the fire box. The result was that both men were tragically burnt to death.
The 50 feet between the two abutments was completely filled with debris including the engine, its tender, and six of the coaches it was pulling. This was as well as the timber and ironwork of the bridge. In fact there was so much debris, that it took several hours to release the bodies of the crew, which where were eventually taken to the Anchor Inn in the nearby village of Leek Wootton.
The Engine Driver was George Rowley. The 1861 census was taken only two months before the accident and records a George Rowley, aged 24, who was an engine driver born in Norton, Northamptonshire. He was lodging in Hill Street, Warwick. As this is only around half a mile from the station on the corner of Old Milverton Road I would say this is almost certainly the same man who was to meet a horrific end only nine weeks later.
Plus instead of having a June wedding his fiancée would be attending his funeral. There is a burial of a George Rowley at Dodford, a small village in Northamptonshire not far from Norton. Although his age is given as 23, because the burial took place only five days after the accident I would say it is the right person.
The Fireman was John Wade. The 1861 census records a John Wade, railway servant, lodging at 4 Saunders Street, Warwick – again only a short walk from the station. His place of birth is given as South Lancashire, which would fit with reports that he hailed from Preston. He was also a young man, aged only 25. Sadly, John was also due to be married before the end of the month.
At the end of the inquest the jury recommended, amongst other things, that in future the railway companies should monitor the increasing weight of the traffic their bridges were expected to carry. Plus they should inspect their own bridges rather than abdicating this responsibility to the board of trade. They also recommended that the bridge which crossed Bath Street/High Street should be inspected urgently as there was concern locally that the same could happen.
Although it was heavily criticised for its perceived penny pinching, in the competitive world of 19th century railways the company need to save money whereever possible. It was found that the seven year old locomotive, despite falling 16 feet and being covered in debris, had suffered only superficial damage. As such, it was repaired and returned to service. Originally numbered 282, it remained in service under its new number of 1981 until November 1879.