The 1940 Ware Railway Accident

By Robert Candlish

Unlike the two earlier train accidents at Ware, which I have already written about, the one that happened on Monday 8 January 1940 is an enigma. It was by far the most serious accident ever to have occurred on the Hertford East Branch in terms of the number injured and yet never seems to have been the subject of a formal inquiry. Consequently, much as I dislike using them as source material, contemporary press reports are all that seem to be available here.

David Dent the author of 150 Years of the Hertford and Ware Railway [Rockingham Press, 1993] has shown me a photocopied clipping from an unidentified newspaper which reports on the accident and includes a photograph on an LNER tank engine laying on its side and facing down an embankment. The location is impossible to pin-point because of the absence of any landmarks in the background, but it is certainly not on the single running line through Ware station which is laid at the same level as the surrounding land.

The nearest “embankments” are both beside the Down line. One starts at milepost 22 and continues in the direction of St Margarets behind the factories in Marsh Lane; compensating for a slight fall in the lane between the Lea Navigation and the New River. The other starts opposite the junction of Scotts Road and Hertford Road.

Here a broad, deep drainage channel begins and runs right beside the line and behind Broadmeads Pumping Station before meandering off over The Meads towards Hertford. Although both lines here are actually laid at the same level as the surrounding land the presence of this deep channel immediately beside the Down line gives the impression of an embankment; helpfully an electricity sub-station at its starting point shows the 10 metre OS grid reference TL35741403 on a plate fixed to the fence.

The Hertfordshire Mercury of Friday 12 January 1940 carried a front page report on the accident, which happened at about 5.30 pm when the 4.30 pm from Liverpool Street collided with the 5.24 pm from Hertford East just outside Ware “a short distance on the Hertford side of the level crossing”.

The Mercury records only three people injured, the most serious being one of the drivers, 55-year old Henry Matson of Wragley Road, Leytonstone, who suffered a fractured hand and was detained at Hertford County Hospital. The Railway Archive website ( though quotes 31 injured. The Mercury report paints a confusing picture since it uses very loose terminology. For example it includes descriptions like “the Hertford train” and “the Liverpool Street train” without explaining whether this was their destination or where they had started from.

Piecing together the information in the report though the accident seems to have been caused by what modern railway parlance would call a SPAD (“signal passed at danger”) by the driver of the Up train from Hertford East.

One of the sub-headlines in the Mercury report reads “Passengers Escape in Black-Out Crash”. It would be a mistake however to think that the black-out was the cause of the accident. One of the first train crashes to occur under black-out conditions happened at Bletchley on Friday 13 October 1939. This was investigated by Lt-Col Alan Mount (who had earlier investigated and reported on the 1927 accident at Ware).

A large part of Mount’s Bletchley report deals not with the accident itself but the effects of black-out conditions on drivers awareness, and he suggests with some reservations that “such conditions actually make the driver’s task easier”. Although lighting on stations and in trains was severely suppressed as a black-out measure, for safety reasons nothing was ever done to dim signals, which therefore were more visible at night than ever before, and trains continued to carry lighted tail lamps.

There can be little doubt that the Down train bound for Hertford East left Ware with the appropriate authority. Before the signalman there could lower the Down Starter signal four criteria would have had to be met:

(a)   The level crossing gates would have had to be shut across the road

(b)   The points at the Hertford end of the single line section must have been set for a movement onto the Down line

(c)    The facing point lock on these points must have been engaged

(d)   The Up Home signal must have been set at Danger

otherwise the lever frame interlocking would have prevented the Down Starter from being lowered. The signalman in any case would have had no reason to signal the Up train into the station since there would be nowhere to put it until the Down train had left.

In an interview with The Mercury a passenger in the leading coach of one of the trains said it approached the points and “shuddered”, adding “The train appeared to strike the points and seemed to fall over. I think the telephone post held us up. We appeared to hit one coach a glancing blow”. Both locomotives were derailed and one ended up on its side.

The description of the accident in The Mercury and the nature of the damage to the rolling stock which I have seen in photographs of the aftermath seem entirely consistent with the train from Hertford East running past the Ware Up Home signal at Danger, meeting the departing Down train on the points (which were rather closer to Hertford than they are today, having been repositioned in 1960 when the line was electrified), derailing itself and the other loco too, then ripping the sides out of most of the carriages in the Down train. The loco on the Down train then seems to have travelled some distance on the ballast before toppling into the drainage ditch opposite Scotts Road, where it was photographed the following day.

To close, I feel I must offer a warning to anybody contemplating using contemporary press reports as primary source material for historical research. The final paragraph of the Mercury report on the 1940 Ware train crash reads:

“The crash recalls and accident which occurred at Ware Station on the Monday evening of November 1, 1927. This occurred at about 9 p.m. in the evening, and was at the Rye House end of the station, ten people being injured.”

Not one of its most glorious pieces of investigative journalism since 1 November 1927 was a Tuesday, the official report states the accident happened at 8.49 pm, the Mercury’s own report into the 1927 accident lists the names of 11 people injured and the official report puts the injury toll (correctly) at 27. Three factual errors in a single paragraph – a serious warning of the unreliability of press reports for historical research!


Hertfordshire Mercury (1940) : Coaches Wrecked in Hertford – Ware Train Collision, issue number 8,683 dated 12 January, p 1

Ministry of Transport (various dates) :

(1939): Report of an inquiry into the accident at Bletchley on the London Midland & Scottish Railway which took place on Friday 13th October 1939 , London, His Majesty’s Stationery Office

(1940): Report of an inquiry into the accident at Norton Fitzwarren on the West of England main line of the Great Western Railway which took place on Monday 4th November 1940 , London, His Majesty’s Stationery Office

Nock, O S (1971) : Britain’s Railways as War 1939 – 1945, Shepperton, Ian Allan, pp 72/3 and 107/8

Wragg, D (2006) : Wartime on the Railways, Stroud, Sutton Publishing Ltd, p 47 et seq

This page was added on 22/10/2011.

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