As a schoolboy in the late 1950s and early 60s, I regularly cycled over the small, almost rustic bridge linking Murray Avenue to Wendover Road, just east of Bromley South Station. Indeed, on the way home, I would often stop for an hour to watch the trains pass beneath, an activity which would quickly lead to my early death under a speeding car today (happily a separate footbridge has been provided). Because the bridge looked quite old, I had never realised it was not original until I came across the mention of its predecessor in the December 1882 edition of The Bromley Record.
The line through Bromley South has a somewhat complex history. Originally, the Mid Kent Railway reached Beckenham Junction on 1st January 1857 on a link from the South Eastern Railway at Lewisham, only to be passed by the independent West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway which extended over a single track to New Bromley (now Shortlands) on the 3rd May 1858. The Mid Kent continued with the construction of the Bromley South and Southborough Road (now Bickley) section and a single line connected the three stations from Monday 5th July, with services to Pimlico (via Crystal Palace) and London Bridge via Ladywell. The line initially operated on a “one engine in steam” basis until two tracks were installed by September 1859. In the meantime, the East Kent Railway had gained approval for a route from Strood to a new station “in the neighbourhood of Buckingham House”, the missing portion between Bickley and Rochester Bridge Junction being opened in December 1860 (part of it being originally planned by the Crays Railway). Such were the complexities of the free market!
The line east of Bromley South ran through fields owned by “Lord of the Manor” Coles Child, also a South Eastern Railway director, who appears to have clashed with the Mid Kent Board on a number of occasions during this time. It was his urging in December 1857 that Bromley Station should be at Masons Hill rather than “behind the church” (which may have been part of the Mid Kent plan to go to Dartford) but the Board continued to mull over the decision up to March 1858 and the construction of Bromley South only started in May. At one point, they were fined £10 by the court on a complaint from Child. It is not clear what the dispute was about but it was also reported by the line’s engineer Fowler that excavations on this stretch of line were to be 339 cubic yards and not the originally planned 220 cubic yards. It might have been prompted by the route of the cutting through Coles Child’s property and the need to build a bridge to connect the two parts of the estate.
This three-arch brick bridge with space for a double track through the centre was completed in 1858 prior to the line’s opening, but as has been seen, time available must have been quite short. One has to wonder how much care was put into its construction - this stretch of line cost £30,000 so it is likely that economies would have been welcomed. The picture below shows the bridge, which was never dignified by an identifying number, but acquired the name - for obvious reasons - of the Ivy Bridge. This picture is undated but must have been at least a year before the accident because the embankment on the left (north) side was cut back to allow a third track to pass through the arch in April 1882, but the trees are in leaf. This was to allow for a long siding which descended to the rapidly expanding Bromley gas works (which had just announced a price cut to 4s per thousand cubic feet from an original price of 9s) or, more accurately, ran level as the main line climbed at 1 in 95 from east of Shortlands over Brick Kiln Lane (Holmesdale Road) to east of Bickley; the space it occupied is now the northernmost track (the gas works siding was moved further north when the route was increased to four tracks in 1894. The train in the picture is coasting down the hill towards Bromley.
A rare picture of Ivy Bridge, with a train approaching Bromley.
Photo: Bromley Local Studies photographic collection
On the morning of Thursday 23rd November 1882, a ganger by the name of Edward Pearce, who lived at 54 Newbury Road, was walking the siding and noticed that the track was not correctly aligned as it passed under the Ivy Bridge. He advised Richard Archer, the permanent way inspector who arrived at 11.00; he in turn telegraphed the Victoria Engineers’ Office. The district engineer, Julian Hewett, boarded a train and arrived at Bromley South soon after 13.00. A small crack was visible in the main bridge arch and he refused to allow the service he had arrived on to continue its journey, although passengers were allowed to walk under it on their way to Bickley! Presumably a “Rail Replacement Bus Service” was not possible! By 16.00, however, the crack was seven feet long over the Down (Bromley to Bickley) line, with a smaller one in the arch over the siding on the other side of the pier. Inspector Archer was recalled and by 21.00 Hewett too was back on site. He concluded the bridge was unsafe and would have to be demolished. An Up boat train was stopped, passers by were prevented from crossing over the top and railway staff instructed to remove tools and personal items from the flimsy wooden hut situated under the right hand arch. It was built on the embankment under the bridge and immediately behind the end of the Up siding. It appears to have been used as a mess and had a fireplace and other facilities.
Under the supervision of Hewett and Assistant Engineer Charles Clarke of Westfield Road in Bromley, 28 railwaymen then started demolishing the bridge and were removing the top walls when, around midnight, the left hand pier collapsed on to the track below, some of the demolition gang apparently descending with it. Happily, apart from a few bruises, no-one was hurt. With the right hand pier and arch seemingly unaffected, work continued apace to clear the main line, so well in fact, that by 06.00 on the Friday, trains were permitted to pass again at slow speed. After their long stint in the dark and cold, the workmen were allowed to have a break, being required to return at 07.30. Most men went to their homes but eight who were not local went into the hut, no doubt welcoming the warmth of the fire and the opportunity to have a hot drink. This was contrary to orders from Inspector Archer, who however had set off for the comfort of the Booking Office and warm refreshment there. The eight were John Gilby (36) and Joseph Harford (49) -both gangers from St Mary Cray High Street - Richard Banks, John Hollands (53), and William Tuitt (20) also from St Mary Cray, William Cousins and John Penfold from Orpington and James Feek (28) from Gravel Pit (Road) in Bromley.
At 06.40 a labourer, Jonathan King of 2 Streamlet Place, Bromley, entered the hut and told Joseph Harford that the hut wasn’t safe but he was ignored. Other workers confirmed they had heard the instruction from Mr Archer, but either some hadn’t or chose to ignore it. Certainly, when the first train passed, the occupants of the hut came out to observe the arch and, satisfied all was well, returned to the warmth inside. A fifth (or seventh, there is some doubt) train slowly passed and a few minutes later, as Walter Milstead of Prospect Place returned from his breakfast and was just walking to the hut to join his workmates, the right hand arch suddenly collapsed on top of it. The time was reported as 0652. With the sounding of the whistle from an engine in the station yard, people were quickly alerted and on the scene. Richard Banks was rapidly located in the rubble, although it took nearly 20 minutes to free his leg which was trapped. He was conveyed to the Cottage Hospital and found to be unhurt. The remaining seven men were also found and brought out soon afterwards, but all were dead.
An inquest was opened at the Bell Hotel on Saturday 25th November by the West Kent coroner, Mr E A Carttar and a jury of 18 local tradesmen headed by T Lansbury. The LCDR was represented by solicitor J White, Manager Mortimer Harris, Chief Engineer Mills and Julian Hewett. Following expressions of regret at the loss of life by Mr White, evidence of events was given and the jury visited the scene of the accident. The inquest was then adjourned. It resumed on 1st December with a further visit to the site to look at the ground where the left hand pier had been standing. This time the dependants of those who died were represented by solicitor Mr Thomas Batten who would appear to have been providing “legal aid”. Further evidence of the instructions not to use the hut was given and the inquest again adjourned until 13th December when a verdict of accidental death was brought in, with a rider that there had been an error of judgement as steps were “not taken to secure the south arch by struts or otherwise”. Thus corporate responsibility was absolved!
On Tuesday 28th November, Colonel Yolland RE opened the Board of Trade inquiry. Yolland, the Chief Railways Inspector since 1877, had been on the board of inquiry into the fall of the first Tay Bridge three years earlier. On this occasion, many of the inquest witnesses were recalled but this was a more technical examination, concentrating particularly on the events preceding the first collapse. In his report, issued on 1st February 1883, the Colonel concluded that the base of the pier had sunk through the yellow clay on which it stood onto a slippery blue clay and moved north 12 inches, sinking 14 inches at the east end and 7 inches at the west end. He believed that recent wet weather might have caused the problem, combined with the removal of the earth from the north arch (for the siding extension), and that the collapse of the weakened south arch had been triggered by the continued passage of trains, the last one being just five minutes before the collapse (it is not clear what train this was as nothing was scheduled at this time). Although the Railway Inspectors were not shy of laying blame on railway management where it was felt appropriate, he did not do so on this occasion. Indeed, he commented that he considered the bridge to have been well built (from examination of the rubble it is assumed) and given the length of time the south arch had remained standing would have not feared for its collapse. This seems an odd conclusion as clearly the pier was under load from only one direction, rather than from both sides as had been intended. He did, however, commend Edward Pearce for his vigilance in spotting the quite small indications of the original problem as quickly as he did.
The same scene today, featuring the rather characterless replacement bridge.
Photo: Max Batten
It is interesting to reflect on some of the events of the 24 hours from discovery of the problem to its catastrophic conclusion. First, that on discovering the subsidence and disturbance to the siding, the line was not closed immediately. Second, the decision to demolish the bridge there and then with workman who were, it appears, employed only to lay and maintain the permanent way! Then the decision to resume running trains (three or four of them on the Up - south - side) with a small portion of the bridge remaining seems reckless in the extreme, whatever Colonel Yolland believed. He made no comment on what appear to have been very limited foundations for the bridge but presumably they conformed to current practice. There was also no consideration of what traffic was passing over the bridge - it is possible that wagons had become significantly heavier in the 20 or so years since it was constructed. Then, of course, there is the speedy and relatively cursory nature of the inquest and inquiry, and interest in the casualties. However, a fund was opened by the railway company and contributions were requested to be sent to engineer Charles Clarke, Mr Maynard the Station Master at Bromley or to any station between Penge and Swanley. A special service was held at the Congregational church on the 10th December, but tragedy continued to haunt the Harford family when Joseph’s son, who also worked on the railway, was struck and killed by a train at St Mary Cray on 24th May 1883. However, on the following 29th December, Mr Maynard was able to report that he and his committee had been able to distribute £731.18s.10d to relatives in the form of cash, annuities and other assistance, a not inconsiderable sum for the time. It is also worth noting, perhaps, that unlike when the railway opened, the injured could be taken to the local cottage hospital and not taken home to die or transported to Guys or St Thomas’ as would have been the case when the line opened.
I have not been able to discover when or if the bridge was replaced at the time but it would certainly have been rebuilt ten years later when the main line was increased to four tracks, plus the siding. It is ironic that that structure is today marked with a sign in Murray Avenue saying “weak bridge”!