Way back in September 1880 the London Brighton South Coast Railway was completed. Part of it ran between Eastbourne in East Sussex, through Tunbridge wells in Kent and on into London. The line was partially closed in the 1960’s as part of Dr Beechings plan of restructuring a huge chunk of the UKs railways. The line completely closed in the 1980s, although some of it has now reopened for tourists through the efforts of local enthusiasts. A large part of it has been opened to walkers and cyclists. My partner and I had a wander through a lonely section of the old railway close to Eridge and were pleased to spot the signal still in situ which you can see in his photo above.
When James McKinley called goodbye to his 6* children and his pregnant* wife Clara, he would have had no idea that it would be for the last time. It was early on the morning of September 1st 1897. He walked the short distance to Eastbourne Railway Station where he was due to drive the 8.18am train to London.
The line was regarded as a safe one having never had an accident reported but sadly for James that was all about to change. His train left a few minutes late and he tried to steam faster to make up the time. The line was a very picturesque one, through open fields and woodland, the section from Polegate to Eridge (just south of Tunbridge Wells) being known as the Cuckoo Line as it was thought you would hear the first one in the vicinity.
Suddenly as it rounded a sharp bend the train was derailed. James, feeling the engine rolling away from him, leapt out in an attempt to reach safety but didn’t make it, he was killed instantly as the engine tumbled over him. Stoker Lewis Minns was badly injured in the accident but recovered and continued to work for LBSC. 30 or so passengers were hurt, mostly cuts and bruises although some crush injuries were sustained.
At the inquest it was decided that although the train was traveling too fast, the main culprit in the accident was the state of the tracks.
James was buried a few days after the accident, the service taking place during a terrible storm. It was attended by over 200 employees of the railway and a collection was made for Clara and the children. I tried to find out what became of Clara, I wondered if she had managed to keep her family together after the sudden death of her husband. I was really pleased to see that despite having a hard life working as a charwoman for over 20 years to support herself and the children as well as having to move home several times, she managed to bring up 5 of her 7 children. I think they must have been a close family, as the children lived with their mum well into adulthood. Or maybe she made a mean apple crumble and custard.
Clara never remarried.
* The newspaper report James left a widow and 7 children but I *think* Clara was expecting at the time and she lost this last child soon after its (premature?) birth, perhaps as a result of the shock of her husbands death.