‘THE men who were suddenly deprived of life little thought as they left their homes on the Christmas holiday that the season which for centuries has brought joy to all the world would darken their hearths with the shadow of the grave,” wrote ED Walker as he launched an appeal for the widows and children left fatherless by a Boxing Day railway explosion.

It happened exactly 139 years ago in South Stockton and killed five men – three from Darlington, two from Shildon. It left four women widows and stole the fathers from 12 children, the youngest of whom was only 14 months old.

“The deceased have passed beyond the range of our pity or regard, but it is sad for those they leave behind to bear the first agonies of their bitter sorrow while all the world is rejoicing,” wrote ED Walker, who would become the first man to be mayor of Darlington three times.

The explosion happened at about 5pm on Boxing Day 1881, when a long train of 40 empty wagons pulled up at signals at South Stockton (now known as Thornaby) to wait permission to continue its journey home to Shildon.

Two minutes later, a goods train drew up behind it. It was pulled by North-Eastern Railway engine No 204, which was driven by John Robinson of Darlington.

Almost immediately No 204 came to rest, an explosion occurred, destroying the engine and propelling its burst boiler 20 yards through the air.

“The whole affair had been lifted like a rocket,” said an eyewitness from the nearby Erimus Ironworks.

The boiler crashed into the guard’s van of the wagon train, setting it on fire.

Three men were killed outright.

“The bodies of the unfortunate men are fearfully managed,” said The Northern Echo the following day. “Two of the poor fellows’ arms being blown off.”

The two man crew of No 204 bore the brunt of the blast.

They were driver Robinson, 35, who left behind in his terraced house of 9 Denmark Street, Darlington, a wife and seven young children, and fireman Frank Hind, 28, who lived at 33 Wales Street – the neighbouring terrace off North Road – where he left his wife and two children.

The guard of the wagon train also stood no chance for he took a direct hit as the rocket-like boiler fell to earth. He was George Smith, 28, of Shildon, a widower.

Two other railwaymen were rescued unconscious from the scene of the disaster but neither survived for more than a couple of hours.

They were Thomas Wailes, 26, of Darlington, who was the guard of the goods train and he left a widow and a 14-month-old child, and Ralph Hutchinson, 25, of Shildon. Ralph was an inspector of wagons and, as was his habit, he was riding home in the guard’s van of the wagon train, having finished his shift. He left his wife and their two children, aged three and 18 months.

The scene of the explosion was just about where today the flyover takes traffic over the A66 and into the Teesside Park shopping centre.

The victims’ bodies were returned to their homes the day after the explosion, and funerals were held on December 29.

The three Darlington men were buried in North Cemetery “in the presence of a concourse of not less than 4,000 people, a large number of whom were sympathising railway men”, said the Echo.

It must have been an immense sight.

An inquest into the deaths was held in early January. Lavington Fletcher, a splendidly-named “engineer of some eminence”, was called in to examine the wreckage and give his opinion. He had started his career installing the first steam engines used by Huntley & Palmer to make biscuits in Reading, and had risen to become chief engineer of the Manchester Steam Users’ Association where he had spent several years investigating ways of preventing boiler explosions.

He was certain as to the cause. He said a shortness of water, caused by the driver of No 204 misreading the water gauge, caused the firebox to overheat. When the driver realised his mistake, he had let water into the boiler which instantly became superheated and turned to steam.

Mr Fletcher said No 204 was fitted with “fusible safety plugs”, which were standard on engines. These plugs had a core of lead which melted if the temperature rose too high, and so allowed the pressure to ease. However, Mr Fletcher had long maintained that these plugs were not sensitive enough and their failure to prevent this tragedy proved his point.

The jury at the inquests agreed, and urged the railway company to “strive to find a more reliable fusible plug”.

For officialdom, that was that, but the sympathising of the railway community continued, led by ED Walker. He was known as “the WH Smith of the North” as he had a newspaper and refreshment stall on every station in the district, on which he placed collecting boxes.

“The travelling public will be appealed to by these boxes, and surely not in vain, for the fatality was one that might as easily have occurred on a passenger as on a mineral train,” wrote ED Walker, who would be knighted for his services to the community and leave money to build old people’s homes in Coniscliffe Road.

He said he was sure that railwaymen would donate. “This at least will be not less the duty than the privilege of all who have shared the joy of Christmastide and are bright with New Year’s hopes,” he wrote in The Northern Echo.

Although we don’t know how the fund helped the widows and the children, it did ensure the men were remembered by paying for a large memorial over their graves in North Cemetery.

This memorial has long intrigued Marilyn Taylor and her children as they walked through the park and she asked Memories to find the story behind it.