The Quintinshill Conspiracy: The Shocking True Story Behind Britain’s Worst Rail Disaster
By Jack Anthony Richards and Adrian Searle
Pen and Sword Books (Oct 2013)
On 22nd May 1915, the greatest railway tragedy this country has ever seen occurred at a remote signal box just outside Gretna Green. Perhaps the greater tragedy, as Jack Richards’ and Adrian Searle’s fascinating “The Quintinshill Conspiracy” makes clear, is that the true reasons behind the death of some 230 passengers – most of whom were soldiers on their way to fight in the Gallipoli campaign – were willfully covered up in a conspiracy that stretched to the very highest echelons of wartime government.
The details of this accident are vividly described. On 22nd May at 6.49am, a train containing 498 soldiers from the 7th Royal Scots, ploughed into a stationary local train at the Quintinshill signal box. Many soldiers were instantly killed by the impact, but for those who survived there was worse to come. Less than two minutes later, a late running Caledonian express train from London to Glasgow ploughed into the smouldering wreckage, killing many of the men still struggling to escape, and engulfing the carriages in a fiery inferno.
These bare facts are horrific enough, but what makes the Quintinshill disaster so much worse is that it could so easily have been avoided. In 1915, the railway companies were determined to run themselves as if the war was a minor inconvenience, despite military movements of supplies, munitions and troops dramatically increasing the amount of traffic on the tracks. Britain’s railways were a worldwide source of pride, and the mere fact of war wasn’t going to interrupt their smooth running, particularly of their flagship luxury express routes.
Unfortunately, as Richards and Searle reveal, this determination was a major cause of the disastrous events at Quintinshill. However there were other, murkier factors at work. At the time, the guilt was found to lie with the signalman who staffed the box that fateful day – George Meakin and James Tilsey, who were imprisoned after a swift inquiry and trial, largely conducted behind closed doors. But recently discovered documents unearthed by the authors show that the two men, though certainly with their part to play, were also subject to a conspiracy by their colleagues, their Caledonian railway company employers, and even the government. Asquith’s government was in a perilous position – that same month had seen the prestigious Lusitania liner torpedoed by German U boats and the Battle of Aubers Ridge in France, where British troops died from a lack of ammunition. Both incidents had led to serious criticism of the government, and it could ill afford another tragedy. Quintinshill would have to be covered up.
Unpicking the details of the accident of Quintinshill involves a certain amount of technical railway detail, and the authors work hard to make this comprehensible, with a fair degree of success. Where this text truly comes to life though, is with the heartfelt account of the accident and devastating loss of human life, and with the palpable sense of rage at what the authors rightly describes as a whitewash in the subsequent court case and (secret) inquest. Modern parallels are all too easy to draw, as even when Meakin and Tilsey are imprisoned for their part in the accident, politicians seek to make capital out of their predicament – to the extent that Quintinshill arguably plays a major part in the subsequent fall of Asquith’s government at the hands of a burgeoning trade union movement.
Quintinshill is described as the railways version of Titanic, and in reading this book the reasons as to why it has not been accorded greater notoriety are made shamefully clear – hopefully this reappraisal of events will go some way towards righting this wrong.
The Quintinshill Conspiracy is published by Pen and Sword Books and is available to buy here.
For a chance to win a copy of this book, all you need to do is submit your details via this form with ‘Quintinshill Competition’ in the subject box. Deadline is Midnight Sunday 15th December. Good Luck!
Kathryn Johnson is a specialist factual television producer and director – her productions have included everything from grisly goings on in Tudor England, 19th century colonial outposts and World War Two cover ups.