Apperley Bridge: the 1866 viaduct disaster

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,

Until it was about midway,

Then the central girders with a crash gave way,

And down went the train and passengers into the Tay.

This quotation from the poem The Tay Bridge Disaster, by the famous Scottish poet William McGonagall describes one of Britain’s worst rail accidents.  On 28th December 1879 a terrific storm had spread mayhem and destruction throughout central Scotland.  A train was crossing the newly opened bridge and as it reached the high girders at the centre they suddenly collapsed, plunging the train and its seventy five passengers and crew into the icy water.  There were no survivors.  This could well have been a description of a railway accident that took place in Bradford thirteen years earlier in 1866, when a bridge collapsed and a train fell into a raging torrent.  Luckily on this occasion there was no loss of life (or dreadful commemorative poetry).

Bradford’s first link with the national railway network came in 1846.  At this time the more direct route through Pudsey to Leeds proved too technically challenging and so the line took a more circuitous route through Shipley and along the Aire valley to Leeds.  This necessitated not only the building of the three quarters of a mile long Thackley tunnel, but also a viaduct across the river Aire at Apperley Bridge.  The viaduct, which was one of the largest in the area, was stone built and had ten arches, spanning a distance of about 156 yards, through the centre of which ran the river.  About midway the viaduct rested on a high embankment rising from a small island. Right from the start the route proved to be extremely popular, with heavy passenger and freight traffic running from Bradford to Leeds and also westwards through Skipton, with an average of about 200 trains a day crossing the river.

Fig. 1 Apperley Viaduct 1877

November 1866 was extremely wet and the West Riding of Yorkshire suffered several days of violent storms and very heavy rainfall.  On Friday, 16th November the deluge continued and in Bradford the heavy rains filled the Thornton and Bradford Becks, both of which began to overflow, causing residents to remove property from cellars to prevent damage.  The situation was similar along the Aire valley but to a much greater degree. The river Aire was swollen to an unprecedented level and the current ran with great speed.  Within a short time the river had overflowed its low banks, flooding into the fields and giving the appearance of a huge lake, said to be half a mile wide.  Many trees were uprooted, and those that survived were covered with water, only their tops showing through the deluge.

A reporter for the Bradford Observer described his eventful journey as he attempted to take the midday train from Bradford to Otley.  Passing through Apperley Bridge station he was informed that the route through Esholt to Guiseley would be very difficult to pass.  This prediction was to be proved correct.  Steaming up the steep Guiseley cutting the train was brought to a standstill and held up for an hour.  Water was pouring down the cutting completely covering the track, making progress difficult. But there was further trouble higher up the line where a land slip had completely blocked the up line.  Despite several attempts to clear the slip the situation was declared hopeless, for as fast as the fallen earth was cleared more cascaded down the embankment.  Finally it was decided to slowly back the carriages to Apperley Bridge where the train was switched on to the down line and a further attempt was made to reach Guiseley.  On finally reaching the summit the weather had deteriorated, rain had changed to snow and the hills were covered with thick clouds.  But from there the journey to Otley was uneventful and the passengers finally reached their destination after a three hour adventure.  These passengers had endured a tiresome journey but they had been lucky to avoid a possibly worse fate, of which the return passengers were to learn later in the day.

Fig. 2 Apperley Viaduct, OS Map 1906

As has already been stated, the viaduct across the river at Apperley Bridge consisted of ten arches.  However the total number of arches between the Canal Bridge and Apperley Bridge station was thirteen.  Three of these were over a footpath unconnected to the other ten, being separated from them by an embankment about sixty yards long.  Of the other ten the river bed was under the second and third arches.  The remaining seven arches were seldom reached by the water, except in periods of high floods.  The soil on which the bridge was built was reported to have been of a light and soft nature.  Early in the afternoon of Friday 16th November the water was flowing with great force against the buttresses and began to percolate through the soft, light foundations.

The first indications of there being a problem started around 5.00 pm.  As the 4.50 passenger train from Bradford was crossing the viaduct the guard felt that the structure was insecure and he immediately informed the Apperley station master, Mr. T. Masters.  At about the same time a plate-layer was crossing the viaduct and discovered a large hole in the masonry of the stonework.  Almost falling into the hole he saved himself by jumping and scrambling to safety on the other side.  He immediately ran to the station to raise the alarm and his prompt action along with that of the station master, guard and points man probably saved a number of lives.  Danger signals were immediately put out, and with complete disregard for their own safety the station master and others ran onto the bridge waving red lanterns to raise the alarm and stop an approaching luggage train.  This train from Bradford, consisting of an engine, tender, two wagons and a guard’s van, was rapidly approaching through Thackley tunnel.  As the driver saw the warning signal and the frantic waving of the Station Master he attempted emergency braking but there was not enough time and the train was partly across the viaduct before he could bring it to a halt.  This additional weight of the train was too much for the viaduct which immediately began to sink.  Eyewitnesses reported they saw part of the bridge sag by at least eighteen inches and it was clear that the train could neither advance nor retreat.  The engine driver, stoker and guard of the train shut off the steam, leapt off and ran for their lives across the falling viaduct, reaching the embankment on the western end without a minute to spare.  The station master and signal man also retreated as fast as they could to the opposite embankment.  Scarcely had they done so when eye witnesses described hearing a tremendous crack and seeing the red lights of the guard’s van disappear followed by the whole mass of the stonework falling into the river below with a deafening crash.  The enormous mass of falling masonry completely blocked the uncontrolled torrent, but only for a few moments.  The raging maelstrom soon forced its way through, sweeping away the van and wagons downstream where they were smashed to small fragments.  All that remained was the engine and tender along with the heavy oak frameworks and the wheels and springs.

Thankfully there had been no serious injuries or loss of life.  Matters could have been more serious if it had been the earlier 4.50 passenger train that had plunged into the river.  This train was usually crowded and carried large numbers of business men.

On the following day the weather improved and large crowds were attracted to the scene.  The river was still flowing with great force but the only remains visible remains of the viaduct were sections of the buttresses of the first two arches, and these seemed likely to fall at any moment.  The stonework of the bridge lay like a large dam across the channel and although the flood was now greatly reduced in size, it was still forcing its way through the wreckage.  The engine and tender were still visible near the western side.  The engine was completely destroyed whereas the tender appeared almost undamaged.

We now complete the story of the passengers accompanying the Bradford Observer correspondent as they attempted the return journey from Otley to Bradford. Arriving at Apperley Bridge they discovered they could go no further. Some passengers were taken on to Leeds, while others attempted to continue their journey by cab. But they encountered further difficulties as crossing the road bridge over the river was hazardous. Water was flowing over the bridge to a depth of about three feet deep and was almost up to the threshold of the George and Dragon Inn. Beyond the inn there was a similar sheet of water through which the vehicles had to be dragged, with water pouring in and reaching up to the knees of the passengers.

The collapse of the viaduct at Apperley Bridge and the consequent closure of the important Aire valley route was serious for the Midland Railway’s finances.  They had to reopen this line as soon as possible.  So, in consequence, the Company employed a gang of thirty locomotive staff from Derby.   They started by putting rails into the river under the engine wheels and drew it up, inch by inch, by windlasses out of the river and on to the river bank, and then up an incline on to the line.  They then did the same with the tender, the whole operation taking almost three days.  Work then started on constructing a substantial temporary bridge four or five yards wide and well guarded by a handrail and was even lighted at night, and within two weeks the Bradford Observer was able to announce a resumption of a limited service.  Trains proceeded to one end of the bridge where the passengers dismounted and walked across the temporary structure to the awaiting train on the other side. Although there was still a delay to the train service it was the best that the Company could arrange in the circumstances. But  although passenger traffic was resumed there was still no resumption of the lucrative commercial traffic.

The Company lost no time in finding a permanent solution.  A new iron bridge was ordered from local iron founders, Butler and Pitt of Stanningley.  Fortunately Butlers were already working on a contract to produce girders for a bridge in India, and since it was of a similar size were able to make suitable alterations and supply the Midland Company at short notice.  The contract for the actual reconstruction of the bridge was given to the firm of Bentham and Woodiwiss of Derby and Glossop, under the supervision of the Company’s engineer, J. Crossley.  Within a few days between 300 and 400 men were hard at work clearing the wreckage and creating the coffer dam needed for the reconstruction.  Despite delays caused by further flooding in early December, work on the scheme continued at full speed.  New stone piers were built and prepared for the iron girders.  Sixty of these girders along with 150 rolled plate stays between were fitted within one month by Messrs. Butler and Pitts.  The iron plates, weighing 500 tons, from which the girders were made, were manufactured within the space of three weeks by the Monk Bridge Iron Company of Leeds.

Work continued smoothly with no major accidents, although there was an incident just to the east of Apperley Bridge Station.  Work was being carried out to strengthen a bridge damaged in the same storm that wrecked the viaduct.  On Monday 10th December Henry Harland, a twenty-three year old carpenter from Lincolnshire was drowned.  While crossing a plank he fell off and plunged into the river, which was still flowing strongly, and was swept away before anyone could try to save him.

Fig. 3 Apperley Viaduct 2011

 Many competent experts had predicted that it would take six months to reopen the line but chief engineer Crossley threw himself into the task and work continued so quickly that the line was reopened within just seven weeks.  The local press was full of praise for the rail company and its contractor’s energy and efficiency.  Thus on Thursday 3rd January 1867 the line was reopened for business.  The first train to pass over the bridge was the 4.50 from Bradford to Leeds.  At first only one line was available, but during the day both lines were brought into use.  Although the remedial work had been carried out in record time the disaster had severe financial consequences for the Midland Company.  A fortnight after the re-opening the directors noted in the board minutes that they felt it their duty to offer the engineer ‘their thanks for the extraordinary energy and talent he has manifested in the reconstruction of the Apperley viaduct’.  With their gratitude came the not inconsiderable sum of three hundred guineas.  In August 1867 the directors reported that their working expenses had increased because of the payment out of revenue for the reconstruction of the Apperley Viaduct, of a bridge at Tamworth, and other damage caused by the floods.  There had also been a loss of revenue because of the additional payments they had to make to other railway companies for running Midland trains over their lines.

Fig. 4 Thackley Tunnel, west entrance, 1906

Traffic on this line continued to grow and eventually the Midland Company decided to construct a second line.  This was built parallel to the original track and was opened in 1901.  It entailed driving a second tunnel under the hills of Thackley and constructing a second viaduct.  There is still evidence of this work although only one track is now in use.  The viaducts are still standing and one tunnel is still in use.  There are also other reminders.  Many brick lined air shafts are visible, as are various large mounds of shale which were excavated from the tunnel and conveniently dumped around the air shafts.  The passage of time has softened their contours but the mounds of black shale are still a testament to the hard manual work carried out a century or more ago.

Apperley Bridge Station was a casualty of the Beeching cuts and closed on 22nd March 1965; it was demolished shortly afterwards. However, there is now a new Apperley Bridge Station close to the original site, and trains are once again calling at what is now a suburban village, which is expanding steadily with new commuter housing developments.

G Fink-Nottle

Figure 1:    Apperley Viaduct 1877. Williams, F. S. The Midland Railway: its Rise and Progress, 1888.

Figure 2:     Apperley Viaduct 1893. Ordnance Survey 1:2500. Sheet 202:5. 1893.

Figure 3:    Apperley Viaduct 2011.  N. A. Alvin.

Figure 4:    Thackley Tunnel, west entrance, c.1906. Joy, D.A., A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain: Vol.8, South and West Yorkshire, 2nd ed. 1984.

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