At approximately 7.13 pm on Monday September 2nd 1861 an excursion train travelling from Kew to Bow on the current Overground line had just passed Kentish Town station (now Gospel oak station) when it ran into a goods train which was in the process of crossing the tracks.  The crash took place on the line 450 yards from the station on an elevated section of the track (29 feet high).  The line which was called the Hampstead Junction had only been operational since 1860 and had been built to reduce pressure on the Camden Town, Primrose Hill, Willesden line.

 The two maps below ( 1861 and current) help illustrate the location.

                                                             CURRENT MAP

 ( NB: Kentish Town West was not built until 1867 at which point the old Kentish Town station changed its name to Gospel oak)

 The arrow on the above map shows the approximate location of the crash, which on the 1861 map can be seen to be near where corkers lane crosses the rail line and shows the surrounding undeveloped area , which is referred to as Kentish Town fields in the newspaper reports of the crash.  Residents from carlton road ( extension of grafton road) gave eye witness accounts at the inquest.

                                                                           1861 MAP

Cause of the crash.

An excursion train travelling from Kew to Bow passed through Kentish Town station at a speed of around 30/40 mph on the ‘up line’. The train was an addition to the scheduled service and had left   Kew and hour earlier than expected. A quarter of a mile past the station it hit a goods train which had been delivering goods to a proposed coal yard at the side of the line and was in the process of moving from the ‘up line to the ‘down’ line to return home. Because of the curve in the line after Kentish Town the goods train was not seen until it was too late to avoid a collision or even to brake.

The engine of the excursion train was thrown off the rails falling down the embankment   dragging with it six passenger carriages. ( See picture  below which was published by the Illustrated London news. )

Sixteen people were killed and 317 injured of whom most came from the Bow area.  Ironically the outing was to raise funds for the railway benevolent association and nearly all passengers were employees or families of employees of a local railway company.  As it was the first major rail crash in London there was considerable press attention both in London and throughout the country.  Initial coverage was fairly gruesome describing in great detail the injuries sustained. The passenger coaches were of very flimsy construction with most of the deaths occurring in the first few coaches thrown down the embankment. A bystander wrote to the Evening standard on September 6th ‘…my astonishment at their frail and wholly inadequate construction … the panellings were only third of an inch in thickness…’


The inquest opened the week after the crash and was conducted with a jury. The first task of the jurors was to inspect the dead bodies, providing a good excuse for newspapers to describe again the gruesome injuries.  A local paper comments that death by railway accident is the most horrible of deaths and that the coroner and jury were all but overcome by the sight of the dead.

After the trip to the hospitals the jurors inspected the site of the crash and then adjourned to the Prince of Wales pub on Wellesley Road ( see 61 map).  Much of the inquest was taken up by the contradictory evidence on the signalling that evening on the line between Hampstead and Kentish Town station. This evidence was very detailed and can be seen in full in the report to the privy council for trade which is attached.

  The driver of the passenger train and other guards on that train argued the signals between Hampstead and Kentish Town allowed them to pass. The driver of the goods train said he had had permission to cross from the up line to the down line. The signal man, Henry Rayner, at Kentish town station was a 19- year- old, partially deaf man who had already worked for 12 hours that day and had been left on his own by his more experienced colleague shortly before the accident.  He claimed that the signals were set at danger but some of his evidence was confused and the jury quickly decided that he was guilty of manslaughter, requesting in view of his inexperience and the poor signalling arrangements on that line he be treated leniently.


One of the interesting features of this case is the anger shown by several newspapers to railway owners. Lloyds weekly newspaper ( Sunday paper) described the incident as railway slaughter. Railway passengers were ‘human sacrifice to mammon’, with the blame placed directly on to directors and shareholders for putting profits before lives. ‘The fault is in the boardroom’.  Henry Rayner was only paid 14 shillings for a week’s work.

Henry Rayner was sent to the Old Bailey on the charge of manslaughter. On two occasions a grand jury refused to allow the case to go forward for trial but the prosecution insisted. On 21st October 1861 he was acquitted on the charge.

It is amazing that within the space of 7 weeks the inquest had been completed, a formal report submitted to the government and the case of manslaughter heard at the Old Bailey.

Notes on research:

Nearly all the information comes from the British newspaper section of the website ‘find my past’. It is a wonderful resource but unfortunately access is not free. There were many reports of the accident and aftermath in both local and national newspapers throughout the month of September.  I also found the report to the privy council for trade presented on October 8th gives a very detailed account of the accident and the inquest. This report is to be found by googling ‘Kentish Towner (September 2013) and is included in an article on the crash. I found the 1861 map through google. I tried to pinpoint the location by using a current OS map and a ruler!!