An Extraordinary Accident

Excitement at Lyttelton

The ordinary routine of running the express train on the No. 2 wharf at Lyttelton and transferring the passengers to the waiting ferry steamer was disturbed on the evening of the 26th March, 1907 by a startling incident at about a few minutes past six o’clock.

Lyttelton Locomotive Accident 1907
Accident showing steam engine hanging half over the edge of Lyttelton wharf. Photographed by Albert Percy Godber. Image: National Library of New Zealand APG-1426-a-1/4-G.


The Southern Express which arrives in Christchurch shortly after five o’clock, runs through to Lyttelton each evening with passengers, luggage and mail, to connect with the “ferry” steamer for Wellington. The train, which, during the Exhibition and holiday season, has invariably been a very long one, runs straight through the Lyttelton station yard to the inner end of the Gladstone Pier, where the big engine is uncoupled. A shunting engine is coupled up at the other end of the train, which is then drawn round on to No. 2 wharf, where the Wellington steamer lies.

On the evening of the 26th March, 1907, at a few minutes past six o’clock, the express, which is due in Lyttelton at 5.10 pm was running late, and did not arrive until six o’clock. The train was a very long one, made up of twenty one carriages and vans. A shunting engine – No. 28, known as Fairlie’s patent – coupled on the rear end of the train as usual and ran on to the wharf, everything going smoothly until the engine reached the usual stopping place.

Instead of stopping at the accustomed place, the engine continued its career till it ran half off the end of the wharf, and projected in extraordinary fashion over the waters of the harbour. The incident occupied but a few seconds.

Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 04 April 1907 p007. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19070404-7-1

The bogie, with the cylinders, indeed what may be styled the whole locomotive works of the engine, broke loose and dropped into the water with a mighty splash, leaving the boiler projecting some eighteen or twenty feet out from the wharf end, the driver’s cab just at the edge, and the tender resting on the wharf. Fortunately, the coupling between the tender and the van held fast, and the former, with the boiler, was thus prevented from falling into the water.

The coolest men there were the engine-driver George Hill and the fireman, William Butler. When the engine left the end of the rails and it appeared as if she might plunge clean into the sea, they gamely stuck to the cab, and did what they could to minimise the danger. When she came to a stop with more than half her length over the end of the wharf, they commenced to blow the steam off, and throw out the fire.

Serious Panic Averted

Naturally, the occurrence caused much excitement on the wharf, whereon the usual crowd was assembled to witness the departure, of the steamer – yesterday the Mararoa. The passengers in the train displayed great alacrity in quitting the carriages, and an individual on the wharf ran along calling out to them to jump off as the train was going over the end of the wharf. The stoppage of the carriages, however, prevented anything like a serious panic.

Information of the mishap was meanwhile spread far and wide by the engine’s whistle, which shrilled continuously for several minutes. People came running from all quarters, and the end of the wharf was quickly thronged with a crowd eager to view the unwanted spectacle. Railway men, police and harbour officials were soon on the scene, and the work of securing the half suspended engine was put in hand at once. It was at first hampered by the crowding of the curious public, but after a while a space was cleared for the operations of the workers, and later in the evening a rope was stretched across the wharf, and persons who had no business connection with the occurrence were kept outside of it.

The work of replacing the engine on the line was not attempted that night, but it was fastened to the wharf with ropes and chains, while the attached van and the carriage next to it were left in position, presumably to assist in the task of keeping the engine from slipping over the edge of the wharf. It is stated that the crane which is needed to lift the engine back into its proper position is at present undergoing an overhaul in the Addington workshops, but it is stated that an endeavour to release the suspended engine from its picturesque but precarious position will be made to-day.

 A Careful and Experienced Man

There was, naturally, much speculation as to the cause of the accident, and the generally-accepted theory was that something had “gone wrong” with the Westinghouse brake. The driver in charge of the engine bears the reputation of a careful and experienced man, and he is accustomed to the job of taking the train on to the wharf. He was, it is stated, seen to carefully examine his brake before taking the train from the Gladstone Pier to the wharf where the accident happened. An eye-witness of the occurrence stated that the brakes were applied at the usual point, just as the engine cleared the  shelter shed of No. 2 wharf, and that, for a moment, they appeared to check the train, but that a rebound seemed to take place, and the brakes apparently then failed to act, the train continuing its course till the engine was half over the water’s edge. There was a strong north-east wind blowing, and this added to the momentum of the long heavy string of carriages may have contributed to the accident.

The rails on which the train was running ceased about 30ft from the end of the wharf, a vacant space being left for the operation of a traverse table for shifting trucks from one of the parallel lines of rail to another. This table was, at the time of the accident, not opposite the line on which the train was, consequently the runaway engine had to run across several feet of planking, till it came to a short length of line, terminating about 6ft from the end of the wharf, in stop blocks, two massive baulks of hardwood, laid horizontally across the line, one about 12in by 9in, with another behind it about 14in through, secured to the wharf by strong bolts, and backed by massive wooden “chocks.” This obstruction, with a couple of planks to which it was bolted, was torn bodily away by the cow-catcher of the engine and carried into the water.

Lyttelton Locomotive Accident 1907
Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 04 APRIL 1907 p006. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19070404-6-2.
Picturesque but precarious position

The engine remained in its extraordinary position all night, the after end being held down by stout chains and wire. From an early hour photographers were busy snapshotting the engine from a dozen different standpoints.

A large seven-ton bogie crane and a gang of men under Mr Mcandrew, Districk Engineer, were sent through to port the following day and the work of getting the damaged engine back on the wharf was put in hand at once. A stout wire rope was passed round the boiler several times, and the ends securely shackled. Two engines hooked on to the carriage which, with the guard’s van, had been left coupled to the engine all night.

When all was ready, the crane hoisted the boiler, while the two engines pulled back along the wharf. Everything went well, and the gear stood the strain, and shortly after noon the engine, or rather what was left of it, was in a safe position on the wharf. A truck was afterwards placed under the forward park of the engine, which was then shunted into the station yard to be sent to Addington.

During the afternoon efforts were made to recover the frame of the engine, with the six wheels, cylinders, driving and connecting rods, and cow-catcher, which were smashed off and fell into the water. Twice grapples were got on to the heavy mass of steelwork, but on each occasion the wire hoisting rope of the crane carried away. The work of recovery will be renewed, when doubtles the whole of the gear will be raised and safely landed.

Passengers, Luggage, and Mails for Wellington

During the past few months the arrangement whereby the express is run on to No. 2 wharf with passengers, luggage, and mails to connect with the Wellington boat, has not been regarded as completely satisfactory. The trains have been unusually long, and not more than half the carriages get on the wharf, the others extending right round into the station yard. In order to get the luggage and mail vans on to the wharf, half the carriages have to be cut off and shunted on to another road, which means a loss of time. Moreover, the express runs on to the Gladstone Pier on arrival in Lyttelton and then has to be shunted round to No. 2 wharf. With two express trains running to Lyttelton, this means a considerable loss of time. It has been suggested that all this shunting could be done away with and a lot of time saved, if the “ferry*” steamers were berthed at the Gladstone Pier instead of at No. 2 wharf.

In the opinion of some witnesses of the accident, the occurrence is a strong argument in favour of this course of action. Trains, it is contended, could be run alongside the Gladstone Pier without the possibility of their going over the end of the wharf into the water, and, in other ways, it is stated, the work of entraining and detraining passengers could be more expeditiously and safely carried on at the pier along the eastern breakwater than at the wharf at present used for the purpose.

Sources:  Compiled from three newspaper reports – Press, Volume LXIII, Issue 12764, 28 March 1907, Page 9;  Press, Volume LXIII, Issue 12763, 27 March 1907, Page 7;  Star, Issue 8889, 27 March 1907, Page 1.  Some formating, paragraph spacing and the subheading have been added to aid readability and to put the events into context.

One Comment Add yours

  1. malcom walker says:

    this engine is now on display in the strand in reefton


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