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The Woman in Black and the Eerie Mystery of the Charfield Railway Disaster

Amid the charred wreckage, a chilling mystery emerged...


The Charfield railway disaster of 1928 has long haunted England and lingered in the memory of the town’s residents. 

A mere 60 seconds made the difference between life and death for 15 people on October 10, 1928, when a train filled with passengers collided with a goods train in the English county of Gloucestershire. Upon collision, gas cylinders ignited; within seconds the passenger train was an inferno, consuming everything and everyone. The crash was a national tragedy for England and a chilling scene for those who witnessed it. Yet amid the burning wreckage and the charred remains a mystery emerged.

Two small bodies were discovered at the site, with no discernible identification. To this day, the young victims remain unidentified. The mystery deepened when, in the years after the crash, sightings were reported of a woman dressed entirely in black. The strange figure appeared seemingly out of nowhere to lay flowers upon the memorial grave.

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The Crash

On Saturday, October 10, 1928, at 4.28 A.M., a Bristol-bound mail train with passengers charged toward the station at Charfield village, located in Gloucestershire. The night was described by witnesses as misty, yet railroad officials had deemed the visibility good enough to not employ foggy weather signalmen.

If they had, it might have prevented the entire disaster.

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  • Aerial view of the Charfield Railway disaster

    Photo Credit: The Charfield Gallery

Dead-ahead, a goods train was shunting across the tracks. According to post-crash investigations, Charfield signalman Henry Button had accepted both trains at the station before putting up the red danger sign to stop the mail train so the goods train could pass by safely. However, in the misty night air, mail train conductor Henry Aldington and his fireman Frank Want read the signal as green for clear; they continued their journey toward the station. Seconds before the collision, Want and Aldington saw the train in front of them and applied the brakes in a futile attempt to avoid collision. They then crouched to prepare for impact.

Related: Showmen’s Rest: The Deadly Hammond Circus Train Wreck of 1918 

The trains hit. The mail train partially derailed, sending several carriages and the engine off the tracks while the rest of the locomotive wedged together with the goods train under the bridge. Tragically, the mailtrain used gas to light its compartments, and its cylinders were installed beneath the front coach cars. The gas ignited in the collision, setting off a fire whose flames could be seen flickering in the night sky for miles away.

charfield railway children
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  • Charfield Railway Station

    Photo Credit: The Charfield Gallery

Villagers nearby and attendants at the railway station rushed down the tracks to help. Several survivors told guilt-ridden stories about leaving behind fellow passengers who were unable to be freed before the flames got too close.

The fire raged through the wrecked train. Rescuers did their best to help, but 15 passengers could not escape in time (some reports lists 16 total victims). 

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Some bodies were so badly burned they were recognizable to family members only by jewelry and personal effects. Because of this, many family members of victims agreed on a mass grave, as provided by the railway company, to lay their deceased loved ones to rest. However, not all the body identifications were routine.

Two bodies, believed to be that of a young boy and a young girl, perhaps brother and sister, were found in the wreckage. Yet they remained unidentified and unclaimed in the weeks following the crash. When it became clear that no one was going to come forward and claim the two bodies, they were placed in the mass grave with the other victims.

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The question of who the children were plagued those involved in the tragedy. Several theories surfaced. One suggested that the two bodies weren’t human at all, but ventriloquist dummies. Another popular theory was that they were not the bodies of children, but instead of small riding jockeys. Some even claimed the story was a hoax generated by the media to make the accident even more tragic. According to one rumor, a woman came forward claiming the bodies belonged to her two brothers, yet the claim—if it happened at all—was never confirmed. Whatever the case, the bodies remained unidentified.

charfield railway children
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  • Memorial at Old Church of victims of the railway disaster

    Photo Credit: The Charfield Gallery

Like all good mysteries, the strangeness continued. For years after the crash and burial, a woman dressed entirely in black was seen visiting the grave in Charfield where the bodies were buried. Those who claimed to have seen the mysterious woman said she was old, frail, and had about her an air of great sadness. At the memorial, she would leave flowers before hastily departing in a chauffeur-driven limousine. No one knew who she was or why she visited the memorial. Many speculated she knew something about the crash that no one else did —perhaps she even knew the identity of the children. Alas, the woman in black ceased visiting by the early 1960s. Her identity and purpose has remained a mystery ever since.

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Over the years the Charfield railway disaster has been the topic of many films and books. Nick Blackstock’s novel Something Hidden paints a fictionalized history for the two unknown children, and many think it may not be far from the truth. Were the children simply orphans with no family to claim them? Did the woman in black really know something about the crash the rest of the world did not? Unfortunately, we may never know the answers.

In one last twist to the tale, local legend has it that in the area surrounding the crash site, people have reported strange sightings of ghostly children. The small figures stand together, hand in hand silently looking down the tracks. Locals say they are the children, patiently waiting for the day someone identifies them so they can finally rest in peace.

[via BBC ; Charfield.org; Wikipedia

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