WEIRD NORFOLK: The Ghost Train of King's Lynn

The aftermath of the 1863 train crash on the Hunstanton to King's Lynn line

The aftermath of the 1863 train crash on the Hunstanton to King's Lynn line in which six people died and up to 30 were injured - Credit: Submitted

Far removed from fun fairground rides, the ghost train on the disused King’s Lynn to Hunstanton railway line is a season ticket to a doomed journey that ended in tragedy.

Across the old railbed, dismantled many decades ago, the distinctive rumble of an approaching train has been heard by people passing nearby: a ghost train making a fateful journey that saw six people lose their lives.

On the evening of Monday, August 3, 1863, the 7.45pm from Hunstanton (running two minutes late) set off for King’s Lynn with packed carriages full of seaside day-trippers.

King's Lynn to Hunstantion line in 1968. Picture: Archant Library

King's Lynn to Hunstantion line in 1968. Picture: Archant Library - Credit: Archant Library

As the steam train approached King’s Lynn, shortly after passing through North Wootton, the driver saw a bullock between the rails around 40 yards away.

He immediately stopped the steam, the fireman applied the tender-brake and the train began to slow, but it was too late to avoid disaster.

The engine itself passed over the creature and the first three carriages followed without being de-railed: but the axles of the fourth carriage hit the bullock’s body and it, along with the four carriages that followed it, were all thrown from the tracks.

Those that attended the scene saw untold carnage: twisted metal and splintered wood and underneath the bodies of the living and the dead entwined – and the screams echoed along the torn track as survivors begged to be rescued.

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The first of the carriages to turn over was carrying first-class passengers and, despite being left on its roof with its wheels in the air, the occupants – several gentlemen and ladies - escaped unhurt.

But for those who had occupied the cheaper seats, the story was quite different.

The third-class carriages that followed were smashed to pieces – five people lost their lives immediately, many others were terribly wounded and four or five were badly injured.

Those who died were builder John Laird from Lynn, Mrs Clarke of Brandon and Miss Clarke of Lynn, Miss Palmer of Walpole near Wisbech and Mrs Brown from Lynn.

John Laird’s wife Susanna received serious head wounds, shipowner Mr Dennis had his thigh broken and his other leg injured, a young woman called Eliza Bartle had to have a foot amputated and another woman, Ann Jickling, sustained a broken ankle.

Mr Dennis died of his wounds the next morning.

A somewhat morbid poem was written and put on sale after the accident, allegedly “lines written by an eye-witness”.

It tells the story of folk having a carefree day by the seaside, unaware that death awaits them on their journey home: “Wading in Neptune’s realm, that day, serene, yet though serene, grim Death was hov’ring near, to lay a victim on his funeral bier.”

A station along the Hunstanton to King's Lynn railway line

A station along the Hunstanton to King's Lynn railway line - Credit: Submitted

It continues to tell the tale of the happy throngs climbing aboard the train as the sun began to dip in the sky: “On, on they went, Lynn was well-night in view, fond thoughts of home each moment fonder grew; when list! A crash grates harshly on the ear, and shrieks and lamentations, sad to hear.

“What pen can ere the misery describe, what mind the stern reality imbibe of that dread night? A night destined to live as long as memory can description give.

“’Midst broken carriages, in splinters torn, ‘midst mutilated forms, by strangers borne, both men and women called, in anguish wild, on God, divine, to spare their darling child.

“The dead and living in confusion mix’d some bound by rubbish, some by carriage fix’d, a loving wife laid by her husband’s side, and from their wounds oozed forth the purple tide.”

An inquest for John Laird, Susan Clarke, Elizabeth Clarke, Maria Palmer and Mrs Brown was held at The Ship Inn in Gaywood by coroner Martin Wilkin.

The verdict was damning: “Accidental death of five persons caused by a bullock straying on the line through gross negligence of the authorities of the Great Eastern Railway and their officers -first, by not putting the fences into a state of safety; secondly by not putting the bullock off the line where the accident occurred; thirdly, by the disgraceful state of the carriages used for the conveyance of the unfortunate persons. The jury also consider the Government Inspector deserving censure for passing a line so inadequately fenced.”

Great Eastern Railway was forced to pay £10,000 in compensation, an eighth of what the whole railway line had cost to build just a year earlier. The line closed in May 1969, a victim of rail cuts, underinvestment and the rise in car usage.

All that remains of that fateful day in 1863 are  memorials in Lynn's Hardwick Road cemetery to John Laird and his wife Susannah and, of course, the phantom train which tries to complete its journey time and time again, its long-since departed passengers fated to repeat the same cursed journey for eternity.