The Abermule disaster: a tragic death in a railway family.

The Abermule disaster was one of Wales’ worst accidents on the railways. It occurred on 26th January 1921 when staff at Abermule station mixed up the ‘tablet’ or token which was passed to the engine crew to show they had safe passage on a single-line section of track. In consequence the 10.25 express train from Aberystwyth collided head-on with a slow train which had left Whitchurch at 10.05 am about 2 ½ miles from Newtown and 1 ½ miles from Abermule.

Both trains were travelling at about 30mph and the impact of 60mph wrecked both engines. The express train consisted of seven carriages. The first two were thrown off the rails, but many passengers escaped serious injury.

Scene of the disaster. Montgomeryshire Express,1 February 1921.

The last three carriages remained on the rails; although one was badly damaged, the final two were almost untouched. The worst damage was to the third and fourth coaches, the force of the impact telescoping them together. The fourth coach, a GWR 8-wheel composite coach, was that destined for Paddington and it was there that most of the fatalities occurred.

The driver and fireman of the stopping train were killed, whilst the driver and fireman of the express threw themselves from the cab at the last moment and although injured, both survived. One of the directors of the Cambrian Railway, Lord Herbert Vane-Tempest also died, as did his valet James Henderson.

Amongst the seventeen fatalities was the passenger guard of the express, 69 year old Edward Shone of Aberystwyth.

A small collection at Ceredigion Archives may have been made by one of the family or a close friend. It consists of cuttings from contemporaneous papers and periodicals, and one more modern article, about the disaster and about Edward Shone in particular.

The narrative of the disaster and subsequent rescue make harrowing reading even 99 years on, for newspapers were not as reticent as they are now in giving details which modern sensibilities would consider unnecessarily distressing and intrusive.

The body of Edward Shone was the first to be removed from the wreckage, identifiable by his ‘uniform and bright buttons’ whilst ‘a sorrowful exclamation’ by the rescue party signalled that they had recognised him. As a passenger guard he had been seated in ‘a little box’ (we might describe it as a cubby hole) in the Paddington coach, probably situated between the first and third class sections of that coach.

Inquest report, Daily Mirror, 3 February 1921

Later, at the inquest, Henry Shone, 3 St George’s Terace,  Llanbadarn identified the body of his father who lived at 4 Stanley Road, Aberystwyth. Edward Shone had lived there for nearly twenty years, moving from Llanidloes in the early years of the century, when the Cambrian and Mid Wales Railway Companies merged.  He and his wife Annie had three daughters and six sons. All of the sons had followed Mr Shone onto the railways, as he in turn had followed his father who had been one of the first guards to serve the Mid-Wales Line.

Henry Shone was a signalman at Aberystwyth, and said he last saw his father as the 10.25 express passed out of Aberystwyth when Edward “in his usual way waved his hand as passing the signal box.”

Edward and Annie and their growing family had lived at Cwmdu, on the edge of Llanidloes  “and in the minds of many townspeople linger happy recollections of the earlier associations of those bygone days. He was 69 years of age but looked far less, his rubicund, good humoured face scarce betraying his almost three score and ten years”. The local paper noted “he has paid many visits to his old familiar scenes at Llanidloes and always spoke of his love for the town which had cherished him for many years.” On coming to Aberystwyth he had named his new home in Stanley Road ‘Idloes House’  

In Llanidloes Mr Shone had been a staunch supporter of the Established (i.e. the Anglican) Church and on transferring to Aberystwyth he joined the congregation of Holy Trinity, where he became an active church member.

The parish magazine for Llanbadarn Fawr, St. Michael and All Angels and Holy Trinity for February 1921 gave their own tribute to Mr Shone.  

Mr Shone was a staunch Churchman and had been for many years a regular worshipper and sidesman at Holy Trinity and also a member of the Parochial Church Council. We can never express adequately our heartfelt sorrow for the irreparable loss which the widow and her family have sustained. It will be a comfort for them to know that the best witness to the high regard and affection with which Mr Shone was held, not only by his comrades, but by all that had had the pleasure of knowing him is the fact that his funeral on Sunday, 30th ult. was one of the largest ever seen in the town. He died in tragic circumstances, but like the soldier on the battlefield, he dies whilst doing his duty. May God uphold and comfort all the family in their sad bereavement.

We must remember that for many readers, the death of the soldier on the battlefield was all too recent a memory in 1921. The funeral was sufficiently impressive to be reported in national newspapers including the Daily Mirror, with three photographs of the procession.

In 1921 Sunday rail services out of Aberystwyth were very limited, with just a morning and evening mail train and it was for this reason that the funeral took place on Sunday, so that fellow railwaymen could attend their comrade’s funeral. A special train conveyed them down the line to Aberystwyth. 

In reporting the funeral the Cambrian News noted that, like his father,

Report of Edward Shone’s funeral, Cambrian News

Mr Shone himself had acted [as a guard] for over forty years, being the first in charge of a train running between Cardiff and Aberystwyth. He came to live at Aberystwyth about twenty years ago, during which time he was guard on the express from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury in the winter months and to London in the summer months. The great respect in which he was held was made manifest last Sunday afternoon when his remains were laid to rest in the cemetery. Hundreds of townspeople attended the funeral. The Cambrian Railway Company was represented by Mr Herbert, one of the directors : Mr James Rees from the Head Office Oswestry; and MR T.K. Vaughan Stationmaster, representing the Superintendent of the line. A special train brought in a large number of railwaymen from different parts of the system….a touching service was held at Holy Trinity Church…from the church to the cemetery the body was borne on the shoulders of railway employees. The chief mourners were Mrs A. Shone, widow, Messrs. William, Edward, Thomas, James, Albert, Harry and Stanley Shone, sons. Misses Polly, Lottie and Sally Shone (daughters). The wreaths…numbered 32 [including from] the Taff Vale Railway, Cardiff, Midland Railway Employees, Swansea Valley, Coast Section of the Cambrian Railway, Aberystwyth Clerical Railway Staff, N.U.R Aberystwyth Branch, Co-operative Society Aberystwyth, & the Church Wardens Holy Trinity

A final insight into Edward Shone’s life is given in his obituary in The Wheatsheaf of February 1921, the newsletter of the Aberystwyth and District Co-operative Society :

Mr Shone who has met his death under the most distressing circumstances in the Cambrian railway disaster on January 26th 1921 between Newtown and Abermule, deprives the Society of one of its oldest and most faithful members.

Mr Shone has been on the Management Committee ever since its foundation in 1915, a member who was always willing and anxious to do whatever he could for the benefit of the Society. Though of a rather quiet disposition he has always had the respect of his colleagues, every one of whom appreciates the worth of his services during the difficult times which the Society has gone through and that he has not been spared to see what appears to be a brighter period in the annals of the Society is very much regretted. That the members themselves had confidence in Mr Shone was proved at the last quarterly meeting when he was re-elected for another term of service.

Mr Shone was 69 years of age and had been in the employ of the Cambrian railways for 50 years. He hailed from Llanidloes some 20 years ago and during the time he has been passenger guard has gained a host of friends by his geniality and many kindnesses to travellers on the Cambrian. Along with his interest and activity in Co-operative circles Mr Shone has been a vigorous trade unionist and has held the position of treasurer to the local branch of the N.U.R for nearly 20 years. Deceased has left a widow, three daughters and six sons (all of these railwaymen).

In studying family and local history it is often difficult or impossible to discover anything of the character of individuals, except when they occupied a place in society where they were the object of public scrutiny, or where they left correspondence or other material which give insights into character. It is also unusual to be able to find much about the different aspects of people’s lives. In this instance, although in such a sad context, the sources available give us a rounded picture of a kind and principled man, who spent his life in different forms of public service, and died tragically in performing a duty he clearly also felt to be a pleasure.

Helen Palmer


The images below show reports of the disaster in the Montgomeryshire Express of 1 February 1921, presented in order in which they appeared on the page (click to enlarge)

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