As with most of the topics covered-off by London Shoes, the subject matter is generally considerably historic in terms of its occurrence – however, although last week’s topic happened some 44 years ago, it is one of the rare occasions where I can clearly remember the incident, and the impact that it had on everyday Londoner’s like me.
So – this London Shoes publication goes back to 1975 to revisit an incident that was and still is to this very day ‘the worst ever peacetime accident on the London Underground’ – namely the “Moorgate Tube Disaster” – a tragedy that claimed 43 lives and left 74 badly injured.
At the time of the ‘Moorgate Tube Disaster’ in February 1975, I had just turned 18 and was working at Barclays Bank’s Wardour Street branch in Soho – and was totally reliant on the Tube for my daily commute.
I can clearly remember news of the Moorgate incident breaking, during the morning it happened – and the impact that it had on me at as a tube traveller, and the incident became a little more ‘real’ for me personally, when I found out later that a ‘friend of a friend’ had lost their life in the tragedy.
The story behind how this terrible incident happened has remained a mystery to this very day.
On 28th February 1975 at 08:46, a Northern Line tube train operating on the Highbury loop branch-line of its 6 stop route to the Moorgate terminus – left Drayton Park tube station, carrying 300 passengers, and headed off on its normal straight forward journey.
It was the height of the ‘rush hour’ and the train in question had already completed the journey a couple of times that morning.
The tube train, consisting of 6 carriages, departed ‘Old Street’, the last stop before the Moorgate terminus, and headed off towards its final destination.
It approached the Moorgate platform 9 at a speed of 30mph, and for some unknown reason, it did not stop, and crashed head-on into the hydraulic buffers that were located just inside the terminus tunnel.
The drivers coach and the first carriage hit the buffers in the tunnel at such a force, that the first carriage veered upwards into the roof of the tunnel – the second carriage went ‘under’ the first carriage – and the third carriage rode ‘over’ the top of the second carriage.
The impact crushed the first carriage from its standard 52ft to just 20ft in length.
The first emergency services arrived on the scene within just a couple of minutes –and very soon all the emergency services were there and the site declared a major incident & rescue.
Platform 9 were the incident occurred was one of the deepest parts of Moorgate tube station, which could only be accessed via a series of spiral and narrow stairways – and so all the rescue equipment had to be manually carried back and forth from street level to the incident site.
Radio systems were not operating properly because of all the structural disturbance down in the tunnel on Platform 9 – and so ‘runners’ were instigated to pass messages to and from the scene of the incident to ground level.
The air down at platform 9 was thick with soot, dust and rubble – and so massive industrial fans were called for to try and get some fresh air down there – however, this circulated air just made matters worse as all it was doing was churning up more dust making it difficult for the rescue teams to see anything in front of them.
Also – with no fresh air or ventilation – the temperatures down at the crash scene rose to ridiculous unworkable levels –which were only made worse when the Fire Services started using their cutting equipment. Temperatures exceeded 40 degrees+ which meant that it was only possible to undertake cutting and removing work at 20min shifts.
At ground level roads were closed and all the emergency vehicles based themselves in Moorfields, a small street that ran along the back of the main Moorgate Station entrance.
By 3:15pm that day, the emergency services announced that, in their opinion, only 2 more people were still alive within all the carnage – a 19yr old woman police constable, and a young Stock Exchange worker – who were both trapped in the tangled mass of the first carriage.
The emergency services worked for several hours to free them – but had to resort to amputating a foot of the WPC to be able to get her out.
By 10pm the emergency and rescue services confirmed that there was no one else alive within the wreckage – and the chief medical officer at the scene declared that all the other casualties were dead.
The operation to cut through all the wreckage to get the corpses out, took the emergency and rescue services another 4 days – and on the 4th March 1975, the very last of the passenger corpses were finally removed.
By the evening of the 4th, the tube driver’s body had also been reached and removed.
Overall – the rescue and clean-up operation involved total of 1,324 firemen – 240 police officers – 80 ambulance personnel – 16 doctors plus dozens of nurses and other willing helpers.
Unbelievably – a full tube service was resumed at the station by the 10th March.
So – how did this terrible disaster happen????
Was there a fault with the train’s mechanisms – was there a signal fault – did the driver have a heart attack – was he intoxicated – or – did he commit suicide???
The investigation work and enquiry into the operational aspect of London Underground that day – confirmed that there were no defaults with the actual tube train, or its break mechanisms – there were no signalling faults or problems – and no faults with the tube track itself.
A full inquest and enquiry revealed that ‘Leslie Newson’ the 56yr old train driver for that fateful journey – had worked for London Underground for several years, and was considered to be a loyal, trustworthy and extremely conscientious employee.
His colleagues said that he took his job and its responsibilities very seriously.
He was a happily married family man, who had no problems inside or outside of work. Everyone who knew him said that he was the sort of bloke who always appeared cheerful.
He was not a drinker – he had no debts – nor had he had any time off work with sickness or illnesses, other than a few days recovering from an incident when a troublesome passenger had punched him in the face whilst he was on duty.
The very morning of the disaster, he had already completed the journey to and from the Moorgate terminus a couple of times – and in between shifts he had joked with colleagues about them leaving him enough milk and sugar for his cuppa.
In his jacket pocket he had £270 in cash (roughly equivalent to £1,900 by todays calculations), which was a lot of money to be carrying about. However, his wife and family clarified that following his shift for that day, he had planned to purchase a decent 2nd hand car for his daughter who had just passed her driving test.
Leslie Newson had his drivers satchel with him, in which was found an London Underground Rule Book plus some sugar for his tea, and also a notebook in which he had documented ways in which he felt London Underground could make improvements and enhancements to their services – Hardly the evidence of someone who had intended to take their own life, and kill others in the process.
The post-mortem on the driver’s body was even more interesting, as it showed no evidence of him having had a heart attack, or a stroke or a brain seizure, anything debilitating like that.
There was no evidence of drugs or medication in his bloodstream, and his liver showed no evidence of him having been a drinker.
X-rays of his upper body showed that he hadn’t put his hands up to his face upon the trains impact, and that they would have been still pressed down onto the “dead-man’s handle” (the thing that makes the train go) mechanism in the driver cabin.
His bloodstream did show very low traces of alcohol – but forensic scientists claimed that this was more than likely a biological occurrence where the decomposing body had been left in the wreckage for 4 days – a situation that would cause alcohol to develop naturally in the body.
Obviously survivors and relatives of the deceased wanted answers – and the feeling between them and the media, was that the driver had either been intoxicated, or had committed suicide.
However, from the evidence put forward at the Inquiry, there was nothing within the findings to substantiate a claim of suicide or intoxication – and as a result, the jury returned a verdict of “Accidental Death”.
Following the Moorgate tragedy, there were some major safety changes made to the Tube network, like minimum speed limits, and automatic braking systems should a train exceed speeds or fail to stop when approaching a station.
Today – there are 2 memorials commemorating this tragedy – a plaque displayed on an external wall of Moorgate tube station – and a little further down the road in Finsbury Square, there is a memorial stone that lists the names of all the 43 people who lost their lives whilst travelling to work that day.
With all the advances in today’s technology – there is still no answer as to why and how this worst ever peacetime accident on the London Underground, that claimed the lives of 43 people and left 74 badly injured, actually happened – and I guess there never will be.
So – having spent my day visiting the scene of the Moorgate tube disaster and contemplating my own personal memories of that day – it was time for a little tipple before heading off back home – and so I found myself in the oddly named “Old Doctor Butler’s Head” pub, which is tucked away in Manson Ave – a tiny alley just a couple of mins walk from Moorgate tube station.
Apparently there has been an Inn/Tavern on this site since the 1600’s.
The “Old Doctor Butler’s Head” pub gets its name from a fella from the 1700’s called (not surprisingly) ‘Doctor Butler’.
Dr. Butler was a self-proclaimed specialist in nervous disorders – who offered ‘miracle’ cures such as dangling his patients upside down from London’s bridges – or – secretly firing a set of pistols next to them to scare conditions such as epilepsy from their ‘systems’.
Dr. Butler had no formal qualifications whatsoever, but his remedies were believed in by many people, including Royalty.
Dr. Butler also developed a beer which he claimed cured all stomach and digestive ailments.
However, this beer was only available at selected pubs (which apparently, he had a financial interest in) and these drinking establishments displayed a plaque depicting Dr. Butler’s “head” on a their exterior walls so that punters knew where to go to get their ‘cure’ – hence the origins of the name of this lovely little boozer I had selected for a couple of ‘cheeky’ ones.
So that’s all about the Moorgate Tube Disaster of 1975 – hope you found this summary of events & accompanying interesting.
Below is a full summary of the photos accompanying the ‘Moorgate Tube Disaster’ blog