Armagh Rail Disaster on 12 June 1889

The same year that humorist Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was the same year The Armagh rail disaster happened on 12 June 1899. At the time railway travel was the way to travel and nearly everyone did it, including Mark Twain. However, no one expected a disaster to happen and, in fact, on the day of the disaster it was supposed to be nice day. The Armagh Methodist Sunday School had organized a day trip for its members that left at 10:15am traveling from Armagh, Ulster, Ireland, to the seaside resort of Warrenpoint.

Armagh Rail Disaster: Railway Disaster Near Armagh, Author's Collection

Railway disaster near Armagh. Author’s collection.

When the train left there was a foreshadowing that maybe something might happen. First, the train was to accommodate 800 excursionists and 13 cars. Instead it carried 940 excursionists and pulled 15 cars, much like the Versailles railway accident that had an overly long train and extra passengers in 1842. In fact, the Armagh excursion train was so full, some passengers rode with the guards. The 24-mile route also had numerous curves and a sharp grade and the first two and a half miles from Armagh Station had an incline that was steep and continuous. In addition, a new inexperienced engine driver named Thomas McGrath was driving the excursion train. Although McGrath had never driven the route, he was familiar with the route having traveled it on other excursion trains as a fireman.

When the train left, it chugged along no faster than 15 miles an hours but was reportedly “gradually losing speed the whole way.”[1] Approximately 200 yards from the grade’s peak, it stalled. McGraff said once it stalled, he “made no attempt to start [it] … feeling it would be useless.”[2] To prevent the train from rolling backwards, although the train had continuous non-automatic vacuum brakes, two hand-operated brake vans were applied: One immediately behind the engine tender and the other at the rear of the train with each being under the control of a separate guard.

At this point, Mr. Elliott, the chief clerk, ordered the train’s crew to divide the train. Five vehicles made up the front portion and ten vehicles made up the rear portion. Elliott also ordered McGraff to proceed with the front portion to Hamilton’s Bawn and to secure the rear portion and prevent it from rolling backwards, by a method known as “scotching,” which was undertaken by the rear guard.

Armagh Rail Disaster - Wreck Viewed from the Line, Author's Collection

Wreck viewed from the line. Author’s collection.

Scotching was usually done with sprags (a stout stick or metal bar inserted between the spokes of a wheel to prevent motion) but excursion trains were not required to carry them. So, the guard used large pieces of rock known as ballasts to wedge behind the wheels. He scotched the sixth vehicle before the uncoupling of the front and rear portions occurred, and then he scotched the right side on the last two vehicles (the ninth and tenth cars) and was intending to scotch the left side, when, McGraff attempted to move the front portion of the train. Unfortunately, it rolled backwards and nudged the rear portion causing the front wheels of the sixth vehicle to roll over the ballasts. Now the only thing holding the cars, besides the brake van, was the half scotched two rear vehicles. Unfortunately, with the vehicles pressing against them, they rolled over their ballasts too, and, as the brake van was insufficient to hold the weight of the ten vehicles, it slowly began to move backwards, gathering speed as it rolled.

On realizing the rear portion of the train was rolling, McGraff reversed course with the front portion hoping to recouple with the rear portion, but it was impossible, and he followed it down the incline. The rear guard at the same time “tried with the assistance of two passengers to get an extra turn at the brake handle,”[3] but it would not budge. In the meantime, at the Armagh station no one knew anything was wrong because at the time the trains operated on a time interval system. The passenger train, driven by Patrick Murphy, was scheduled to leave at 10:35am — 20 minutes after the excursion train — but left 3 minutes late at 10:38am. The two trains were similar in performance, but the passenger train was only pulling six vehicles. When the excursion train was about 500 yards away, Murphy was notified that the excursion train was barreling towards them and braked his train.

Murphy’s actions reduced the train’s speed from about 25 mph to about 5 miles an hour when the collision occurred. The engine of Murphy’s train was overturned. Further, “the tender [was slightly damaged] and the horse-box … separated from the rest of the train, [which] stopped three or four carriage’s length from the front vehicle.”[4] The excursion train and its passengers were not so lucky. The first and second vehicles from the rear were completely destroyed with their wheels shot down the bank on the left side.

“The third carriage from the rear of the excursion train was lying on the main-line alongside the engine on its floor [and was severely damaged.] … The fourth carriage from the rear was off the rails, with its body nearly intact … The fifth carriage from the rear was off the rails … The sixth carriage from the rear (a first-class) was in a similar position to the fifth, and not damaged. The seventh carriage from the rear had one trailing-wheel off the rails, one window broken, and the back rail of [the] seat broken. The three remaining [front] vehicles were on the road, and undamaged. All the couplings remained undamaged and tight, except those of the two [carriages] destroyed.”[5]

Armagh Rail Disaster - Wreck of Train on Side of Embankmen

Wreck of train on side of embankment. Author’s collection.

In total, the Armargh rail disaster resulted in 80 people killed (mostly women) and 260 people injured, with about two-thirds of the victims being children. One child injured was a little girl, named Nell, whose leg was crushed so severely it had to be amputated. Both of Nell’s parents died in the accident and the Colonist reported:

“Naturally their sad fate was kept from her as long as possible … They could not, however, allay the suspicions of the little patient whose thoughts in the midst of her own pain constantly turned to her parents, and she kept asking why they did not come to see her. ‘Everybody’s papa and mamma are coming here but mine,’ she said. Even Dickens never painted anything more touching than the sad lot of this little sufferer left … alone in the world, and filling with tears the eyes of those about her by the terrible pathos of her artless questionings.”[6]

An inquest was conducted about two weeks after the accident. William Herd, who had served 14 years with the railroad and 8 years as a fireman testified to what he saw:

“I caught sight of something coming back in the cutting. Upon seeing this I called out to the driver, ‘Hold.’ He opened the whistle, shut off steam, came to my side to see what it was, then applied the vacuum-brake with full force. I reversed the engine and applied steam when the driver was on my side, and before he applied the vacuum-brake; the sandboxes were not opened. The speed was reduced to less than five miles an hour when the crash took place, just before which I jumped off to the right and rolled down the bank, spraining my ankle a little. Not much of the wreckage came down on my side. I thought at first it was the whole training coming back. The speed seemed very high.”[7]

Murphy, driver of the passenger train, who had 31 years of experience and 20 years as a driver with the Newry and Armagh Company also testified about the Armagh rail disaster and stated:

“On the collision taking place, the engine turned over on its right side, and remained with its right side lying on the slope of the bank, just foul of the nearest rail. The tender gave a great lurch on the engine breaking away from it, but did not leave the rails. The fireman jumped off the right just before the crash, and rolled down the slope of the bank.”[8]

Ultimately, several reasons were discovered to have contributed to the Amargh rail disaster. Besides using the wrong engine, an inexperienced driver, and no sprags, there was also an inadequate application of the brakes and an incorrect response by Elliott to the excursion train stalling. Because the train was so heavy and the incline so steep, both brake vans should have been located at the rear of the train, instead of one at the rear and one at the front. Passengers also should not have been allowed to ride with the guards. Additionally, the excursion train should have been limited to ten vehicles, and, if not, an assisting engine should have been provided.

Armagh Rail Disaster 0 Wreck of the Engine and Carriages on Side of Embankment

Wreck of the engine and carriages on side of embankment. Author’s collection.

The Armagh rail disaster and inquest also spurred Parliament to pass the Regulation of Railways Act 1889, which occurred within two months of the accident. It mandated improved brake and signal systems, thereby halting serious accidents caused by inadequate braking. The Armagh rail disaster was also the worst United Kingdom rail disaster in the nineteenth century and remains Ireland’s worst railway disaster ever.

There was also one additional incident related to the Armagh rail disaster that adds an interesting footnote. A bill was sent to the Methodist superintendent from the Great Northern Railway Company, despite the railway company being at fault for the accident. (“They billed the church £39 4s 3d for 941 excursion tickets from Armagh to Warrenpoint on the 12th June.”[7]) Of course, the Methodist superintendent refused to pay the bill.


  • [1] Railway Returns for England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, 1890, p. 44.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 51.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 44.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 46.
  • [6] “The Late Railway Accident near Armagh,” in Colonist, 4 September 1889, p. 3.
  • [7] Railway Returns for England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, p. 43.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] “The Late Railway Accident near Armagh,” p. 3.

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