Underneath the arches...

By: Ian Crowder, 2006


…at Stanway Viaduct would not have been a good place to be on the wet morning of fateful Friday 13th November, 1903. For on this day disaster struck while the 15-arch, 42ft high, gently curving viaduct was being constructed. At 8.15, without warning, no. 10 arch, which had been completed a few days earlier, collapsed soon after its timber supports had been removed.


As it descended on to the sodden meadow below it brought down with it a 14-ton steam crane, which was lifting materials from ground level. The noise was heard over a mile away, according to local newspaper reports, and it brought workers rushing over immediately to help rescue anyone who might be trapped under the debris.


Miraculously, the driver of the steam crane - a man named Smith - survived and he was placed under arch no. 9 while the rescuers continued to retrieve a trapped worker.


But while this was going on, arch no. 9 collapsed equally suddenly, again burying the unfortunate Mr. Smith. While he was being dug out, arch no. 8 then collapsed. Mr Smith was still alive when he emerged from the chaos but, perhaps unsurprisingly, he later died from his injuries after he was taken to Winchcombe hospital. Three other men died in the disaster and seven were injured.


In fact, the casualty figure could have been greater. Some casual labourers had spent the night under the arches, leaving shortly before the disaster. And had the arch collapsed half an hour later, it would have fallen on top of the navvies who were in the habit of having their breakfast break at around 8.30, sheltering beneath those same arches.


According to Audie Baker's excellent but unfortunately out of print book 'An illustrated history of the Straford on Avon to Cheltenham Railway' (Irewell Press, ISBN 1-871608-62-7 - second hand copies can be found or borrow it from a library) one man had a most remarkable escape. He was standing near the crane on top of the viaduct when the deck gave way beneath him. He grabbed the nearest thing to him, which was a water pipe running along the top of the viaduct, and found himself suspended in mid-air. The pipe then broke, dropping him on to the rubble over 30 feet below, from where he was removed and placed alongside the unfortunate crane driver under the adjacent arch, which then fell on them both. But, unlike Mr Smith, he survived to work another day - no doubt to the astonishment of many of his acquaintances as he re-told the story of his narrow escape from death.


The cause of the collapse was never definitively identified but it was likely a combination of the weather, ground conditions, taking out the timber supports too early, the weight of the crane and the type of mortar used. Needless to say, the viaduct has survived perfectly well since its completion in the summer of 1904. The first trains to cross the viaduct were freight operations, allowed under a special dispensation after the opening of the line to Broadway on 1st August 1904 and prior to HMRI inspection. The trains were arranged to handle the fruit season traffic of the early autumn, and were required to run at reduced speed, probably because of settlement of the new embankments. The line opened to passenger traffic between Broadway and Toddington on 1st December that year.


Since then, the viaduct has carried countless passenger and freight trains, from the humble railcars and auto trains serving local stations to the heaviest Castle-hauled expresses, such as The Cornishman between Wolverhampton and Penzance. It also supported the endless heavy mineral trains hauled by GWR 2-8-0s and BR 9F 2-10-0s until the end of steam in 1965. After that, traffic diminished until the last train movement over the viaduct was a signal & telegraph engineering train which had collected equipment from Toddington on 14th August 1977. The viaduct has since stood silent, supporting nothing weightier than the ballast left after the track was lifted in 1979, and the occasional walker.


But after 26 years of slumber, the 15 arches have borne the weight of a train once again. On Saturday 12th November 2005, just one day short of 102 years since that disastrous collapse, a locomotive (electro-diesel no. 73129), hauling the GWR's permanent way train, gently rolled over the viaduct along track that had just been laid. This time, however, the viaduct carries a single line down the centre of the structure, instead of the original double track.


Now, in 2017, the viaduct carries our regular diesel railcar services to Laverton. Hopefully, before long passenger trains to Broadway will be crossing the viaduct again, as they did over 50 years ago.


This achievement stands as a remarkable testament to the voluntary effort, which for the past quarter of a century, has steadily brought this once-important main line back to life, firmly putting a beautiful local landmark once again on the railway map.