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The Great Thorpe Railway Disaster 1874 (Hardback)

Heroes, Victims, Survivors

Local History British History Transport Trains and Railways 19th Century

By Phyllida Scrivens
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 216
ISBN: 9781526764027
Published: 20th September 2021

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The Great Thorpe Railway Disaster of 1874 is the third title from Norwich writer and biographer Phyllida Scrivens, who lives less than half a mile from the site of the fatal collision.

At Norwich Station on 10 September 1874, a momentary misunderstanding between the Night Inspector and young Telegraph Clerk resulted in an inevitable head-on collision. The residents of the picturesque riverside village of Thorpe-Next-Norwich were shocked by a ‘deafening peal of thunder’, sending them running through the driving rain towards a scene of destruction. Surgeons were summoned from the city, as the dead, dying and injured were taken to a near-by inn and boatyard. Every class of Victorian society was travelling that night, including ex-soldiers, landowners, clergymen, doctors, seamstresses, saddlers, domestic servants and a beautiful heiress.

For many months local and national newspapers followed the story, publishing details of subsequent deaths, manslaughter trial and outcomes of record-breaking compensation claims. The Board of Trade Inquiry concluded that it was ‘the most serious collision between trains meeting one another on a single line of rails […] that has yet been experienced in this country.’

Using extensive research, non-fiction narrative, informed speculation and dramatised events, Phyllida Scrivens pays tribute to the 28 men, women and children who died, revealing the personal stories behind the names, hitherto only recorded as a list.

As featured in

Norfolk Christmas Gifts

The author, who lives close to the crash site, effectively blends facts with some speculative dramatisation.

David Brown, Best of British Magazine

Featured in 'Latest Releases'

Best of British

The author, who lives close to the crash site, effectively blends facts with some speculative dramatisation.

Best of British, November 2021

As featured in

Lets Talk! September 2021

As featured in Norfolk Magazine

Norfolk Magazine

New book chronicles one of the most tragic rail collisions in history - read full article here

Derek James, Eastern Daily Press

As featured on Stephen Bumfrey's 2.30pm show on BBC Radio Norfolk!Listen here

BBC Radio Norwich

'...an important history and human interest book which deserves to be read, not just in Norfolk and Suffolk, but across the country.'

Derek James, Let's Talk magazine

'Following on from the success of her previous two biographies, Escaping Hitler and The Lady Lord Mayors of Norwich, Thorpe St Andrew resident Phyllida Scrivens brings us a unique illustrated biographical history of this Victorian railway collision.'

Thorpe St. Andrew Parish Life Magazine

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

When I picked up Phyllida Scrivens’ Great Thorpe Railway Disaster 1874, I expected a fairly dry account of why the disaster happened: which rule wasn’t followed by railway staff; what the Board of Trade enquiry found; etc.. I am absolutely DELIGHTED to say the book is much much better than that.

The accident on Thursday, 10th September 1874 resulted in the deaths of 25 people. Trains left Norwich and Great Yarmouth that evening and met head-on at Thorpe St Andrew, two miles east of Norwich.

We get a chapter on the history of the line and then a chapter giving a series of pen portraits of various people in Norwich, Yarmouth and Great Thorpe and what they might have done and thought on the day of the accident. Chapter 3 gives us more pen portraits as people board the trains that evening. We also get the dialogue between the telegraph operator and his inspector at Norwich that was documented at the subsequent enquiry. The 9pm express from London was late and the mail train was waiting at Brundall Station a few miles away, waiting for the line. Inspector Cooper told John Robson to send a message to Brundall Station, instructing them to despatch the mail train along the single line to Norwich. Robson did so, with the message logged at 9:24pm. The express arrived shortly after the message was sent and Cooper didn’t detain it, allowing it to set off down the single line towards Brundall.

Chapter 4 – Impact – is excellent. It describes the moment that the two trains met and how the people we met in earlier chapters fared. Some were killed; some were injured; some were able to walk away. This is vivid stuff.

Chapter 5 – The Days Following – covers the inquests that took place over the next day and Saturday, mostly using the words of the witnesses and the relatives and friends who identified the bodies. Chapter 6 takes us to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, where messages were sent to off-duty, retired and trainee staff, urging them to come in and help. We get a chapter on the doctors and surgeons who treated the patients. Other chapters cover the inquiry; the trials of the unfortunate Cooper and Robson; the compensation cases where the survivors (or, more often, the dependents of the deceased) pleaded for money from the Great Eastern Railway. Scrivens also tells us about the heroes who attended the crash site, trying to rescue people or helping them subsequently. We also hear about some survivors, one of whom lived until 1925.

The chronological order of the chapters and the cycling through the locations - the two stations and Thorpe – brings increasing tension to the narrative. The pen portraits make us realise that behind the dry history of a disaster were real people with devastated families: mothers with fatherless babies; parents that lost children; businesses that lost their owners and thus workers without a job and without any income.

This is a really good book. I recommend it to everyone, even if you’re not at all interested in railways.

NetGalley, Colin Edwards
 Phyllida Scrivens

About Phyllida Scrivens

Phyllida Scrivens lives with husband Victor in Thorpe St Andrew, just outside the city of Norwich, overlooking the picturesque River Yare. In 2016 she achieved a life-long ambition when her first biography Escaping Hitler, was published by Pen and Sword Books, followed by Skyhorse Publications of New York in 2017. Her second book, a group biography entitled The Lady Lord Mayors of Norwich 1923-2017, won the Best Biography Prize at the East Anglian Book Awards in November 2018. She is a popular public speaker, giving talks on her work throughout Norfolk and beyond.


Phyllida studied for an MA in Creative Non-Fiction with Biography from the University of East Anglia, graduating in 2014.

The Great Thorpe Railway Disaster

10th September 1874

The Great Thorpe Railway Disaster occurred on 10 September 1874. It was described by the subsequent Board of Trade Inquiry as “the most serious collision between trains meeting one another on a single line of rails that as yet been experienced in this country”. It is a fascinating tale and one that has captured the imagination of residents of Norwich and the nearby riverside village of Thorpe St Andrew, for many decades.


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