In the Victorian era it became popular for groups to take annual outings to the seaside. On the 12th July 1906 it was the turn of the tradesman of Orpington and St Marys Cray to take an outing to Brighton. For the first time they decided not to travel by train but to hire a double decker bus with an open top. It was to prove to be a fatal decision.
The journey began well but it was soon clear there were mechanical problems, the driver had to stop on several occasions to wield his spanner. Locals in Horley, Surrey reported seeing the omnibus make its way through the town noticeably top heavy (with many of the passengers taking advantage of the open top, many of them standing).
As the bus approached Handcross Hill they were travelling about 12 miles an hour (the national speed limit was 14 miles an hour) but they picked up speed as they began down the hill getting up to an estimated 30 or 40 miles. The bus wasn't designed to cope with the speed and by the time the driver tried to use the brakes it was too late, they failed with a loud bang leaving a variety of mechanical parts lying in the road behind them. The badly shaken driver tried the handbrake without effect so he threw the gears into reverse, the only option left to him. There was a further bang as many of the remaining mechanical parts fell out and the driver lost all all control of the bus. The driver, Henry Blake, tried to keep the bus on the road but it hit a large oak tree, a branch of which tore off the top half of the bus, the rest of the bus continued until it came to rest hanging off the side of the hill.
|Red Lion, Handcross|
The Red Lion in Handcross multi-functioned over the next few days; it became a temporary hospital for the injured, it became a morgue for the dead and it provided a room for the inquest which began just two days later. The tenth and final victim dying in a room next door just as the inquest began.
The inquest eventually decided on a verdict of accidental death "caused by the breakage of the machinery brought on by the efforts of the driver the check the speed of the omnibus when he found that it was going to fast". There was some concern that the driver had had two beers during the journey and that the bus company were in the habit of encouraging speed down the hills to give momentum on the other side but it was decided no one was criminally responsible however they recommended that this type of omnibus was not suitable for country roads.
The ten men who died were Thomas Francis, a 49 year old master baker, who died of a fractured skull. He was an Orpington man born and bred who left a wife Sarah Jemima (nee Brice) and seven children aged between 29 years and 8 years. Sarah continued the bakery shop with the help of her older children.
Arthur Savage was another baker, from the neighbouring village of St Mary Cray. He was 42 years old when he was killed by shock and a broken back leaving behind his pregnant wife Bessie (nee Ashley) who was expecting their ninth child.
|9 of the 10 victims|
(the 10th is on the previous page)
Edward Packham, a basket maker, died from shock and a fractured skull aged 39 years leaving his wife Lavinia (nee Trist) to bring up their two young daughters Lilian and Ivy. His wife supported her family by working as a library caretaker, a job which came with accommodation Lavinia remarried in 1915 and died in 1967 at the age of 96 years.
The Epsom family of St Mary Cray had not had an easy time even before the accident; Solomon Epsom, a grocer, and his wife Catherine (nee Regan) had married in 1878 and had four children but their youngest daughter died in 1894 aged 9, their son in 1900 aged 16, Catherine died in 1902 and then their two surviving children lost their remaining parent when Solomon died as a result of a broken back.
Herbert Baker was a clothier in St Mary Cray where he lived with his wife Alice Maud (nee Tier) and their young family, their youngest child was born just weeks before Herbert was killed. The impact tore his leg off and it landed in the oak tree where it alarmed rescuers. He survived the initial impact but he died shortly afterwards at the Red Lion.
32 year old John French who ran the Anglesea Arms in Orpington, left a wife Ellen (nee Driscoll) and a young son Jack. Ellen remarried in 1911 - to John's younger brother William, landlord of the Castle Hotel in Tonbridge.
Alice, wife of William Vann, was pregnant at the time of the accident and it was feared that the shock and anxiety would cause her to lose the baby but Laurence was born a few months after his father died. William had been a draper and ran a busy business in St Mary Cray which his wife continued after his death.
The youngest to die was Henry Burch who was just 26 years old. He died instantly when he was thrown from the top level into the tree where his body was caught in the branches and was left hanging. His body had to be identified by his father.
Ironically one of the dead was the undertaker, Henry Hutchings who was 42 years old and travelling with his 13 year old son William. The first to the scene of the accident found William wandering around calling for his father. Both of them had been travelling on the top of the bus but William had jumped out prior to the crash and was almost unhurt but later recounted how his father had remained sitting upright in his seat as the bus hurtled towards the oak tree. Following his death his wife Bertha (nee Meade) worked as an elementary school teacher in St Mary Cray. She never remarried.
William Bailey was the last to die. The 54 year old school master survived the crash and was taken to the Red Lion with a compound fracture of his right leg and fractured ribs which had punctured his lungs. He was kept alive with oxygen but died two days later just after the inquest into the accident began.
It was also reported in a few newspapers that the conductor Frank Ewans had also died in the accident. He had been badly injured leading to his transfer to Brighton hospital for trepanning to relieve the swelling of his brain. He did however survive and continued to work as a bus conductor until he died in 1931 aged 66 years.
For contemporary photos see the Gravelroots website.