The Barberton Rail Crash, 1902

On the 24th March 1902, orders were received for the 2nd Hampshire, then quartered at Barberton, to proceed to Johannesburg. On 28th March the move was commenced with a party consisting of Captain F Bowker, Lieut R Thomson, and 100 NCOs and men of E Company and the Volunteer Company. This party reached Johannesburg on Sunday, 30th, without incident. The second party was ordered to leave Barberton on the above mentioned date. It consisted of Captain R Grant, Volunteer Service Company; Lieut AE Holbrook, Volunteer Service Company; and 2nd Lieut FL Parker, 31 NCOs and men of E Company, 29 NCOs and men of G Company , and 39 NCOs and men of the Volunteer Service Company, and three details, total 3 officers and 102 NCOs and men.

They entrained at Barberton Railway Station at 8am in the usual South African troop train, consisting of about seven open trucks or ‘shorts’ next the engine, followed by a ‘store’ truck, a ‘boy’ truck, and one passenger coach, two more ‘shorts,’ and the guard’s van being in the rear. The first three trucks next the engine were empty or nearly so, the fourth and fifth were occupied by the Volunteer Company, the sixth and seventh by E Company, and the ‘boy’ truck and the two ‘shorts’ in rear by G Company. The coach was occupied by the three officers and some civilian passengers.

The train left Barberton Station up to time, and almost immediately began to proceed down the incline at a great pace, and soon the oscillation caused by the speed warned all the passengers that an accident was inevitable. It was impossible for the men to keep their seats even on the floor of the trucks. Dust and stones flew up in all directions; rifles, kits, etc, were thrown violently from one side of the trucks to the other, and a loud grating noise was heard, probably caused by one of the trucks which had already left the metals.

When it was seen that the train really had left the line many of the men were ordered to lie down, which they did. One man had jumped before this order was given, and he was afterwards found dead, at the bottom of the donga. Then came the final crash, and the engine had run off the line at a sharp curve about 300 or 400 yards on the Barberton side of the donga. It crossed the bridge and capsized on the far side. The boiler burst and the driver and fireman were killed. The two trucks occupied by the Volunteer Company ran on a short distance and then capsized. The E Company trucks went as far as the middle of the culvert; one of them fell to the bottom of the donga, a 40ft. drop, and the other rolled down the embankment, throwing the men out and falling on them. There was a death roll of no less than twenty – five in these trucks alone. The ‘store’ truck, the ‘boy’ truck, the passenger coach, the two ‘shorts’ next the van, and the van itself crossed the culvert, some of them on the girders. The ‘boy’ truck tilted over on its side, whilst the buffer of the ‘store’ truck in front smashed into its end. The doors of the ‘boy’ truck had closed themselves at the final smash, and when a man tried to move it shook, so they were ordered to keep still. They were released at last by a man who managed to open the upper door with great difficulty from the outside.

A scene of terrible destruction and damage presented itself. Every vehicle was de-railed and capsized and many smashed to pieces, while the sight of the killed and injured was appalling. The discipline of the troops was splendid. Although they knew in many cases that death was almost inevitable, not a cry was heard, and all orders were instantly obeyed. The officers, NCOs, and men who were not injured did their utmost to alleviate the sufferings of their less fortunate comrades, and assistance arrived from Barberton, four miles away, in a wonderfully short time. In addition to medical assistance, everybody, officers and men, civilians (with ladies and gentlemen), gave most valuable and untiring help, never thinking of resting until every injured man had been carefully attended to and placed on an ambulance or wagon for removal to hospital. A relief train arrived from Kaapminden about 5pm, and before dark all the dead and injured had been conveyed back to Barberton and the line was open for traffic.

The dead were buried next day with full military honours in Barberton Cemetery. The Burial Service was read by Major Crofts, in the absence of the Chaplain, and it was most impressive. The whole garrison, who were off duty, attended, including, in addition to the Regiment, detachments of RA, RE, the Lincoln Regiment, the 5th Fusiliers, MI, and others.

Company No. on Train Killed Died of Injuries Injured Uninjured
E Coy 31 23 1 5 2
Volunteers 39 7 3 25 4
G Coy 29 6 9 14
Details 3 2 1
TOTALS 102 38 4 39 21