Tuesday Talk: Rails to Midhurst – A tale of a Wild Iron Horse

By Bill Gage, Guest Speaker

Yellow poster with black ink text. Reads: London Brighton and South Coast Railway Opening of the Chichester and Midhurst Line Monday, 11th July 1882, followed by timetable of trains.
Add Mss 26499 – Poster for the opening of the Chichester and Midhurst Line, 1881

In the 1960s I would always listen to the Saturday morning radio programme “Childrens’ Favourites”. One song, featured regularly, was the “The Runaway Train went over the hill and she blew”. Yet I wonder how many people know that such an incident actually happened in West Sussex.  

At the time the railway network was in its infancy and, in 1857 the London, Brighton & South Coast railway extended its line from Horsham to Petworth, opening for passengers on 10th October 1859. Petworth Station was then a terminus as the line had yet to built to Midhurst. In its own small engine shed was housed a single locomotive, a Sharp’s Brothers single wheeler No 79 built in 1847. 

Twelve days after the opening in the early hours of the morning, the fireman commenced his normal routine by lighting the fire in the boiler of 79 in readiness to raise steam for the day’s work. A cleaner also came on duty at 5am to polish the loco. As the cleaner needed the loco to be moved so he could gain access to areas which had been out of his reach, he went into the engineman’s lobby to ask the fireman for his help.

As they came out of the lobby they saw the engine moving slowly out of the shed, and through the points. A mad dash was made towards the engine, the cleaner being the younger man nearly reached the engine but as it continued to gather momentum, both railwaymen saw the locomotive disappear down the line to Horsham, minus an engine crew.

Whether it was due to the cleaner tampering with the controls, or the regulator had been left open, steam pressure building as the fire improved, until the inevitable happened, we shall never know

For seventeen miles the wild Iron Horse galloped away, until finally approaching Horsham at a reduced speed owing to a gradient, No.79 was reined in by an engine cleaner. He realised that something was wrong, noticing the debris of level crossing gates adorning the engine’s front buffer beam, and was able to climb onto the footplate and bring the iron horse to a halt. He was deservedly rewarded with immediate promotion to fireman and the payment of a gratuity of £3.

A steam train with the Royal Emblem/Coat of Arms on the front pulling up into Singleton train station. The photo is sepia toned and captioned 'the Royal Train'.
The Royal Train arriving at Singleton.

Eventually the rail link from Petworth to Midhurst was completed in 1866 but as will be explained the existence of this railway remained unrecognised by the rival railway company also operating from Midhurst.

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