Clapham History: past local disasters

Love Clapham has received an email from the disasters historian, John Withington, who has a book out called London Disasters. In the book is a piece on Clapham disasters which is an interesting, if tragic read. In the book John explains how at the Arding & Hobbs store in Clapham Junction (now Debenhams)  in the run-up to Christmas in 1909, a fairy light bulb exploded in the window and set fire to tinsel and cotton wool decorations.

The fire engines were on the scene within four minutes, and eventually 30 fought the fire, but they could not prevent nine people being killed, and the store being completely destroyed. The heat was so intense it was said to have cooked the turkeys in a poulterer’s across the road, but Arding and Hobbs managed to get itself re-built and open again for the following Christmas.

John – one of Britain’s leading disaster historians – also tells how nearly 80 years later on a bright, sunny December morning, a train driver in a cutting approaching Clapham Junction saw the green light in front of him turn to red as he was almost upon it.    This was something that was supposed to be impossible under the automatic signalling system in use on the line.    When he stopped his train to call the signal box, another ploughed into it, and a third coming the other way hit wreckage thrown into its path.

A fourth train managed to stop short of the disaster.  If it had failed, the potential consequences “do not bear contemplating” according to the official inquiry.  As it was, 35 people were killed and 69 seriously injured in London’s worst rail crash of the last 35 years.   It transpired that the whole disaster had occurred because an overworked technician had connected up a signal wrongly.

More information on the Clapham rail disaster can be found on the BBC, Wikipedia and of course in John’s book, London Disasters.

5 thoughts on “Clapham History: past local disasters

  1. Wow – that’s amazing, I never knew Arding & Hobbs burnt down! I remember the Clapham rail crash – but that was well before I moved to the area.

  2. Someone told me this week that in the 1930s, at Christmas time, the basement of Arding and Hobbs was flooded and gondolas were “sailed” around the store basement. Is this true, and if so, when did the practice cease?

  3. Can I point out that Clapham Junction and Arding and Hobbs are in Battersea, a mile from Clapham. Arding & Hobbs penned in 1888. The building and a number of buildings on St John’s Hill ( also Battersea) burned down at Christmas 1909 and was rebuilt with a new roof-scape and dome to reopen in 1911.

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