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.