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Great viaduct engineer killed in railway accident just weeks after his line opened

Thomas Grainger’s name can be seen in large letters on the plaque on the viaduct, with its 43 massive arches, over which the first train crossed on May 15, 1852. But before July was out, Mr Grainger – described unkindly at the inquest into his death as a “stout, large, flabby man” – was dead, killed at Stockton station… and the train driver deemed responsible was convicted of manslaughter.

The Northern Echo: Thomas Grainger's name on the Yarm viaduct plaqueThomas Grainger’s name on the viaduct plaque

Mr Grainger was an eminent Scottish engineer who made his name building bridges, viaducts, tunnels and stations around Edinburgh and Glasgow. In 1845 he won the contract to create the line from Leeds through Harrogate and Ripon to Thirsk, which was viewed as the rival mainline to the one George ‘the Railway King’ Hudson was building from York to Darlington.

The Northern Echo: A train emerging from the north portal of Bramhope Tunnel. The Gothic tower is a Grade II listed building, and is replicated in the monument to the 24 railwaymen who lost their lives digging the tunnelA train emerging from the north portal of Bramhope Tunnel. The Gothic tower is a Grade II listed building, and is replicated in the monument to the 24 railwaymen who lost their lives digging the tunnel

The Leeds Northern line included the extraordinary 2.14-mile long Bramhope Tunnel to the north of Leeds. It was the third longest railway tunnel in the country, dug out over three years by 2,300 navvies working by candlelight and earning £1.50 a week for seven 12 hour shifts.

Twenty-four of them were killed. There is a memorial to them in Otley churchyard which is the same shape as the Gothic northern entrance to the tunnel.


Before the line reached Thirsk in 1848, Mr Grainger and his team were planning on extending it north through Northallerton and Yarm to Stockton, where it would join another line, the Clarence Railway, to take traffic through to West Hartlepool – thus making it a genuine rival to Mr Hudson’s main line.

As the D&S Times said in 1852: “The Leeds Northern’s termini are in important districts. One is the seat of extensive woollen manufacturers, the other a thriving port, five days sail nearer the Baltic than the Humber, which has hitherto been the great outlet for the productions of the West Riding.”

On this second section of line, the major obstacle that had to be conquered was the floodplain of the River Tees at Yarm.

The Northern Echo: Sunset at Yarm viaduct, by Peter Rafferty of The Northern Echo Camera ClubSunset at Yarm viaduct, by Peter Rafferty of The Northern Echo Camera Club

As the plaque points out, Mr Grainger was the principal engineer in designing the viaduct which stomps through Yarm, towering above the rooftops and shaking the ground with its 43 giant footsteps as it strides across a finger-shaped peninsula of low-lying land.

The Northern Echo: Yarm viaduct from the air Picture: NETWORK RAILThe 43 arches of Yarm viaduct striding across the town and the river. Picture: Network Rail

The vital statistics of the viaduct – which Stockton historian Henry Heavisides wrote in 1865 was “acknowledged as the finest in the kingdom” – are staggering. It is 2,280ft (760 yards or 690 metres) long and the two of its 43 arches which span the Tees carry the trackbed 65ft above the waterline. These two arches are made of 139,000 cubic feet of stone and their foundations, as was common for river crossings in those days, were rested on bags of wool.

The other 41 land arches contain 7.5m bricks.

The viaduct cost £44,500 – that’s £5.1m in today’s values, according to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator.

Work began on it in July 1847. The navvies were paid up to £1 a day – very good money, especially compared to the tunnellers at Bramhope – some of which was in the form of vouchers to be spent in the ‘tammy shop’ on Yarm High Street which was run by the railway company.

The rest of the wages probably went on beer, as the Yarm navvies were renowned drinkers.

The Northern Echo: A steam engine passing over the Yarm viaduct on a 1920s postcardA steam engine passing over the Yarm viaduct on a 1920s postcard

Using pulleys and horsepower, they completed the viaduct in time for the opening day on May 15, 1852, when a train of 40 carriages pulled by two engines left Melmerby, near Thirsk. It crossed the 140ft-long iron bridge over the Swale near Pickhill then went over the Wiske on a three-arch bridge at Newby Wiske before entering Northallerton where a “tunnel-bridge… of tedious and difficult construction” took it under Mr Hudson’s rival York, Newcastle & Berwick Railway (today’s East Coast Main Line).

“The train was profusely decorated with flags, evergreens etc, and an excellent band discoursed sweet music on the passage,” said the D&S. “Beyond Northallerton, the train was lengthened by the addition of a short train and the whole together numbered 50 carriages and three engines.”

The Northern Echo: Eating Owt - The Station, Picton - the station in it's heyday.The Station at Picton on the Leeds Northern line between Northallerton and Yarm

They went through the villages of Brompton, Welbury and Picton – all of which were to get stations – before nearing the line’s major piece of infrastructure.

The Northern Echo: A fabulous 1930s picture looking into YarmA fabulous 1930s picture looking into Yarm

“The heaviest work is the Yarm viaduct, an exceedingly handsome structure,” said the D&S on opening day. “From the viaduct, the view of the town of Yarm, and of the valley up and down the River Tees, is very beautiful.”

The train arrived in Stockton at 1pm amid peeling bells and firing cannons. In the speeches after the banquet at the nearby Borough Hall, it was noted that the line included “engineering works which, in former days, would have been reckoned among the wonders of the world… in that splendid viaduct [at Yarm], there were 43 arches upwards of 70ft in height, towering far above all the houses in that ancient town and contrasting strangely between the commercial spirit and the quiet places of olden times”.

The D&S concluded by saying how well the opening had gone, with the return train reaching Leeds at 7pm, and “not the slightest accident having occurred during the day to mar the festive proceedings”.

That record did not last long.

The Northern Echo: The D&S Times' front page report of July 31, 1852, of the inquests into the two deaths which happened following the accident on July 21 in Stockton stationThe D&S Times’ front page report of July 31, 1852, of the inquests into the two deaths which happened following the accident on July 21 in Stockton station

Mr Grainger, whom the D&S said was “57 or 58”, was not at the festivities, but he was still in the district. Indeed, less than six weeks later, on July 21, 1852, he was travelling on the Clarence Railway from Ferryhill Station to Stockton when his passenger train hit a Leeds Northern goods train.

“Mr Grainger of Edinburgh, engineer to the Leeds Northern Company, had both his legs hurt – one broken and injured so severely that there is every probability it will have to be taken off,” said the D&S on July 24.

“The engine driver of the Leeds Northern luggage train, through whose carelessness the accident occurred, was taken into custody shortly after the occurrence.”

The engine driver, George Welborne, was found immediately guilty.

Mr Grainger, understandably, did not want to have his leg amputated and called his doctors from Scotland for a second opinion. By the time they arrived, it was too late as “mortification”, or gangrene, had set in and, given Mr Grainger’s “stout, large, flabby” state, it was thought too dangerous to attempt amputation.

He died four days after the accident, the second death as a Mrs Cunningham from Kelso had also died of her leg injuries.


Driver Welborne was immediately called to account for the crash that happened at the point where the Leeds Northern joined the Clarence Railway.

Twenty-first Century eyes might see plenty of confusion around the accident. For instance, semaphore signalling using flags at the points had been replaced days earlier by a red and white disc system, and there was some debate about how visible the discs were to drivers. Mr Welbourne’s train included five high goods vans which were known to make it difficult for drivers to see over the top to the signals.

Even more worrying, for a Clarence engine to join the Leeds Northern it had to travel on the ‘wrong line’, and the accident happened immediately after the point where there were two trains on the same track travelling towards each other.

Usually, the train on the ‘wrong line’ had a man walking in front of it to warn oncoming engines, and driver Welborne had not arranged for this.

The D&S said: “The mistake Welborne made was in not keeping a proper look out.” Although he was said to be a “careful driver”, the inquest found him guilty of manslaughter and he was sentenced to “six weeks hard labour in a house of correction”.

The D&S finished its report by saying: “A considerable amount of excitement has prevailed in Stockton since the accident, and during the progress of the proceedings. The remains of Mrs Cunningham and Mr Grainger have been removed, the former, we understand to Kelso, and the latter to Edinburgh. The other persons injured are all in a favourable state for recovery.”

The Northern Echo: A souvenir print of the Yarm viaduct which was probably produced for opening day, May 15, 1852A souvenir print of the Yarm viaduct which was probably produced for opening day, May 15, 1852

Given the height of Yarm viaduct and the amount of alcohol consumed by the labourers, and taking into account the number of fatalities at other railway construction sites, like Bramhope tunnel, it is a surprise that there are no reports of people dying during the four years of building.

The first recorded fatality at the viaduct occurred in 1855, three years after it opened, when a night train travelling south overshot Yarm station, which was at the northern end of the viaduct. It therefore stopped on the viaduct and, in pitch blackness and pouring rain, an unfortunate passenger alighted believing he was stepping onto the platform.

Instead, he fell 74ft off the viaduct to his death.

The Northern Echo: Repairs being done to Yarm viaduct in the 1960sRepairs being done to Yarm viaduct in the 1960s

The condition of the plaque on the viaduct has been concerning local residents for some time. In 2020, Network Rail told The Northern Echo that there were no plans to restore it, but the spokesperson added: “There is however a major works renewal planned for 2023/24 and the necessary access/possession may be in place to facilitate the cleaning of the plaque at a relatively low cost.”

Those major works started a couple of weeks ago, and a Network Rail spokesperson told Memories this week: “Our teams are exploring the possibility of it being restored, but its location on the structure (directly over the centre of the River Tees) makes this a complex task, and therefore we can’t commit to anything at the moment.”


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