Soham Grammarians - The Soham Rail Disaster June 2 1944 - Memories of George Eden

George was runner for Soham Fire Brigade at the time

Fred Eden 44 has kindly provided a copy of a transcript of a tape done by George to record his memories of the event on cassette tape as a contribution to the 50th Anniversary of the disaster in 1994. George was then aged 66. Local historian Donna Martin commented that the transcript was "very much as George had spoken, a valuable and thought provoking testimony to one of the most famous disasters in the history of the British railway system, and a fitting tribute to George who is sadly no longer with us."

On the 50th Anniversary of the Explosion

These are my experiences as they were at the time:

If we go back to the time of 1944, I was in my last year of Soham Grammar School, I was the age of 16, the School Certificate year, and I was to leave in the July of that year. After the war had started, a brother of mine, who was some five or six years older was the runner for the Fire Brigade at Soham. During the early part of the war, he was taking his higher school certificate exams, and my father then went to the station and asked if he could be relieved of this job, as he had a lot of studying to do, and that I would take his place. This was all agreed, and I became the runner for Soham Fire Brigade.

As we had now got well into the war, 1942 onwards, there was not much activity from the Soham Fire Station, so I was only called upon about a couple of times in the next couple of years, and I therefore almost forgot that I was a runner for the Fire Brigade.

On the occasion of the train explosion, I was asleep in the middle bedroom at Brook Dam, Soham. That was the house just over the bridge that faces the railway station. I was in the middle bedroom and naturally fast asleep. In the early hours of the morning I was awoken by a terrific explosion. I called to my Father in the next room and I told him that I ought to get up and go down to the Fire Station. He said this would not be necessary as it was most probably a plane crash many miles away. When I shook the bed, the whole window of our bedroom had been blown out and was across the bed. This I shook on the floor. When I told father what had happened, I said, 'This explosion is far nearer than that - I'm going to see'.

I quickly dressed, ran downstairs to find that our front door was wide open. The lock had been burst off the door. Incidentally, that was the only damage that our house sustained, the middle bedroom window blown out, and the front door lock broken.

I ran up to Soham High Street - that's along The Causeway, New Street, into Soham High Street. And to see the street as it were, although it was dark, there were goods strewn all over the street. Every shop window, apparently had been smashed, and their wares which they had in the windows was thrown all over the street.

As I was there, the whole sky lit up, and there was this big fire, or what appeared to be a fire, which was down, as I thought, at the bottom of Clay Street, or down on The Piece. I then ran as hard as I could pelt, down Clay Street, and into Gardeners Lane (because the flames seemed to be coming diagonally from The Piece) and down into Station Road, and when I got down there the gasworks was ablaze.

As we stood there, the heat was terrific, nothing was done at the moment, until some sort of fire engine, although whether it belonged to the Army or it was the Soham Fire Engine, I don't recall. But some engine came down to put the fire out, and as it went down the slope (that's the slope on the Station Road, the bottom of Station Road where it joined The Piece) there was a heck of a slope there. On the corner incidentally was a greengrocers shop. As it went down that slope, it's lights went up to the Station. Of course, with the lights onto the station, myself, and a few others who had gathered, saw that there were no station.

We then went towards the station and the first thing on the right hand side was the Railway Public House (The Railway). On the front steps of The Railway leaning against the door, there was a rather hefty figure, which we later found out was the engine driver. Now he was semi-conscious on the step, and he was trying to get up. How he got there, I never knew, and I don't think anyone else did. And the driver himself, he didn't know. Whether he was blown out the station or he walked out the station and then collapsed in front of the Railway Public House, I don't know. Anyhow, that's where we found him, and he wasn't hardly marked. I think there was a little bit of blood on him, but he was not severely injured, but he was semi-unconscious.

A few more people, by this time, had gathered, and one of them, I think was the eldest son of the Isaacson's – that's the Butcher who lived down on the corner of Bushel Lane, there were two brothers there, Ken, and an elder brother, I can't remember the elder brother's name, but I think he was in the fire brigade, and I think it was him who was there then, at the public house, and we went up to the station.

By that time the fire in the gasworks had gone out, and we ran up to the station, which was no more. Where the station stood, there was a very, very, large crater. I'm only guessing, but I would think it was something like 40 or 50 feet across it. It was one deep hole. Railway metals were all twisted. There was brick rubble everywhere.

The engine was on one side, and was hissing, and there was a figure, which I later found out was the fireman, about three or four feet on the ground laying out near the firebox. Again, as much as I could see by the torches that people had brought with them. This figure was very, very charred, and I understand was the engine fireman. Across the platform there was a body which was Mr Bridges, the signalman, he lived down Brook Street. I knew his son. Two sons he had, and I knew both of them. But the father, this Mr Bridges, the signalman, was lying across the part of the platform, which was remaining and he was severely damaged around the head, and of course he was dead.

I was then asked by people, again I'm not sure who it were, there were several there. To me, being a lad of 15/16, these were all men. Someone said to me, who's got the keys to the mortuary, and a voice came up and said Fred Hutt has got the keys to the mortuary. Fred Hutt had a Barbers shop right opposite the gas showrooms, next to the Red Lion Pub, on the same side as the Red Lion Pub in the High Street. Someone recognised me and said, would you run and get the keys to the mortuary. Incidentally, the mortuary was along Station Road, about half way down Station Road, nearly opposite the Police Station. There was a big hall there, which was later used for the youth centre. This hall had once upon a time been occupied by the army. There used to be a few lorries and things in the yard round it, but this hall was then empty and was the mortuary.

I was told to go and see Fred Hutt and get the keys to the mortuary. I ran as hard as I could pelt from the Station. I think I went up Station Road, along Gardeners Lane, along Clay Street to waken Mr Hutt who was already standing outside his shop, more or less in his bedroom gear. I think he had some sort of coat on, hair was all ruffled up, and he was looking at the remnants of his shop. The front had all been blown in of course. And when I asked him about the keys to the mortuary, oh dear, he wanted me then to tell him who was hurt and the rest of it, but I just hadn't got the time. I told him that I was in an extreme hurry, and he said that he hadn't got the keys, but he thought a Mr Sid Lyons had got the keys, who lived in Gardeners Lane.

Again, off I went, down to Sid Lyons, and when I got there, I was told that, no he hadn't got the keys. He thought the Police Station had got the keys, which was down Station Road. Well I ran down Station Road, as hard as I could go, to the Police Station, and on the way I saw people had gathered outside of the hall, and before going to the Police Station, I ran to that hall. The keys were not wanted, because the doors were blown in – there was a pair of double doors at the front, both of them blown in and every window was blown out of it.

Now, by the time I got there, having done all of that running. I think that the two bodies had been brought from what was the railway station and brought up to the mortuary, and there were people standing outside, and they didn't allow anyone in. Nothing more I could do there, so I thought I'd have another look, and I ran back down to the station.

The bodies had gone, and I went over the far side of the station, onto the embankment, where the signal box once stood. Just by that signal box on a bank, on the common bank, was a lot of blood, and I thought, hello, someone else has been hurt, and I traced that blood a few yards along the bank. That was the other side of the Railway fencing, on the common side. The blood led me down the bank, and when I got down the bank, there was an awful mess there. There was a horse, that had been lacerated all over its body, and of course it had bled profusely, and it was there and it was dead.

Nothing else could I see round the Station, other than the twisted mess of railway lines, telegraph wires, bricks and rubble. By that time, some people had, I believe, removed the Station Master and his wife, who were living in the Station at the time, and I think they were removed unhurt, although the station house was blown completely away. In the backyard, there was a poultry house with about five chickens in it, and believe it or not, all those chickens were alive, and unmarked.

Nothing more that I could do at the station, it was just one heck of a mess. So, I ran back up the street. When I got to the war memorial, there was a Policeman standing there, and with him, I went all the way along Soham High Street, throwing things back into the shops. Because the Policeman said, with all this stuff lying around, we could get looters. The one shop I remember most of all, was Cash & Co shoe shop, that was situated between what was the old Soham Post Office, which was on the corner of New Street, and Burtons Stores which was opposite the monument. The Manager there was a Mr Watts. Funnily enough, his son was in my form at the Grammar School. For some unknown reason, perhaps because I thought of the boy as a friend, the shoes were strew all over the road, right onto the path in front of the Red Lion, and I stopped there, and I picked nearly every pair of those shoes up, and threw them back through the window.

We then carried on, and we went to Butchers which was a ladies fashion shop, next door to the gas showroom, and we threw in lots of ladies dresses and dummies. At first it worried us when you saw a dummy laying on the path. It was in the dark and all we'd got was the Policeman's torch, we didn't know whether it was a body or not. But no, there were no bodies, just the whole street was all littered with debris and of course goods.

I went up as far as The Crown Hotel, a shop opposite that, another shoe shop, I believe it was called Morris's, and again, more shoes were thrown in the shop window. All the way along the street - well we did throw a lot of these things back into the shops. Well there didn't seem much else for me to do that night, and so I came home and related all the story to my Father who could hardly believe it. And, I got back to bed.

But, after having such an exciting night, I was up fairly early in the morning, and I think it was about half past six, to seven, that I was back down Clay Street to see if there was anything I could do, and it was a real pitiful sight, to see people who lived in The Pen at that time, there was some sort of gold coloured emulsion, or whatever they used on the outside of their houses - buff! Buff coloured bungalows. Very old bungalows with slated roofs and there was some very old characters of Soham living in there, and to see them coming out with soot all in their faces, and all in their eyes, and clothes all sooted up, trying to shake out a few remnants of carpet that they'd got. It was such a pitiful sight, and one that I wouldn't want to see again.

Going further down towards the gasworks, and round the corner onto The Piece, one then saw the devastation that the explosion had caused. First house on The Piece, which was next to the green grocers shop, nearly opposite The Station Public House, there was a house, owned or lived in by a chap named Bill Bailey. I later knew Bill Bailey when he worked at Eastern Counties Lubricants of Soham, but that house had the roof all torn off, it had all the front more or less blown in. It was a complete wreck.

Further up The Piece, well of course, roofs were gone, windows were in, people all looked a mess, all trying to sweep out their houses and clean up, and all along The Piece, right up to Julius Martins Lane, practically every house was damaged. Again, up Station Road, opposite what was then Palmers grass field, where the Fairground/Fair used to go, all the houses on that side there, right up to Gardeners Lane, they were all damaged. Again, back round The Pen and on Angle Common, all those houses were severely damaged.

Up into Clay Street, there's a Butchers shop, three parts of the way down Clay Street, and I had just started to court a young lady there, Doreen Long, and for instance, their house had the back door blown in. It had a window blown in, the front room was covered with soot that had come down the chimney. Slates had been dislodged, and various other things, and that was getting a fair way away from the Station. But all the way up Clay Street, there were damage, and there was severe damage, as I say, all up the High Street. And, there was an army of carpenters, bricklayers, and what have you, seemed to descend on Soham, and they started immediately put some of these houses together.

I was, if you can call it that, a bit lucky. I had a few days off school along with, I think, the other school down on the Shade, I'm not sure about that one but my school was closed, and the people who were then living in houses that were unsafe, were then housed in Soham Grammar school, and we had a few days off until the houses were repaired or they could find places for these people to live.

That I think was the main episode, what I saw, what I heard. It just seemed miraculous that all those houses were damaged including the station was blown to pieces and yet the only people and thing that lost their lives, was the signalman, Mr Bridges, and the engine fireman, I don't know who he was, and of course the horse on the common. I didn't know of any other deaths.

It was later said, not long after, it was talked about, naturally, it was on the news, it was on the radio, it was in the newspapers, but it was said, and I think this was the engine driver said this at the time, that a train with about 44 trucks, each loaded with about forty 500lb bombs had left Ely and was going through Soham on the way to Newmarket and to where I don't know, and as it approached Soham Station, the signalman, Mr Bridges, noticed that one of the trucks, which was the first truck was alight. He saw flames coming from the truck, and with the signals, he stopped the train.

The three of them, I think the guard at the end, ran back along the line to stop any further trains that would have been coming from Ely say on that line to Soham, so he ran back along the line, and the signalman, together with the fireman and the engine driver, they uncoupled the first truck, which was the one which was alight, shunted the engine so as it pushed all the other 39, I think there were, trucks back towards Ely - gave them a good push. Their idea was to run the engine together with the burning truck through Soham Station. I understand that Mr Bridges, the signalman was going to alter the points and allow the train with this burning truck on to a siding which was on the common side (that's the far common side of the railway) and let the train run through the buffers and so roll over and down the embankment onto the common, and that they thought would save the explosion damaging Soham. But of course these brave men they didn't quite make it.

The train got right into the centre of the station and we understand that the truck blew up, and the rest well, all those people in Soham at the time knew, the station was completely wrecked and I would think perhaps a third of the houses in Soham were damaged, and I think that the heroics of those men saved a lot of lives in Soham. That's as I saw it.

I lived in Soham then, I left Soham when I was a lad. I got married from Soham, and left Soham when I was 21, went over to Cambridge, and then on to various other residences and back to Wisbech where I am now.

Just a couple of points I thought I'd raise. Having had second thoughts on this, within two to three days of the station being blown, it was all repaired again, and I remember that the very next morning, there was a host of Americans came over, most of them incidentally were coloured, with all sorts of equipment like bulldozers etc. and they filled in the crater, and I think some railway engineers came along as well. Within 48 hours that whole station, the rubble had been removed and the lines repaired, and within 48 hours trains were running back through Soham Station.

Just another couple of points, when I went down to the station in the daylight, the first morning after the station was blown, little things that come to mind.

There was the manager of Smiths newsagents, they had a stall on the station. He was scratching about in the rubble, picking up money. Apparently, he had left his till in the station, and 'cos when the station went up, his money was thrown to wherever, and I remember him, and saw him on his hands and knees removing bricks and rubble picking up two shilling pieces, shilling pieces, half crowns and pennies and what-have-you, and its just something that I shall always remember.

And then further on from that, 18 months afterwards, I took up a position with Eastern Counties Lubricants, Soham. They were along Hall Street, and I went into their paint store which was on the second floor and there was a gaping hole in the roof, and a big tarpaulin had been thrown over the roof but on the floor lay a piece of railway metal. I would think that was perhaps two to three feet long. It had been torn from the line because both ends were jagged. It had gone from Soham Station, it must have gone up in the air and landed right over to Hall Street, and that remained there for a number of years and was there when I left Soham.