Tuesday, December 31, 2019

“The Hairbreadth Train Affair” at Otahuhu, 1911 – the heroism of Francis Arthur Claude

On the southern side of Portage Road in Otahuhu, around number 130, the Auckland Saleyards Company used to have their stock pens from the 1910s. In April 1911, their on-site manager was Francis Arthur Claude, living in a house alongside the stockyards with his wife Susan Ursula and two young children, Frances Jeanette born 1907 and Lorraine born in 1908. 

On the evening of 17 April that year, Easter Monday, a passenger train from Auckland to Otahuhu arrived at the latter station at 9.28pm. The Main Trunk Express left Auckland at 9.15, so to get out of the way the Otahuhu train was shunted onto a siding. That night, the express had 600 passengers, including the Governor Lord Islington. His special carriage was directly behind the engine of the express. Once the overland express had passed through, the Otahuhu local train was meant to be put back on the main line, to start its return journey at 9.43 pm. But that evening, things went awry. 

The engine was uncoupled from the carriages during the side-lining, the intent being for it to be moved to the other end for the return journey. But, with the grade northward from Otahuhu being quite considerable, the four carriages and a van broke away and started to roll back down the main line, into the path of the oncoming mainline express train. 

The staff at the engine left behind vigorously blew the engine’s whistle, hoping to attract the attention of the driver of the express and alert him to the danger. The whistles did get the attention of Claude, from his Portage Road office. 

In course of conversation with a "Star" representative this morning, Mr Claude told an interesting.story. Shortly before 10 o'clock, While writing in his office at Westfield, which is near the railway siding, he heard three distress whistles, which in the railway service denotes danger, and the need for putting-brakes on. The sky was overcast and cloudy, the moon being quite hidden, but it did not take Mr Claude long to grasp the position. His work at the saleyards brings him into daily contact with stock trucking operations at the Westfield siding, and one glance sufficed to show that two trains were running towards each other on the one line. 

“At Westfield there are two down grades — one from Otahuhu and one from Penrose, and down both were coming brightly lit passenger trains. The express was travelling at 20 miles an hour, and the runaway carriages at about eight miles an hour. Unless something happened to prevent a collision the two trains would meet in the vicinity of the city abattoir gate. At this time the express was less than half-a-mile away, and the intended passenger cars only 100 yards away from where Mr. Claude stood.
“With remarkable presence of mind Mr Claude ran from his office on to the railroad track, [some reports said he vaulted over a number of paddock fences in doing so] and then jumped on to the van as the runaway cars flashed past. His knowledge of the stock-trucking business standing him in good stead, he at once applied the Westinghouse brake, and brought the cars to a standstill.
“Jumping out again he seized flaring red lights off the back of the van, and rushing up to the windows of the other carriages, told two passengers who were on board of their danger. Their surprise was genuine. The two travellers in question had taken tickets for Auckland, and had not had the slightest idea that there was no engine on the train, but believed they were making the ordinary journey back to the city. Speedily disillusioned on this point, they lost no time in quitting their seats.
“Meantime Mr Claude had run on about 20 yards ahead, flashing the red light as he ran, and the express was brought to a standstill within two chains of the stationary carriages. Without Mr Claude's intervention, another two minutes would have sufficed to bring about a collision, and had the driver of the express been fortunate enough to have seen his danger and stop his train, there would still have been nothing to prevent the runaway cars crashing into the express, whether that train happened to be travelling or stationary. Only Mr Claude's prompt action averted that accident. Had the two trains been in motion and collided at this point, there was a fairly steep embankment on one side over which they would probably have toppled, and a big railway smash would have had to be recorded. "I have no wish to appear prominently before the public in regard to this incident,” modestly remarked Mr Claude, "but l am convinced that had I not been in the vicinity of Westfield siding, and luckily possessed of a knowledge of how to work the Westinghouse brake, there would certainly have been a terrible accident." 

 (Auckland Star 19 April 1911 p.5) 

The express was then used to shunt the van and carriages of the other train back up to Otahuhu, before continuing on, delayed by half an hour. The railway department instituted an inquiry and immediately suspended three staff members. The guard on the Otahuhu train was reduced in rank, but the other two staff members were exonerated. The inquiry also found that the driver of the express had spotted the runaway carriages before Claude waved the red light, so awarded that driver a £10 bonus “for keeping a good look-out.” The railway officials were apparently none too happy with Claude, though. 

“I am told that Mr Claude, who saved the Wellington express from coming to grief near Otahuhu, while complimented by by the railway authorities for his promptitude and judgement, was solemnly warned that his action was quite contrary to the rules and regulations of the railway service, which distinctly prohibited any interference with brakes by other than officials, as such interference was calculated to lead to accidents! This reminds me of the story of the railway company which, in learning that it was likely to be sued for damages by a passenger who had fallen from a moving train owing to a defective lock on one of the carriage doors, promptly took proceedings against him for infringing one of its by-laws by leaving a train while in motion!” 

(NZ Herald 29 April 1911)

The Otahuhu incident made headlines around the country, Wellington’s Dominion newspaper for example calling it “The Hairbreadth Train Affair.” A letter was sent from Lord Islington, amongst many others from the passengers who had been saved that night: 

“It was not until this morning that I was placed in possession of the facts in connection with the providential escape from a serious accident that I and my fellow passengers 'had on Monday night during our journey on the Main Trunk express, and that escape was due to the courage, decision and presence of mind displayed in so singular a manner by the action you took on the occasion thus averting what in all probability would have been a very serious accident. I desire on my own behalf, and those of my staff who accompanied me, to tender to you our expression of deep appreciation and gratitude for the splendid service you rendered us, together with all the other occupants of the train, by your prompt and masterly action. As my car on the occasion happened to be next to the engine I feel particularly indebted to you for your invaluable services.”

(NZ Times 22 April 1911, p. 1) 

Donations were left at the office of the Auckland Star for a testimonial for Claude, in recognition of his heroism. The Government did present him with £50. 

But then, Claude fell dangerously ill with pleurisy and was reported to be in Auckland Hospital on 1 June. Lord Islington made a personal visit to him at the hospital, but Francis Arthur Claude died on 13 June 1911. 

“Mr Francis Arthur Claude, whose pluck and promptitude saved the Southern-bound Main Trunk express from disaster at Otahuhu on Easter Monday, passed away at the District Hospital last evening at the early age of 33 years, after suffering for several weeks from a severe attack of pleurisy. Mr Claude's action in boarding the runaway train at imminent risk and averting a catastrophe by applying the Westinghouse brake will not soon be forgotten, as but for his courage and promptitude the consequences would almost certainly have marked a black day indeed in the railway history of this Dominion. The Government presented him with a cheque for £50. Among the passengers on the express was the Governor (Lord Islington) who has made frequent inquiries as to the condition of Mr Claude since his admission to the Hospital. The consequences to the health of Mr Claude were however, serious, and his medical attendants consider that the shock to his system from the trying ordeal through which he passed that night has contributed largely to his early demise. So fixed had the incident become in his mind, in fact, that he repeatedly referred to it in his delirium. The deceased leaves a widow and two young children.” 

(Auckland Star 14 June 1911, p. 8) 

“The funeral of the late Mr Francis Arthur Claude took place yesterday afternoon, the interment being made at the Otahuhu cemetery. Widespread interest had been excited by Mr Claude's action in preventing a collision between the Main Trunk express and a runaway train on the evening of Easter Monday, and general sympathy was felt for him when he was seized by the illness which terminated in his death. The gathering at the funeral yesterday was a very large one, many people whose admiration had been awakened by Mr Claude's gallant action joining with the large number of his friends in the last marks of respect to the deceased.
"About 150 wreaths were sent, among them being a beautiful one sent by His Excellency the Governor (Lord Islington), who was a passenger on the train which Mr Claude saved from disaster. The employees of Buckland's saleyards, at which Mr Claude was latterly employed sent a wreath, and artificial wreaths were sent by the employees of Messrs Kemphome and Prossor, among whom he formerly worked, and by the Masonic Lodge of Opotiki, of which he was a member. The service at the graveside was conducted by the Rev H Mason, of Olahuhu.”

(NZ Herald 16 June 1911, p. 6) 

With his passing, there were still heartfelt expressions of appreciation for Claude’s bravery. 

“Sir, Now that Mr Claude, whose brave action prevented loss of life and serious injury to many passengers, also damage, the extent of which it is impossible to calculate, has passed away, there is a chance for the Government to redeem itself by making a rightful and generous acknowledgment that will put his widow and family on a secure footing for the future. If the runaway had not been stopped, what chance would the driver of the express have had to stop his heavy train travelling at a good speed, and reversing in time to avoid the collision? Very little, and it is safe to assert that £50 would be like a drop in the ocean in comparison to the amount the damage would have run into. Another suggestion, either for the public of Auckland or for the Government to take into consideration, is the erection of a suitable monument to set forth the record of his gallant deed, thus providing that the memory of the event would be kept alive, for ail example to others of what a man should do. Waitemata. 
"Sir, —My sympathy goes out just now to the widow and family of Mr Claude. If there had been something of a sensation connected with his deed we should have had a wave of enthusiasm, as in other sensational cases. He cared for others, and let self go. Let us look after his wife and children.
H Mason. Eden Terrace."

(NZ Herald 22 June 1911) 

Susan Claude did petition Parliament for a compassionate allowance in August 1911, joined by a petition in support by local residents. The petition was supported by MPs Albert Glover (Auckland Central), Frederic William Lang (Manukau), and Charles Poole (Auckland West). William Massey, the Leader of the Opposition, was quite sympathetic as well. The Minister of Railways, though, John Andrew Millar, was not a supporter of the cause when it was considered by Parliament on 2 September. 

“The Hon Mr Millar said that although he did not want to detract from what was certainly a very meritorious deed he wished to correct the wrong impression that Mr Claude saved the express. Had Mr Claude never been there no collision would have occurred, as the runaway train was already slowing down on an up-grade, while the engine-driver of the express was aware of the position, and had his train well in hand. The Minister remarked that the fact of Mr Claude being able to leave his house, run across, and jump two gates and then catch the runaway train showed that the pace could not have been very terrific … "It is not the business of the Government to give compassionate allowances to every widow whose husband dies under natural causes. Claude died of pleurisy, and there is not a tittle of evidence that what he did contributed directly or indirectly to his death. The doctor said in all probability it contributed, but there is no evidence that it did." 
(NZ Herald 2 September 1911 p. 8)

This statement caused Rev Harry Mason from Otahuhu to react. Millar’s statement that Claud’s actions had little to no bearing on the incident were: 

“ … refuted by the Rev H Mason, of Otahuhu, who has been collecting evidence to show that the Minister of Railways had been misinformed of the circumstances. The facts in Mr Mason's possession clearly show that the runaway train had mounted the upgrade at a considerable pace as the result of the impetus gained in its long downhill run from Otahuhu to Westfield. It was within a few yards of the rise when the late Mr Claude jumped aboard, and it was about to commence descent of another down grade when he applied the Westinghouse brake. The rate at which the train was travelling, states Mr Mason, is proved by the fact that the shock was sudden enough to throw Mr Claude off on to the ground, his clothing being cut about through his fall. The train was brought to a standstill, however, and Mr Claude, seizing a tail-light from the guard's van, ran towards the express waving it wildly, and just before his death in the hospital he informed Mr Mason that he was so afraid of not attracting the driver's attention that he was about to throw the lamp at the engine and jump clear of the rails when he heard the brakes put on. A bystander who witnessed the whole affair has also informed Mr Mason, that he heard the driver, when he got down off the engine of the express, say, "What have you stopped the train for?" 
“Mr. Mason adds that he is quite convinced that the episode hastened Mr Claude's death, and even in his delirium in the hospital just before the end he was raving excitedly about the danger of the collision and his endeavour to avert it. 
"Mr Peter Wyatt, of Paparata, Bombay, is one of those who supplied Mr. Mason with evidence bearing on the case. He writes as follows; "I consider Mr Millar's statement in the House robs Mr Claude's action of the merit it deserves. I heard the danger whistles from the engine of the runaway train, and when I got down on to the track at Westfield I found Mr Claude had stopped the runaway train within a chain of the next downgrade. Just after I arrived the driver of the express pulled his train up and got down off his engine. There were two passengers on the runaway train, and it would be a good thing to get them to come forward and give their version of what occurred."

(Dominion 16 September 1911, p. 4)

In the end, Parliament gave Susan Claude an additional £100 grant in October 1911 “for the services of her late husband.” 

Susan Ursula Claude died 6 August 1930, aged 50. One of the Claude daughters, Lorraine, predeceased her, dying 22 November 1925, aged just 17 years. Francis Arthur, Susan Ursula and Lorraine are all remembered by a simple plaque at the Holy Trinity Memorial Park (formerly Anglican cemetery) in Otahuhu.