On Wednesday, 30 June 1886, the 1.30pm up passenger train from Belfast to Dublin left Portadown at 2.31, one minute late. The train consisted of a locomotive, two composite first and second class carriages, one third class carriage, one first class carriage, one second class carriage and a brake-van, all six-wheelers.

The Portadown News had a most graphic account of the accident:

"Terrible accident on the line! Three killed and many wounded!"

This was the startling and horrifying rumour which flashed like wildfire through the town an Wednesday afternoon, shortly after 3 o'clock, causing the inhabitants to congregate in the streets and almost entirely suspending business. People were to be seen rushing wildly hither and thither, seeking confirmation or contradiction of the dire and dread news: but alas! too soon was it found that the rumour was not only correct but that contrary to the rule in such cases, the facts had been understated. True, at the time it appeared there was only one dead, but ere the sun had set for another day it had set for ever for four more poor mortals, and there will be reason to be thankful if the number stops at that.

It is awfully sad to think that in one little moment in the twinkling of an eye' as it were, several human beings, some of them hurrying home to rejoin loving friends, some going home from school to spend their summer holidays, were hurried into eternity and others to the very verge of it That instead of spending their holidays out in the open air, they will have to languish on a bed of sickness and of pain, and that they have even cause to be grateful for that. But such is life. Now to record some of the realities.

At 3 o'clock a person standing at the foot of High Street would have seen the horse and cart come tearing up Bridge Street and having reached the residence of Drs. Heron and Clarke it stopped and Mr Johnston, the station-master, stepped off it and appeared to be in a most terrible state of excitement. The two medical gentlemen got on the car, taking with them their instruments. Mr Johnston confirmed us that a train had gone off the line at Adams's locks, but he could give no particulars. The car proceeded up the town and Dr Stewart was picked up and the whole proceeded as quickly as possible to the scene of the catastrophe, where unfortunately their services were only too urgently required. We followed shortly after and the sights and sounds which greeted us were truly terrible.

We then learned that the train had left Portadown at 2.30 on its way to Dublin, and proceeded safely (until it reached Brackagh Moss, when suddenly the engine left the rails and was precipitated into a deep ditch which runs parallel with the line at this point on the left. The train consisted of an engine and tender, one van and five carriages. Next to the engine were two composite carriages, followed by three others and a van. The carriage telescoped into the engine and was completely squashed, even, to the metal work.

The engine fell over on its side and became embedded in the ditch; its occupants escaped without any injury. The greatest damage was done in the next two carriages, but more particularly the third-class one, which supplied all the dead and the majority of the injured. A most wonderful escape occurred in this carriage in the case of Mr Cummings, Gilford, who escaped without a scratch, while three of his fellow-travellers with whom he had been conversing, were killed one of them, Mr McCoy, instantaneously.

Mr Cummings felt a shock and the next moment found himself pitched out of the carriage with splinters of the broken carriage flying around him. Having picked himself up, he assisted in extricating McCoy, who had been thrown into the ditch, with the framework of the carriage resting on him. This poor man seems to have died a double death, the injuries received being a sufficient cause of death and he was also suffocated in the ditch, which was about two feet deep with water.

The wounded lay about in every direction; turn which way you would, nothing but blood met the eye and piercing groans penetrated the ear. The medical gentlemen from Portadown and Dr Bell of Gilford, worked like heroes to relieve the sufferers and were nobly assisted by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood in the work of succour. Mr Adams, JP, and his two sisters who live near the place and who were early on the spot, deserve all praise for the noble part they took in attending to the sufferers, softening their agonies where possible and supplying them with water and stimulants until they could be removed. Valuable and willing assistance was also rendered by all the townspeople who could get out to the scene.

Mr Park, engineer of the company, did all he could to facilitate the removal of the injured, and when the limited mail arrived the Rev R S O'Loughlin and Mr Gordon (Banbridge) were put into it and sent on to their destinations. Offers of help were made by the passengers on. the mail and the Right Rev the Bishop of Meath handed £2 to the Rev R Quirk for distribution among the poor sufferers, if there were any necessitous amongst them. Sergeant Bonar, RIC, and his wife were very severely injured and the Rev P O'Reilly, Virginia, Co Cavan who came up on the limited mail, administered the solemn rites of the church to Mrs Boner, who was not expected to recover. A little higher up, Mrs Law lay drawing her last breath and here another impressive scene was to be witnessed.

A number of people had gathered round while the Rev R Quirk, (Episcopalian), offered up a prayer amid a solemn stillness, broken only by the agonising cries of the poor victims. She died immediately afterwards. One young man, Robert Gault who died on the way to Belfast, seemed to suffer terribly, and his cries were agonising in the extreme. Every effort was made to get the wounded removed to Portadown station as soon as possible but it is to be regretted that considerable delay occurred which at the same time we believe to have been entirely unavoidable.

Mr Show, General Manger, Belfast immediately on hearing of the catastrophe, took a special train to Portadown, and on arrival made every preparation for the accommodation of the sufferers, the most seriously injured being sent to the Royal Hospital, Belfast. Dr Palmer, of Armagh, and another medical gentleman from the same city, were telegraphed for, and were in attendance at the Portadown Station to see to the sufferers as they were brought up. It would be impossible to convey by words an adequate representation of the scene but it certainly was one which will ever remain indelibly impressed upon the memories of those who witnessed it."

The dead were:

  • Margaret Law and Elizabeth Law Mother and Daughter, aged 41 and 19 respectively of Gilford.
  • William Reilly formerly of 21 Chapel Street, Newry, aged 30.
  • Robert Gault Belfast.
  • James McCoy of Swift Street, Belfast, aged 30.
  • Mary Henry of Tyanee, Portglenone.
  • Ann Bonar of GlengalI Street, RIC Barracks, Belfast.
  • Margaret Law, Lizzie Law and James McCoy, died at the site of the accident.
  • William Reilly died in the railway station in Portadown.
  • Robert Gault died on his way to Belfast.
  • Mary Henry and Ann Bonar died in the Royal Hospital, Belfast on 7 July and 23 July respectively.

The Portadown News listed the injured as:

  • Sergeant Bonar, RIC Glengall Street Barrack, Belfast. Compound fracture of the leg and scalp wound.
  • Edward Madden, Rosslea, Co Fermanagh. Serious injury to back and loins.
  • Adelaide Crotty, 16 College Square East, Belfast. (The "Portadown News" lists these girls' address as Dublin but this is obviously an error). Fracture of both legs and injury to the brain.
  • Laura Tyner, 16 College Square East, Belfast. Injuries to the leg and face.
  • Cecilia Costello, Foxford, Co Mayo. Injuries to the thigh.
  • Mary Tyne, 16 College Square North, Belfast. Scalp wound.
  • Kate McAteer, 26 Castle Street, Newry. Fractures of both legs.
  • Minnie Burke, Skibbereen. Fracture of the arm and scalp wounds.
  • Thomas Johnston, 212 Brunswick Street, or 12 Blackhall Street, Dublin. Serious compound fracture of the leg.
  • Thomas, Peter Rogan, 6 Port Street, Liverpool. Traveller. Compound fracture of the leg and severe shock.
  • William Johnston, aged 18. Clarinda Street, Kingstown. Contusion of the abdomen and general shock.

The foregoing were treated in the Royal Hospital, Belfast.

The following were also more or less severely injured:

  • Troop Sergeant-Major Dickment 5th Dragoon Guards. Fracture of the ribs.
  • John Gordon, Banbridge. Fracture of both legs.
  • Rev R S O'Loughlin, Rectory, Sixmilecross.
  • Rev J McCalden, Richhill.
  • John Pollock, Drumbo (on a visit from Canada). Injury to spine.
  • Edward Robinson or Robson, Edenderry, King's County.
  • Francis Moore, Merchant, Newry.

Three railway employees were arrested by Head Constable Egan on Wednesday - the two gangers, Patrick Robinson and Thomas Galway and Thomas Tiernan the engine driver. The three arrested men were brought before Mr Johnston and Mr Fulton on Thursday morning and charged by D I Leathem with "having at Brackagh, on the 30 June, through culpable negligence caused the death of William Reilly, Mary Law, Lizzie Law and several others" Head Constable Egan was the. only witness and he spoke of "the wrecked portion of the train (being) on 41 sleepers (which were) unpacked and apparently rotten. 148 sleepers in front of the engine were totally unpacked and quite shaky"'. The three men were remanded for trial, the two gangers in custody to Armagh Gaol and the engine driver on bail.

The criminal case opened in the courthouse, Portadown, on Saturday 3 July when a special petty sessions was held before C E B Mayne, RM, William Adams, JP, J C Fulton, JP and J Acheson, JP. Robinson and Galway were brought from Armagh Gaol and Tiernan surrendered to his bail. Mr G Hazlett was the crown prosecutor and District Inspector C W Leathem was the first witness. He produced photographs of the accident, presumably the photograph which has survived and surely the first occasion photographic evidence was used in an Irish railway accident investigation.

John Cummings, a survivor of the accident, gave evidence on the state of the ballast, based apparently on his ownership of some lighters on the canal. The Crown prosecutor then asked the magistrates to send Robinson and Galway for trial, submitting that a prima facie case had been made. Mr Menary, solicitor for the two men, said he had scientific evidence to offer. At this point Mr Hazlett announced that it was not intended to pursue the charge against the engine driver, Thomas Tiernan, and he was discharged.

Mr Menary applied for bail. The accused were most respectable men, and it would be great hardship if they were detained in gaol on such a flimsy charge. Mr Hazlett objected to bail being accepted and the magistrates agreed with him. Mr Menary said, "The effect of your worships' decision may be that these poor men may be incarcerated for months. The Government Inquiry may be indefinitely prolonged".

The Chairman said, 'I am sure General Hutchinson will do all he can to expedite the Inquiry. The accused are remanded for eight days".

The Special Petty Sessions Court resumed the hearing on 10 July with the same magistrates on the bench, but they were joined by Major Brodrick of the West Surrey (Queens' Own) Regiment.

Eventually, James Park, locomotive engineer, GNR, went into the witness box and gave evidence that the engine had been examined in Dundalk and was found to be in perfect order. He had found nothing wrong with the balance, weights, tyres, axles or springs. The prisoners were then released on bail, each in £500 and two sureties of £250, to appear at Armagh Winter Assizes.

Meanwhile, General Hutchinson began the Board of Trade Inquiry on 5 July. He began by visiting the scene of the accident, accompanied by Mr Mills and Mr Park. When he returned to Portadown the inquiry was held in the gentlemen's waiting rooms on the up platform.

General Hutchinson had his report ready by 30 July.

"So far, then, as I am able to judge, this accident was due to the combination of three causes viz.

  1. the distortion of the curve at the spot where the engine left the rails owing to the tense condition of the outer rails from excessive sun heat and the absence of proper expansion intervals between the rail joints;
  2. An insufficiently ballasted road; and
  3. A higher speed than was justified by the condition of the road.

"The distortion of the curve to the left, which extended for about two rails' length, 23 yards north of the wheel mark on the top of the left rail, as well as the other wheel marks before described, were all, I believe, the consequences of the accident and caused by the violent effect produced towards the rear of the train when the speed was suddenly checked in front.

"The inspector of permanent way, an old servant of the Company of 20 years' service, who satisfied himself, by occasionally passing the spot in a train, that the important work of lifting and re-ballasting five-eighths of a mile of line in boggy ground was being properly carried out, is, I think deserving of censure. It was also his duty to have noticed and have remedied the want of expansion intervals between the joints of the right rail of the up line close to the scene of the accident.

"It is also, in my opinion, much to be regretted that a reduction of speed on the lifted portion of the line had not been ordered until the ballasting, at any rate outside the rails, had been fully restored, and this more particularly as the trains on this part of the line were known to run at high speeds.

"It will have been remarked that the train was fitted with the non-automatic vacuum brake, and that the driver, after applying the brake on feeling his engine leave the rails, accidentally released it when trying to seize the regulator. The same thing might have happened with an automatic brake, and as there was probably no severance of couplings until just before the engine stopped (only about 50 yards from where it left the rails), this was hardly one of those cases in which, had the train been fitted with an automatic brake, the consequences of the accident would have been rendered less serious

At the half-yearly meeting of the GNR in Belfast on 18 August, James Murland, Board Chairman, referred to the accident when explaining that under ordinary circumstances a dividend of four and a half per cent would have been paid but the company thought it prudent to recommend a dividend of four per cent carrying over a balance of £15,000 to the next half year. After expressing his sympathy to the sufferers and their relatives, Mr Murland went on to say:

"The railways which compose the Great Northern System have been at work for a great number of years - I believe for nearly 40 years -and we have never before had a serious accident on it, and since the amalgamation which took place in 1 876 we have laid out very large sums of money in improving our line . A very considerable portion of our main line branches has been renewed with steel rails and creosoted sleepers of the best description and at the place where this unfortunate accident occurred the road had been renewed only a few years before with rails and timber of the very best possible description. I understand that a policeman gave evidence at the inquest that the sleepers were rotten, but he retracted the statement afterwards and admitted that what he took for an indication of rottenness was the creosote which had darkened the timber of the sleepers. After all, the inquiry however, that we have been able to make, we cannot find that the company was guilty of negligence (Gerald Hutchinson's Report had not been received by the company, although he had submitted it to the Board of Trade on 30 July), but at the same time the directors have come to the conclusion that it would be right - and they have indicated that conclusion to the parties concerned - to consider fairly, any claims for compensation which may be sent in. Although we do not admit any legal liability, we shall, as I have said, consider any reasonable claims for compensation".

An example of the sort of compensation the company faced was Robert Law's claim for damages as the result of the deaths of his wife and daughter. The company lodged £1,400 for the death of Mrs Law and £600 for Miss Law. They apportioned the damages as follows: £350 to each of the children, £50 to the grandmother, £300 to Mr Law, £600 For Miss Law to go solely to her father.

Finally, the "Portadown News" of 4 December carried the laconic announcement that the Crown were not proceeding with the cases against Robinson and Galway at the Winter Assizes.