The runaway train of Petworth and other tales

Older readers may recall the radio programme Childrens’ Favourites and the song ‘The Runaway Train went down the hill and she blew’.

Yet how many people know that such an incident actually happened in West Sussex.



At the time, the railway network was in its infancy and, in 1857, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway extended its line from Horsham to Petworth, opening for passengers on October 10, 1859.

Petworth Station was then a terminus, as the line had yet to be built to Midhurst. In its own small engine shed there was one locomotive, a Sharp Brothers single-wheeler No 79 built in 1847.

Twelve days after the opening in the early hours of the morning, the fireman as usual lit the fire in the boiler of No 79 to get up steam ready for the day’s work.

As locomotives were the showpieces of the railways, they were always kept immaculately clean and so, at about 5am while steam was being raised, a cleaner set about his task.

As the cleaner needed the engine to be moved so he could gain access to areas which had been out of his reach, he went in search of the fireman who was in the engine men’s lobby nearby.

On the cleaner’s return to the shed, he heard the exhaust of an engine so returned to the lobby to inform the fireman his help was no longer needed as the arriving engine would help move No 79.

Imagine their sheer bewilderment when they both returned to the shed to find No 79 had vanished.

They ran down the yard and glimpsed the sight of steam in the distance.

A mad dash then ensued which nearly succeeded in capturing the runaway with the cleaner grasping hold of the buffer – but at the critical moment he fell to the ground exhausted, while the older fireman was some distance behind.

Whether it was due to the cleaner tampering with the controls or the regulator had been left open, steam pressure building as the fire improved until the inevitable happened, we shall never know.

Nevertheless the engine moved through the points and increased speed as it disappeared down the main line to Horsham without an engine crew.

With no phones to give advance warning of the approach of the runway, it came as a surprise to the level crossing gate keepers of Hardham, Cray Lane and Billingshurst when they heard No 79 go through without waiting for the gates to be opened.

For nearly 17 miles the wild iron horse galloped away until, when finally approaching Horsham at a reduced speed owing to a gradient, the runaway was reined in by an engine cleaner going on duty at Horsham.

He realised something was wrong, noticing debris from three pairs of level crossing gates adorning the engine’s front buffer, and was able to climb on to the footplate and bring No 79 to a halt.

He was deservedly rewarded by immediate promotion to fireman and a gratuity of £3.

This is one of the many tales assistant county archivist Bill Gage has collected over the past 25 years and will feature in his forthcoming 
illustrated presentation Tales from the Rails at West Sussex Record Office on Tuesday, 
October 27 at 7pm.

Others stories will include the famous 80mph dash through West Sussex of Queen Victoria’s funeral train, royal trains at Singleton, wind and fire at Bognor station, and tales of the Selsey Tram.

While the latter never ran on time, it hauled both passengers and freight including the famous Pullinger mousetraps.

Dramatic incidents such as ploughing through the buffers at Littlehampton and the drop of an engine into a 30ft gully near Midhurst will also be featured.

Included in the presentation will be film footage of the Horsham-Guildford line together with a photographic display to celebrate its opening 150 years ago.

Tales from the Rails is not a technical talk for dedicated steam buffs but for anyone interested in local history as the tales relate to social history, using the railway theme as a platform.

Tickets cost £7.50, including light refreshments, and are available from the Record Office, tel 01243 753602.

This will be Bill’s last railway presentation at the Record Office which forms part of the programme of regular Tuesday talks as next season he will be concentrating on completing various projects prior to his retirement after 46 years’ service.

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