‘If there is a hell I’ve just seen it’: 45 years after 43 died in the Moorgate Tube disaster, a hauntingly vivid account of the carnage and quiet courage that took place
- Moorgate Tube crash known as worst accident in London underground history
- Forty-three died and 74 injured after a Northern Line train hurtled into a 5ft wall
- No fault was found with the train, investigators concluded blame lay with driver
It’s 45 years since the Moorgate Tube crash, the worst accident in London Underground history. Forty-three people died and 74 were injured after a Northern Line train hurtled into a 5ft thick concrete wall at the end of the line at 8.46am on February 28, 1975. After no fault was found with the train, investigators concluded the blame lay with driver Leslie Newson, 56 — whose body was the last to be recovered.
Here, in a chilling minute-by-minute account, Jonathan Mayo reveals how the tragedy unfolded.
Friday, February 28, 1975: 4.15am
In his third-floor flat in New Cross, South-East London, Leslie Newson is getting ready for work. Newson, a veteran of Dunkirk, joined London Underground as a guard in 1969 and six years later became a driver, known on the Tube as a ‘motorman’.
His morning routine is always the same — he shaves in the kitchen and has only a cup of tea for breakfast. He kisses his wife on the forehead and heads out into the cold morning carrying his work bag containing milk, a flask of tea, instant coffee and his driver’s instruction books, wrapped in plastic to keep them clean. He makes his way through the dark streets to catch the No 21 bus.
Soot-covered survivors are pictured waiting in an ambulance before being taken to hospital following Moorgate Tube crash
Newson arrives early at Drayton Park Station where the Nothern Line to Moorgate begins and makes himself a cup of tea in the crew room. He’s known as a cautious and friendly driver. Fellow driver C. A. Gladding asks Newson for some sugar. ‘Go easy with it,’ Newson replies, ‘I shall want another cup of tea when I come off duty.’
A red, six-carriage 1938 Northern line train is waiting for him on Platform 3. It weighs 151 tons and can carry up to 600 passengers.
Newson starts his first journey of the day, a trip of just two miles and 1,113 yards to Moorgate. In his pocket is £270 to buy a new car for his daughter when he’s finished his shift.
The driver and his guard for the morning, 18-year-old Robert Harris, have disembarked at Moorgate and are having a cup of tea in the signal box with signalman Walter Wade. Harris tells them he’s going camping at the weekend. Newson says: ‘I roughed it enough at Dunkirk. I would rather have a hotel.’ Newson and Harris walk back to the train.
Forty-three people died and 74 were injured after a Northern Line train hurtled into a 5ft thick concrete wall at the end of the line at 8.46am on February 28, 1975
At Drayton Park station, Newson is in the cab waiting to make his fourth and final trip before his first proper break of the day at 9am. Passengers are running down the steps to the platform, most heading for the first three carriages to be close to the exit at Moorgate.
Marian King, 20, on her way to work at NatWest head office, tries to get into the front set of double doors of the first carriage but it’s full, so she uses the second set and holds on to a ceiling strap. Newson waves to the station foreman as the train departs 30 seconds late.
At Highbury and Islington station, the first stop on the line, newspaper journalist Peter Paterson watches the train arrive. It’s raining outside and, as Paterson couldn’t get a taxi, he has resorted to taking the Tube to ensure he’s on time for an interview with Industry Secretary Tony Benn.
He enters the front of the second carriage and reads his paper standing up, with his back to the front of the train.
Rescuers help a shocked female victim from the scene. After no fault was found with the train, investigators concluded the blame lay with driver Leslie Newson, 56 — whose body was the last to be recovered
The train has now reached Old Street, the penultimate stop. As passengers get on and off, Newson checks the brakes. In the first carriage Marian King is holding the ceiling strap with one hand and a novel in the other. People around her are chatting as the train pulls away from the station. There are around 300 passengers on board.
Guard Harris is bored, so he leaves his position and walks towards the driving cab at the rear of the train to see if anyone has left a newspaper. The train is now about 500 yards from Moorgate and at this point drivers should shut off power to coast for 15 seconds before braking to bring the speed down to 15mph. But it continues to accelerate.
Harris looks up from his newspaper in surprise as the train gathers speed, but he’s powerless to intervene as his emergency brake is at the other end of the carriage. In the second carriage Peter Paterson, who later became the Mail’s TV critic, notices ‘fear and astonishment’ on the faces of the regular commuters around him.
Anthony and Caroline Board, standing on Platform 9 at Moorgate, see the lights of the approaching train in the tunnel. They can tell immediately that it’s travelling dangerously fast — at least 40mph. As it speeds closer the couple can see Newson at the controls, sitting upright, his cap on the back of his head. Caroline said: ‘I kept staring at the driver because he didn’t move…it was like an Inter-City Express coming through. I looked to see what on earth he would do and he didn’t do anything the whole time. He was just staring ahead.’
Tube guard Brian Fryer recognises Newson and thinks: ‘God, he’s not going to stop!’ He jumps out of the way, convinced that the train will mount the platform.
Some passengers on the swaying train start to shout in alarm and hold on to seats and handles.
In the front carriage, passenger Robert Lindsay looks around for a red emergency handle to stop the train but can’t see one, so he simply shuts his eyes. Miraculously, he will survive.
The speeding train knocks over a red warning light, enters the 66ft tunnel at the end of the platform, ploughs through a 2ft high sand-drag, then collides with a large hydraulic buffer which forces the first carriage off its wheel chassis and up into the top of the 5ft thick concrete wall that blocks the tunnel. The 52ft-long carriage is reduced to just 20ft. The second carriage is driven forward under the rear of the first; the wheels of the first carriage slice through its roof and kill some of the passengers. The rear of the second carriage is crushed by the third carriage. The last three carriages are almost untouched.
A large cloud made up of 70 years of accumulated black soot explodes out of the tunnel and along the platform.
Walter Wade, the signalman who had been drinking tea with Newson earlier, phones London Underground’s Headquarters Control for assistance. Guard Harris opens the doors of the rear carriages and passengers stumble out onto the platform.
Barry Coppock, 27, steps out of the fourth carriage and sees the cloud of soot coming from the front of the train. Determined not to arrive at work dirty, he heads for Platform 10 and makes his way out of the station.
Only when he sees the evening paper will he realise the full scale of what happened. A woman who was in the fifth carriage is overheard talking about getting compensation for her ruined clothes.
Ambulances from nearby St Bartholomew’s Hospital start to arrive, and dazed and dirty passengers who have made it to street level are helped into them. The medics make their way down to Platform 9, with no idea of the scale of the disaster.
The first fire engines pull up outside Moorgate. Station Officer Chris Wood from the Barbican Fire Station runs down the escalator and onto Platform 9, his crew not far behind. The soot immediately gets into the men’s mouths, noses and throats and there is a smell of hot metal and dust.
Wood walks to the entrance of the tunnel and, using his torch, looks between the carriages and the wall, seeing ‘absolute horror’.
He shouts urgently to a colleague: ‘Run! Move! Major accident!’ As his torch moves across the wreckage, people start to scream and call out. Wood replies: ‘Don’t worry! The fire brigade’s here! You’re all right now!’
A medical team from BP, whose headquarters is next door to the station, start to treat the most seriously injured passengers on the platform. They soon run out of drugs, so a doctor runs back up to street level and, his face and white coat covered in soot, persuades the staff at a nearby Boots to give him all their pain-killing drugs. In the first carriage Marian King recovers consciousness and thinks she is at home in bed and must get up for work or she’ll be late.
Then she remembers the crash. A Scottish voice in the darkness says: ‘I think there’s been an accident!’ Marian slips back into unconsciousness.
Police and firemen have reached the back of the first coach which is wedged over the second; its rear door is high above their heads.
Station Officer Wood and firemen Richard Furlong and Terry Hagerty manage to clamber inside; their torches illuminate bodies ‘from floor to roof’.
Furlong later recalled: ‘We tried to calm them down, talked to them. It was hard to see who was alive and who was dead.’
The firemen rescue a couple sitting and holding hands. At the point where the carriage has buckled upwards at 60 degrees there is a row of heads, their bodies hidden by a tangle of metal.
In the remains of the second carriage, Peter Paterson comes to, feeling remarkably relaxed and a bit sleepy. He reaches out and feels metal just above him, and a lump over his left ear.
He becomes aware that there are people around him screaming and moaning. He knows it will be impossible to escape without help. ‘I felt I could wait it out,’ he said.
Paterson holds the hand of a man next to him and assures him that everything will be all right.
Passengers back up the line are being de-trained and are now walking up the tracks towards Moorgate station. Fireman Brian Goodfellow is inside the first carriage armed with a torch and a hacksaw — there isn’t room for larger cutting equipment.
He starts cutting away at metal when suddenly a hand grabs his arm, then another. ‘I was being pulled in,’ Goodfellow said. ‘I knew exactly how they felt. They were trapped and wanted to get out.’
His torch falls and the carriage goes dark. He has an overwhelming urge to escape this nightmare, so takes off his fire jacket and lets the grabbing hands have it.
A colleague arrives and Goodfellow says, ‘I need a break’ — escaping back to the platform, feeling guilty for leaving the trapped passengers. After getting his breath back he returns to the tunnel.
By now there are about 100 firemen. Some are old enough to have worked during the Blitz and that harrowing experience is serving them well 35 years later.
The third coach is now clear, but the rescuers estimate there are about 40 people still trapped in the first and second carriages.
Fireman Dave Peck is sawing through the roof of the second carriage when he hears a voice: ‘Mind my head! You nearly got my nose then.’ Peck looks down and sees a man only a few inches below the roof lying on a pile of bodies.
He and his colleagues lift the man out of the carriage and watch amazed as he dusts himself down and walks off down the platform.
A London Underground breakdown engineer is checking the brake cylinders of the train. It’s already clear to him that the brakes were not applied before it hit the wall.
Marian King has regained consciousness and a fireman is talking to her. ‘Do you like dancing?’ he says. ‘Er, yes,’ she replies.
‘Well, when you get out of here I’ll take you dancing,’ the fireman says. Only later will she realise his random question was to keep her spirits up.
A young doctor from Bart’s Hospital comes up to street level to collect more drugs and is asked by reporters what conditions are like down below. ‘If there is a hell, I have just seen it.’ A van carrying wooden coffins arrives outside the station entrance.
One of the reporters outside the station is 26-year-old Sunday Times reporter Laurence Marks, who will later become a successful writer of television comedies, such as Birds Of A Feather.
What exactly has happened below ground is unclear and he hears rumours the IRA might be involved.
Don Pye, official photographer of the London Fire Brigade, is taking pictures to record the rescue operation and aid the investigations that will follow.
His lens captures distressing scenes: the dead sitting normally in their seats, others still holding onto a ceiling strap.
‘In one doorway there was a row of businessmen, some still with their briefcases, standing as they would have been, waiting for the train to stop, but all dead.’
Because of the large number of dead and injured, the rescue workers have given names to some of the passengers. They call one dead man in a suit sitting in his seat ‘The City Gent’.
bodies from the carriages are being passed along a chain of firemen. The injured on stretchers are turned on their side to get past the train.
The most severely injured are taken to a temporary operating theatre on Platform 11.
It is Peter Paterson’s turn to be rescued. As he’s pulled from the second carriage his overwhelming desire is to reach fresh air.
He had miraculously survived the crash with very few injuries.
Belongings from the wreckage, including suitcases and a pot plant, are placed on the platform.
A few weeks later a woman who had been injured in the crash called into a police station in the City of London and handed in a man’s wristwatch.
Nurses in the hospital had found it entwined in her hair.
With no trains running and therefore no fresh air being pushed into the station, the temperature has risen to 110F (43C).
Some firemen are now working stripped to the waist and use water from a hose to cool down.
They have to be relieved every 20 minutes just to be able to function. A large fan is installed at the top of the escalators, but this only stirs up the soot and dirt.
There are now just two survivors in the first carriage — a man and a woman trapped together under wreckage.
One is policewoman Margaret Liles, 19, who had been sworn in as a member of the City of London force just two days before.
The other is Jeff Benton, 27, who works at the Stock Exchange. Every time Margaret moves it causes Jeff agony so she tries to keep as still as possible. She has no feeling in her left foot.
A long queue has formed in the street outside Moorgate: 2,000 people are volunteering to donate blood. A Portuguese cafe nearby is giving free coffee and doughnuts to the rescue services.
Salvation Army helpers have taken seats from the carriages and set up an area on Platform 11 where rescuers can take a break and be served tea. Female Sally Army officers are bathing sore eyes and using cotton buds to remove soot from ears and noses.
The firemen ask Margaret Liles if she would like a fellow WPC to keep her company. ‘I’d sooner have one of the lads,’ she replies.
Back at his desk, reporter Marks’ phone rings; it’s his stepmother Eve. ‘Have you heard about the crash? I think your father may have been on the train.’ Bernard Marks had parked his Ford Cortina at Drayton Park to catch the train into the City.
Injured Marian King is wheeled out on a trolley from an examination room in the London Hospital, Whitechapel, to find her anxious family waiting for her. She can see they’ve been crying.
She has been lucky: she has a torn ligament and a severely bruised back that, in her father’s words, looks like ‘blackcurrant jam’. It will take Marian many years to completely recover from the experience.
In the car park at Drayton Park Station, Laurence Marks find his father’s Cortina.
Doctors and firemen have reached the conclusion that the only way they can free Jeff Benton and Margaret Liles is to amputate her foot. A Senior Surgical Registrar is summoned from Bart’s Hospital.
Marks is calling the emergency switchboard set up for relatives of those caught up in the crash. The operator says: ‘No, sorry. No Bernard Marks on our lists. No, he hasn’t been admitted to any of the hospitals. If we get any news, we will call you straight away.’
The amputaton of Margaret Liles’ foot is underway. Firemen hold their torches for surgeon Ashley Brown while another holds Margaret in his arms. Jeff Benton, trapped with her, has to watch the grim procedure.
Anaesthetist Peter Walling reassures the young WPC: ‘We’re going to put you to sleep and get you out.’ Margaret replies: ‘That’s fine, who’s going to take me?’ Walling says: ‘They’re fighting for the privilege.’
The amputation over, Margaret Liles is carried to an ambulance and driven to Bart’s Hospital; she continued to work for the police for a year, before retiring.
Jeff Benton is lifted out of the first carriage and smiles and thanks the men who had worked tirelessly to rescue him. He will die of his injuries a month later.
The rescuers in the tunnel call for silence, in case anyone is left alive. Everyone remains still — the only sound is the creaking wreckage. The Site Medical Officer concludes that all the remaining casualties are dead.
LaUrence Marks cannot sleep. There is no news of his father. He said later: ‘I was turning over in my mind where he might be, knowing in my heart that my dad, a creature of habit, had not lost his memory and was not wandering the streets of London having been concussed. No, I just felt he was dead.’
In the small hours, the body of Bernard Marks, 68, is cut from the wreckage of the second carriage. He is the man the firefighters had nicknamed The City Gent.
Forty-three people were killed and 74 injured in the Moorgate disaster, the worst accident ever on the London Underground in peacetime.
The six-day rescue operation involved 16 doctors, 240 police officers, 80 ambulance workers and 1,324 firefighters.
It took four days to reach the body of Leslie Newson; his driver’s cab had been compacted from 3ft deep to just 10 inches.
An inquiry by the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways concluded there was no fault with the condition of the train, track or signalling and that the cause of this accident ‘lay entirely in the behaviour of motorman Newson during the final minute before the accident occurred’.
There was a small amount of alcohol in Newson’s system but this was consistent with the quantity produced by the decomposition of his body. It was suggested at the inquiry that Newson had been affected by a rare medical condition that had caused him to ‘freeze’ — but this could not be confirmed.
When his body was retrieved it was clear that he had made no attempt to instinctively cover his face and died with his hands on the controls; for some this made a fit or seizure more likely.
There was no reason to suspect suicide. The jury returned verdicts of accidental death on all the victims, including Newson.
- Jonathan Mayo is the author of Titanic: Minute By Minute, published by Short Books at £8.99.