Redfern Rail Accident 1894

by Cathy Jones

The development of transport systems, particularly rail, was pivotal to the late nineteenth development and surburbanisation of Strathfield and surrounding districts.  The availability of a fast rail service enabled efficient and reliable transport, particularly between Strathfield to the City.  Reliable transport made Strathfield a desirable residential location, particularly for businessmen and merchants, with City based businesses requiring regular travel.

The NSW Colonial Government built the first railway line in Sydney in 1855 running between the City Terminus (located at Redfern) and Parramatta, carrying both freight and passengers.  The main lines to Parramatta, Richmond and Goulburn were built between 1855 and 1864.  A rail station was established in 1855 at Homebush (near the then Racecourse) and in 1877, a halt (later a rail station) was established at Strathfield (then known as Redmyre).  Central Railway Station was opened in 1906 as the location of Redfern Rail Station was considered too far from the City.

The subdivision of the Redmire Estate in 1867, which much of Strathfield was built upon, established Strathfield as a desirable residential location prior to most of the north shore of Sydney becoming available and accessible by public transport systems[1].  The availability of transport is prominently featured in many real estate auction advertising in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  An example is the ‘Woodgreen Estate’ advertisement by real estate agents Hardie & Gorman auctioning land on July 31st 1880, stating:

‘Four minutes walk from Redmyre Railway Station, Nine minutes walk from Burwood Railway Station and Seven Minutes Walk from Homebush Railway Station’.

‘These grand improved suburban properties having an area of over FORTY 40 ACRES with Frontages to The Boulevarde [100 feet wide, made and planted with trees]; Railway Street, Homebush Road, Woodward Avenue, Nichol Parade, Alviston Road, Woodgreen Street, Strathfield Avenue’

‘Situate on the Crown of the Hill, opposite to and near the residences of C E Pilcher Esq, MP; T J Thompson, Esq; Dr P Sydney Jones, Mrs Nichol, H C Fraser Esq and T B Rolin Esq, have been subdivided into LARGE blocks, varying from ¼ to ¾ acre each and will be sold at Auction on the Ground at 3pm sharp Saturday 31st July’

By 1880, there was half hourly service to Homebush and between 1886 and 1900, the railway opened from Strathfield to Hornsby in stages.

However, transport systems can also carry risks and in 1894, one of Sydney’s worst rail accidents occurred with tragic outcomes for many residents of the local area.

On 31 October 1894, a rail accident occurred at Redfern involving a number of local residents of Strathfield, Burwood and Concord.  At 9.31 am a six carriage local train travelling from Strathfield was approaching the terminus at Redfern.  As the train reached the signalbox, it was hit without warning by the 9.30am train bound for Goulburn, which apparently departed against a stop signal.  The Goulburn bound train was only travelling at estimated 10 kilometres per hour, however the consequences of the accident were devastating in terms of damage, injuries and loss of life.

The small ‘F’ class 2-4-0 tank engine pulling the Strathfield train was badly damaged, causing the deaths of both the engine driver W. Pearce and his conductor, Charles Frederick Orr, who died from horrific injuries, mainly burns from the escaping steam and boiling water[2].  The worst effects of the train crash occurred in the first class ‘American’ carriage behind the tank engine, causing the deaths of twelve passengers and injuries to twenty seven passengers[3].

Despite, the horrendous damage to the engine and front carriages, the middle and rear carriages were undamaged and some passengers were unaware that an accident had occurred.  The Goulburn train also emerged virtually undamaged by the accident and no passengers suffered injuries.

One of the passengers abroad the Strathfield train, Mr Thomas Garrett, register of probates, told a Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reporter of what he witnessed[4]:

“The shock was a severe one.  The carriage filled with smoke, and there was an immediate stampede, everyone clearing out as quickly as possible.

So far as I could see, no one in the carriage was injured.  The platform of the first car was jammed into the end of the smoking car and the engine was forced into the end of the first carriage.  The passengers in the front car were smashing the windows with their hands, and were trying to force their heads between the bars.  Lower down the train the passengers were not hurt at all.  The railway people were very quick with their work in getting the people out, and too much praise cannot be given to them”.

Another account from one of the passengers in the first carriage, Arthur Brierly, who told the Sydney Morning Herald[5]:

“I was a passenger in the first-class carriage which was placed next to the engine. I was in the rear of the compartment. The carriage seemed to be full, although I could not say that it was crowded. The first notice that I had of the accident was when I heard the sound of broken glass and the smashing of wood. I was sitting next to Mr M.E. A’Beckett; but he was shut out from my view by the falling glass and timber. I could not see him – the place at once became filled with steam and smoke – but I felt him trying to get out of the window. For my own part I was pinned to my seat by the falling woodwork, and it was with great difficulty that I could get away from the steam, which was nearly suffocating me. After a while I managed to extricate myself, and got out through the end of the carriage into the smoking carriage, which was the next one to ours. After I got out of the carriage I saw Mr A’Beckett with his face bleeding, and I noticed another man with the skin hanging from his hands – it was a terrible sight. A large number of other people were wounded, and there was a great commotion. I cannot say very much about the scene in the car. Immediately it happened the place was so full of smoke that I could see nothing. The two ends of the carriage I was in were smashed – one by the engine and the other by being forced into the smoking carriage. There were loud screams. Passengers were calling out loudly to be let out. One man evidently took things very cool, for he kept on crying out, ‘Keep your seats’. I was forced to keep mine, because as I have said, I was fastened to my seat by falling debris. I was somewhat seriously hurt, but not so bad as others. A piece of flesh was taken out of my fingers, a large piece of glass was embedded in my hand, and I was rather severely bruised. I must add that the railway people were very good to us. There was a doctor there, and all the attention that was possible was afforded to us.”

Most of the passengers who died were killed by cinders and steam entering the cars.  Exit from the damaged carriages was hampered by bars across the windows which blocked their escape.

Among the accident fatalities was Thorton Bullmer, a well known lawyer of Burwood and Edward Lloyd Jones, Chairman of David Jones & Co, a resident of Strathfield and younger brother of eminent physician Dr Phillip Sydney Jones of “Llandilo” The Boulevarde Strathfield.  Jones was badly scalded in the accident and was taken to Sydney Hospital, where he was treated by his brother[6].  He died of shock and the injuries sustained in the accident.  Edward Lloyd Jones was the son of David Jones, founder of the retail chain bearing his name.  He assumed control of David Jones & Co in 1877, after his father’s death.  His son, Sir Charles Lloyd Jones, assumed control of the stores in 1914[7].

Charles Lloyd Jones recalled his father’s death in 1955, in a address to the Royal Australian Historical Society[8]:

“My father’s untimely death! In 1893 we lived at Strathfield, and it was my practice to walk down The Boulevarde with my father in the mornings – he on his way to business and I on my way to school.  One bright day in November 1893, I said good-bye to him at the crossroads, and I never saw him again – he was killed in the railway accident that took place at Redfern.  This sudden loss of the head of the business threw the Company into confusion.”

Another victim of the accident was Father Callaghan McCarthy of St Mary’s Catholic Church at Concord.  Fr McCarthy was appointed parish priest of St Mary’s in 1870, which at that time serviced the Strathfield district.  He died on 1 November 1894 from injuries sustained by the accident.

The site of the accident was quickly cleared of debris and supervised by the Chief Traffic Manager of the railways and Strathfield resident David Kirkcaldie.

The deaths of prominent citizens drew significant media attention and speculation.  The Commissioner of Railways, Edward Eddy, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald the day after the accident[9]:

‘I may say that the case is one which proves human fallibility. The system of signalling at the place where the accident occurred is the most perfect in the world. Everything that money and experience can do has been done to make an accident an impossibility – all the gear is interlocked, the eight hours system has been adopted in the signalling cabin, there are always two men and a telephone boy in it, and before a signal could be let down as an indication that the driver could proceed, the points would have to be placed in proper position.

‘If a man obeyed his instructions’, Mr Eddy said, ‘an accident is not at all likely to occur; but,’ he parenthetically remarked, ‘I do not now say that any of the officers did not obey the signals, although probably something indicating this fallibility of the most careful of human beings will no doubt come out at the inquest.’

In determining the cause of the accident, conflicting accounts were tendered by the Redfern signalman, George Lawrence and the engine driver of the Goulburn train, William Williams.   Lawrence argued that the signal had not been lowered for the Goulburn train, while Williams argued the reverse.  A Colonial Inquest was held the day after the accident finding that Williams be committed for trial on the charge of manslaughter.

Williams was charged on 26 November 1894 for manslaughter of Charles Frederick Orr, the conductor on the Strathfield train and appeared before Chief Justice Darley in Sydney’s Central Criminal Court.

At the court proceeding, different accounts were given by Williams and Lawrence.  Williams, a Railways employee of fourteen years experience, maintained that the signal had definitely been lowered to indicate the line was clear before he set off from the station.  Lawrence stated that the signals had not been observed correctly but he also admitted that he had been ‘dizzy’ on the morning of the accident.  The jury returned with a verdict of not guilty against Williams, who was discharged from the Railways.  Williams was re-appointed to another and lesser position in the Railways within a short time.

It was determined that accident occurred because of a number of factors including clocks being too fast, Lawrence being unwell and mistake occurring in the signaling.


History of St Mary’s Catholic Church Concord downloaded from

Howe, G., ‘Disaster on the railways’, Heart of the City, Ancestral Trail Publications, 1998

Jones, Charles Lloyd., The History of David Jones Ltd, Royal Australian Historical Society Journal, No 41, 1955

Jones, Michael., Oasis in the West, Allen & Unwin, 1985

Pearce, K., Australian Railway Disasters, IPL Books Australia, 1994.

Pollon, F., Shopkeepers and Shoppers, Retail Traders Association of New South Wales, 1989


[1] Jones, Oasis in the West, 1985

[2] Pearce, Australian Railway Disasters, 1994

[3] Jones, Oasis in the West, 1985

[4] Pearce, Australian Railway Disasters, 1994

[5] Jones, Oasis in the West, 1985

[6] Howe, Heart of the City, p 26, 1998

[7] Pollon, Shopkeepers and Shoppers, p169-170, 1989

[8] Jones, C.L., The History of David Jones Ltd, RAHS Journal No.41, 1955

[9] Jones, Oasis in the West, 1985

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