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Object in Focus: No. 13

Rail disaster coin

Silver, 1877

A fatal rail accident at Morpeth remembered

This coin was minted in 1696 and bears the portrait of William III. Almost two hundred years later the coin – now worn almost beyond recognition – was repurposed. A hole was drilled in its top, transforming it into a pendant, and these words were engraved into its back:

In Memory of

R. A. Cottam

Killed at Morpeth

1877.

On the night of the 24th of March, 1877, Robert Cottam of Cockburn Street, Edinburgh was one of around sixty passengers travelling on the ‘Flying Scotchman’, the midnight express from Glasgow and Edinburgh to London, via the east coast. The train left Edinburgh Waverly station at 22:44, fourteen minutes late, and by the time it reached Berwick – the only scheduled stop between Edinburgh and Newcastle – this delay had increased to twenty minutes due to difficult weather. After passing through Morpeth station at 1:45 on the morning of the 25th, the train reached a sharp curve and, despite apparently travelling at a sensible speed, left the rails due to a faulty rail. The result was described in several newspapers, including the Alnwick Mercury a week later:

“The effects were terrific. The ground at the point where the engine had left the rails was about 30 yards south of the platform […]. A furrow in the ground was traceable for a few yards, marking the progress of the engine in its diverted course. The distance from the point where it fell was about 60 yards. […] An immense mass of iron, wood, and earth, which had been gathered by the fore-part of the engine had at length, it would seem, stopped its progress. One of these rails was bent like a hoop. The smoke chimney was smashed and bent, and lay upon its right side embedded two or three feet in the earth, the wheels and driving machinery standing up some feet in the air at the south side. […] The permanent way of the whole of the three lines had been torn up and destroyed for a distance of at least 30 or 40 yards, and was strewn with broken rails and woodwork along the entire length of the track traversed.”

A number of people were seriously injured in the accident, and as well as Robert Cottam, four others are known to have died: Alexander Malcom; Henry Horn Jr.; John Donald; and John Burton, the train’s guard. At some point after this, the coin was engraved with the names of one of the accident’s victims, presumably as a memory of them.

Sources:

‘Fearful Accident to the “Flying Scotchman.”, Alnwick Mercury (31 March 1877).

‘The Railway Accident at Morpeth: Adjourned Inquest – The Verdict’, Alnwick Mercury (14 April 1877).

This post was written by Daniel Rose-Jones. The item was discovered as part of an audit kindly funded by the John Ellerman Foundation.

For more information please contact: collections@museumsnorthumberland.org.uk

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