1926 Caulfield Railway Disaster

Dedicated to those killed, injured, their families, the rescuers and the medical attendants associated with the 1926 Caulfield Railway Disaster.

The Caulfield Railway Disaster was the first fatal accident to occur on Melbourne’s electrified rail system, and arguably the most devastating single event to affect so many from the south-east.  It was also the third worst metropolitan railway accident in Melbourne after Sunshine in 1908 and Richmond in 1910.  From Carrum to Caulfield and as far as Dandenong in the south-east, the tragedy was felt in many towns.

Officially, three died and 153 persons were injured, but through the work of the Friends in producing a biographical register on the disaster, as many as 170 suffered injuries.  The magnitude of the disaster alone makes it worthy of commemorating and more importantly, remembering the victims.  It's a story of heroism, fortitude, of courage and self-sacrifice. Qualities that were born out of that generation now long gone where we all must go – the fathers of the Anzac legend.

An Overview of the Disaster

CaulfieldThe Caulfield Railway Disaster occurred on the night of 26 May 1926 when the 5.57 pm Carrum-down train was hit in the rear by the 6.02 pm Oakleigh-down train while stationary at platform 4 of the Caulfield Railway Station.

At the Caulfield Station, a train travelling down the northern or local line had an obscured view of platform 4 due to the position of signal box ‘A’ that was located adjacent to the sharp bend in the track leading to the platform (see picture). The driver of an approaching train had to rely solely on a manually operated signal giving the all-clear to proceed. This manual signal was unprotected by the ‘trip’ system which cut power to a train that passed a signal at danger.

When the accident occurred, the two rear carriages of the Carrum train telescoped causing the compartments to crumble like a concertina into a mass of mangled wreckage, shattering glass and splitting woodwork.

Those who suffered the brunt of the impact were travelling on the second-class carriage of the Carrum-train packed with young men and women from the Chelsea district. In an instant this bright and cheery carriage of young passengers was thrown into the struggle for survival.

Both the driver of the Oakleigh train, William Milvain and the guard James Hargreaves, were later charged with manslaughter at the coronial inquest held on 22-24 June presided by Daniel Berriman. However, they were later acquitted before a jury who added a rider to the verdict—"the precautions taken to safeguard the public at this particular point are inadequate, and should be rectified immediately".

The Caulfield Railway Disaster was a tragedy that should never have happened.  Inadequate safety, an obscured view and a basic human error by Milvain in indifferent health all led to the first fatal accident on Melbourne’s electrified system.

Image: Newspaper Collection, State Library of Victoria.

Honouring the Victims

William Hunter Dobney (1905-26)

DobneyThe courage and self-sacrifice shown by many of those injured in the disaster was extraordinary. They all echoed the mortal lines of Australia’s national poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon – "Life is mostly froth and bubble, two things stand like stone, kindness in another’s trouble, courage in your own". And one of the most courageous of those injured was William Hunter Dobney (pictured).

Dobney was born in Williamstown in 1905, the middle of three sons to Charles Dobney and Sarah Jane née Hunter. Both parents had died by the time William was just 11-years-old and he was adopted by the Colville family of Chelsea who loved him like their own.

Together with his foster brothers John and Robert, Dobney worked at Sands and MacDougall as an apprentice lithographer. He was returning home from work, travelling in the second-class carriage at the rear of the Carrum train which suffered the brunt of the damage.

The collision left Dobney with severe abdominal injuries. But he felt fine and there were others he thought who were in a more serious condition telling the ambulance attendants "There are plenty of others that need your stretchers. I am all right. I can sit up". He was accordingly given a seat in the ambulance with the first batch of injured that were rushed to the Alfred Hospital.

On arrival at the Alfred, Dobney gave the ambulance attendants a cheery farewell as he walked himself into the casualty ward after vigorously protesting the need for any assistance. He was soon attended by the house surgeon and an urgent operation was arranged. Dobney calmly asking the wardsman "Give me some chloroform before anything happens, won’t you?".

William Dobney was a small man with a heart as big as an ox. Even when his condition was at a low ebb, he never lost his sense of humour. "I must be very heavy to carry", he joked to the medical attendant as he was carried to the observation table. He soon lapsed into unconsciousness and died at 10.30 pm that night living just long enough to farewell his adoptive mother.

Greater love hath no man who gave his life for others. William Hunter Dobney, you are not forgotten.

Image: Newspaper Collection, State Library of Victoria.

Arthur James Beresford Upton (1905-26)

UptonArthur Upton was destined for a great future. He had just obtained his majority at Mentone Grammar School and was justifiably proud of his recent promotion at work. His untimely death cut short a promising future for one of Edithvale’s brightest and smartest lads.

Arthur James Beresford Upton was the fifth born of seven children to Samuel and Maria née Peterson who were married at Charters Towers, Queensland in 1886.  The Upton family were highly respected in the district for their contribution to the local community and the Methodist Church.

Like his father, Arthur Upton loved sport. Captain of the local junior football club, he was instrumental in forming the first cricket team that won the 'B' grade premiership the year before in the Frankston-Glenhuntly Association. In between football in winter and cricket in summer, Upton was a member of the lifesaving club and the local fire brigade.  He was the epitome of the smart, hardworking and active citizen that Australia’s future depended upon.

Within an hour of the accident, all the survivors had been freed, one by one.  The trains had been literally hacked to pieces by the rescuers and a crowbar had to be used to extricate Upton.  He urged his rescuers to attend to others in a more serious position saying “Look, I’m all right.  You can look after the others”. When asked where he was hurt, Upton said “My legs don’t feel too good. They are pretty sore”.  In fact, Upton was lucky to be alive.  He suffered serious injuries to his right leg involving the knee joint as well as a fractured tibia, compound fracture of the foot and head injuries.

Rushed to the Alfred, he was attended by the resident medical officer, Dr Edward Deane. Upton's condition was so grave that twice his parents were summoned that night. He died at 1.30 am leaving many to mourn the loss of the promising youngster.

Upton’s death had not been in vain. Soon after her son's death, Maria formed the Aspendale-Edithvale Branch of the Alfred Auxiliary.  It was her way of repaying the hospital for the kindness shown to Arthur during the final hours of his life.

The local Carrum Borough Gazette paid tribute to Upton as “a lad beloved by all with whom he came into contact”.  His funeral was widely attended by family and friends. Over 100 members of the Cricket and Football Clubs followed the hearse and at the graveside fully 250 friends and relatives assembled to pay their last respects.

Arthur James Beresford Upton, you are not forgotten.

George Leonard Dudley Beames (1908-26)

CaulfieldThe last of the three victims of the tragedy who we honour today was not only the youngest, but was killed instantly. His death had a vivid impact on those trapped immediately after the crash who just moments before had been talking to the young clerk. He lies here in this unadorned grave together with his beloved mother.

George Dudley Leonard Beames was born in Camperdown, Victoria the eldest of five children to William Beames, a railway guard and Edith May née Strang. Lewis, Ronald, Victor and Jean made up the rest of the family and they resided at “St. Ems” on Point Nepean Road, Carrum.

George Beames was in the compartment packed with young passengers from Chelsea which included Beryl Clough and her pals.  After a long day in the office, the trip allowed him to read his book, a pastime that loved.

As the train stood in the darkness at Caulfield Railway Station waiting for the signal to change, moments before the crash came, Beames expressed his frustration of the delay to Lillian Halfpenny, sitting besides him. “It looks as if we are going to be stuck here all night”, he said.

Such was the violent and sudden shock of the impact, all but one of the passengers in that bright and cheery compartment were flung to the floor.  The exception was George Beames. Jagged beams from the first-class carriage telescoped with devastating suddenness and jammed Beames between the metal and wooden uprights and flung him back to the seat.  He was killed instantly. His book was still on his lap and he slouched slightly over Halfpenny as if he was still reading.  Every time Halfpenny looked at Beames, she screamed in horror as he turned as white as death.

When William Beames went to the local station to inquire about his son, he was only told that a monthly ticket with the name 'Beames' on it had been found.  The anxious father rushed to the Caulfield Railway Station where he learnt of his beloved boy’s death and later identified his body at the city morgue just before 9.00 pm that night.  When interviewed the following day, he was in a terrible state of grief, and only with difficulty could bring himself to speak of the accident.

Beames was buried two days later along with Arthur Upton.  Many Councillors from the former Carrum Shire attended with many people lining the routes taken by the funeral processions.

George Dudley Leonard Beames, you are not forgotten.

Image: Newspaper Collection, State Library of Victoria.