Saturday, 18 October 2008
Who Were "The Ghost" Children?
Please press the "listen now" button under the heading of this posting to hear it spoken.
The fog was thick on that October night. The Leeds to London Express steam train shrieked its whistle into the chilly Autumn air. It sped through the foothills of the Cotswolds, passing grey stone cottages and ancient churches. The passengers sat huddled side- by -side on hard padded seats in the dim light of the flickering gas-lamps. Some were dozing, some awake, but they were all tired by the long overnight journey. However, the end of the line was only minutes away.
The driver, Ernest Aldington, was trying to make up five minutes time that had been lost earlier in the trip. The fog grew denser. Unbeknown to him and shrouded by that fog, a shunting engine puffed its way across the main fast line, towing behind it a line of heavily laden trucks that were destined for the station sidings at the village of Charfield.
Seconds later, the inhabitants of this village were abruptly awakened by a thunderous crash, metal ploughing into metal, woodwork splintering and the shrieking and screaming of terrified passengers. There was a roar of crackling fire and an inferno of billowing flames. As if this horror was not enough, a third train then ploughed into the crushed and broken wooden coaches of the now derailed express.
There was explosion after explosion as gas cylinders ruptured. The blaze grew worse. Villagers, dressed only in their nightclothes, ran to help - but little could be done. The intense heat drove them back, the light from the fire dispelled the fog and the full horror was to be seen. Some passengers had been thrown clear and, thankfully, forty-one people survived that terrible disaster. For the rest, nothing could be done. They were burnt beyond recognition. A doctor was called, Dr. H. Walsingham Ward. He was a highly respected, distinguished and very trustworthy man as well as being medically qualified. He had seen many a terrible sight in the trenches during the first World War but he found it hard to conceal his anguish at the horror that confronted him. Some of the people were identified by personal belongings only as slowly and painfully the clues were pieced together. Fifteen corpses were laid out on the railway tracks together with their mangled possessions.
It was then that the mystery began. Whilst combing the wreckage, two more pieces of burned remains were discovered, side by side in one of the crushed compartments near the front of the train. It was hard to believe they had been living creatures. There was only one clue. Two charred shoes, both nine inches long and certainly a pair, were found. They could have been the shoes of a young boy.
One week later, a coroner’s inquest returned verdicts of accidental death on the victims of that horrible accident on the 13th October 1928. The fifteen corpses were named. The remaining two were not. They were the ones brought out from that front compartment. Dr. Ward declared that, in his opinion, one was a boy aged about 11 years, the other a girl perhaps around the age of seven.
Thus the mystery of the Ghost Children of Charfield began. No person ever came forward to claim the remains, there were no reports of children having disappeared from anywhere. A further inquest proved to be of little help and only the fact that - “two unknown persons” - one approximately between the ages of three to seven years and the other , ten to fifteen years, met their deaths that night. Dr. Ward remained adamant about his findings. The victims were buried together and on the memorial was added “Two Unknown”.
Doubts soon began to creep into peoples’ minds. They found it hard to accept the evidence of Doctor Ward. Surely, two children could not die in such circumstances and never be missed or claimed? Some suggested that the two body parts found were, in fact, the mangled remains of just one other victim, possibly an adult. Dr. Ward would not be moved. He stated he was experienced enough to be able to determine the sexes, even in such mutilated remains. The police sergeant who had actually found the remains said he and his helpers were certain that the charred bodies they removed were definitely children.
Then Henry Haines came forward. He was a porter at Gloucester Station. He recalled that night very well indeed. The express was late arriving and he had to go through the carriages collecting and clipping tickets before the express could leave the station at four fifty-six a.m. He swore that he saw two children travelling alone near the front of the train. One was definitely a boy and the other a girl. He recalled the girl as sitting facing the engine, the boy was opposite her and there was a schoolbook face down on the seat next to him. It crossed his mind at the time that it was strange that the children were travelling alone, especially at night, but he was in a hurry so did not stop to speak to them which, he said, he regretted. He remained adamant that he had seen them despite all the heavy pressure being put on him to admit that he could be wrong, maybe he had made a mistake, maybe he just wanted his name in the news. Nothing would alter his story. He had seen those children. He maintained that all his life.
A popular magazine of the day tried to debunk the whole story, accusing Dr. Ward and Henry Haines of making false claims or having made gross mistakes.
The writer of the story had nothing to base these accusations on, except for the fact that he himself did not believe it was possible for the children to die in such a way and never be claimed. Some believed what they read, others remained sure that the doctor and the porter were telling the truth.
The story spread throughout Britain, Europe and even into America. Hundreds of thousands of people read about the two little victims. Months slipped by and nobody ever came forward to claim them as their own. Did someone know them? Were they keeping quiet because they had something to gain from the deaths? The rumours rumbled on and on.
Then, exactly a year to the day, October 13th 1929, Charfield was to witness a mysterious happening. A chauffeur-driven car stopped at the gates of the old cemetery. A woman emerged dressed in deep black with a long veil to hide her face from any onlookers. She carried a small posy of flowers. She took them to the victims’ grave, knelt for a few moments and then placed the flowers beneath the engraving “Two Unknown” and then she left. She returned on the same date the following year.
This was not the end of the tale. A few miles away in Bristol a sensational case arose concerning one of the most upstanding and respected citizens of the town, no less than the Chief Constable, a Mr. James F. Watson. He had misused public funds to send some of his officers on holiday. He was first suspended and then dismissed from his post. Now, Mr. Watson had played a massive part, along with his men, in the rescue work on the night of the Charfield crash. He suddenly disappeared from the City and then rumours began to spread that maybe he had some connection with the two children. A man came forward to say that he had seen Mr. Watson in the chauffeur driven car at the cemetery and that he had waited inside whilst the woman visited the memorial. No one knew where Mr. Watson had gone and no one seemed interested in searching for him. Then, just before Christmas 1930, a Bristol lawyer, Mr. Francis Hapgood, was contacted by his friend Mr. Watson. He received a telegram from London which said simply “Meet me, Waterloo Bridge ,Tomorrow Midnight - J.Watson.”
Mr. Hapgood took the train to London and met him on the Embankment by the Thames. Their meeting was very brief. They apparently shook hands and parted. What conversation passed between them was never revealed. Hapgood would never speak of it and took that secret to his own grave.
Two mornings later, the body of Mr. Watson was found in the pleasure gardens at Eastbourne, lying next to an open cut-throat razor. People were stunned when a an open verdict was returned. Open verdict? There were no signs of a struggle, his throat had been cut, an open razor was lying near him. How could there be an open verdict? It had to be suicide. So, there it ended. Mr. Hapgood refused to even discuss the matter and would give no details of what had been spoken of at their meeting. He died himself not all that long afterwards.
A medium visited the site of the crash scene, and she immediately felt the presence of two children, brother and sister and she was convinced they died on that awful night. After the suicide? of Mr. Watson, the lady in black was never seen again.
The mystery remains. Were Dr. Ward and the porter both mistaken? Had Dr. Ward made a wrong assumption as to what the remains were and then felt he could not back down because of his reputation? Was Mr. Haines, the porter just trying to make a name for himself? If they were indeed two children, why were they never claimed? They must have belonged to somebody, someone must have bought their tickets for that fateful journey. Did that person have something to gain by not coming forward? What connection had Mr. Watson to the children, if any at all - and who was the woman in black? The memorial still stands today although the inscription “Two Unknown” is barely legible now.
The mystery remains as strong today as it did all those years ago.
Who or what were the Charfield ghost children?
We shall never know.