“The Cry of Distress is the Summons to Relief”

 – by Phil Trendall

Fig 1: Lewisham showing the wreckage and the collapsed bridge – source unknown.


Recent events in the US, in particular the much discussed potential role of the US Supreme Court in determining the outcome of the November 2020 election, made me think of the Lewisham train crash (1957). This brief insight into my mental processes might be disturbing for some and it took me a while to work out why I had made the connection. Hopefully the reason will become clear to those who have the patience to read this short article through to the end.

The crash warrants only a passing mention in the BTC Police Journal and I know only that officers of the force played a major role in securing the scene and supporting the investigation. But of all the lessons that emerged from that dreadful incident, it is the role played by a local resident that caught my attention when I was studying the management of major incidents at the University of Hertfordshire. This case study featured a Mr Chadwick of Lewisham. It was his unfortunate involvement in the Lewisham rail crash of December 1957 that was used to illustrate the inevitable consequences of civil emergencies on individuals caught up in disasters. Moreover, the tragedy of Mr Chadwick had a profound effect on the law relating to liability, which although now much changed, still resonates with us today.

The years after the Second World War saw several major railway accidents in the UK. The rail system had been run down and the need to keep the system running absorbed all available funding, even after nationalisation. The introduction of safety technology was slow even when the benefits of such innovation were well understood by the railway authorities.

In particular, measures to prevent trains passing signals at danger were to be found in only a few parts of the network. The combination of fog (or more often smog given the atmospheric conditions in London at the time) and a lack of any automatic warning to drivers of approaching danger led to several serious accidents. On 4th December 1957 London was covered by a heavy fog. Trains were disrupted and large numbers of commuters delayed, especially those traveling from the southern termini. A local train was held at a signal near Lewisham. The following train, a locomotive hauled express, failed to stop at the preceding signal and crashed into the back of the local train. The accident occurred under a bridge that carried another line over the main line. The bridge collapsed and crushed coaches of one of the trains involved in the collision, killing many passengers. Another train travelling on the high level line was damaged as it approached the collapsed bridge but was able to stop before it fell into the gap left by the collapsed bridge. In total 90 people were killed and around 165 injured. Many were trapped in the wreckage and required rescue. Altogether around 3,000 people were involved in the incident.

Pathe News visited the scene on the following day and the footage is available on their website and on YouTube. The clipped tones of Bob Danvers-Walker describe the scene.

His narration now seems very old fashioned but combined with the horrific backdrop it well describes the crash and the issues in play. One part of the script is particularly relevant to the subject under discussion here:

One thing that is clear is the outstanding, selfless work of rescuers, both official and unofficial. There is scarcely a home within reach of the crash that has any sheets or blankets left. They gave all they had to the rescue workers and every house and flat was sheltering the injured. This is working class area where there is little to spare but nobody held back on this terrible night. Our cameramen who have filmed battlefronts and disasters for many years say this the most gruesome tragedy they have ever seen……….”  (Pathe News Dec 1957)

The response to the Lewisham train crash was subject of much praise. The official report by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Railways observed:

“Much of the responsibility for the excellent work done lay with the regular emergency services including the Police, and with the railwaymen concerned, but a notable part was played by other organisations including the St. John Ambulance Brigade, the Women’s Voluntary Service, and the Salvation Army. Mention should also be made of the unselfish and generous way in which many lineside residents placed themselves, their houses and their belongings at the disposal of the rescue and first aid parties”. ( MOTCA, 1958)

Fig 2: WRVS at the scene of the Lewisham Train Crash :MAFF 1957


One of the local residents who responded was Mr Henry Chadwick. On hearing of the crash at about 6pm he went to the scene. He was a small man, and this enabled him to climb into the wreckage to assist those trapped inside. One of the survivors said that scene was a ‘sea of bodies’ and that Chadwick “was a courageous man, very cheerful and encouraging”. The witness also describes how Chadwick gave her a pain killing injection as the doctor in attendance could not get into the small space where she was trapped. To do this brought Mr Chadwick into physical contact with the remains of deceased victims. He worked at the scene until about 3 am when he returned home in a distressed state, covered in mud and with blood on his hands. He quickly returned to the crash site and, for the rest of the night, continued to assist the rescue services. He soon developed the symptoms of what we would think of as something akin to Post Traumatic Shock Disorder (PTSD). He became withdrawn, had trouble sleeping and was plagued by his memories of that awful night. He lost weight and became afflicted with acute anxiety. Before the accident he had been a window cleaner and was an active member of the local community, but as his illness developed he was unable to work and avoided social situations. He received in-patient treatment for anxiety neurosis. These symptoms will be familiar to many involved in the response to disasters and it is only in recent years that there has been widespread acceptance of the need to prevent, treat and support those who suffer because of what they have done to assist their fellow citizens. When media interest fades the pain of victims and responders remains. This was as true in 1957 as it is now.

Mr Chadwick died of an unconnected illness in 1962. Before his death he started legal proceedings against the British Transport Commission (BTC). His case was that he had been caused nervous injury by the train crash and that he was entitled to compensation for his loss of earnings. The medical evidence supported his claim that the crash was the cause of his condition. The case was continued after his death by his next of kin although it was much delayed, not coming before the High Court until 1967. By this time the BTC had been wound up and replaced by the British Railways Board (BRB) who defended the case on the basis that Mr Chadwick had voluntarily entered into danger and that although they admitted that their negligence was the cause of the accident it was their view that their liability extended only as far as their passengers and staff. The legal principle, volenti non fit injuria (i.e. that the risk of injury was voluntarily assumed) was the subject of considerable discussion.

The court ruled that the BRB were liable. In simple terms it held that it was entirely foreseeable that an accident of the kind that occurred through the negligence of the railway authorities at Lewisham would cause all sorts of people to respond to assist. Mr Chadwick’s family were awarded £935 3s 6d in respect of loss of earnings and an additional £600 for the misery he suffered in his final years.

During the trial Counsel for both sides cited a large numbers of cases in their arguments, but what is of particular interest was that the judge, Waller, J, cited with approval, a case from the United States. The case in question was a New York one; Wagner v International Railway Company (1921). The case featured two cousins who boarded a crowded railcar. The doors were left open, and one fell off when the vehicle failed to slow down on a curve. The other went in search of his cousin’s body and was injured in the process. In finding the company liable for the injury the judge, Cardozo, J commented:
“Danger invites rescue. The cry of distress is the summons to relief. The law does not ignore these reactions of the mind in tracing conduct to its consequences. It recognises them as normal. It places their effect within the range of the natural and the probable. The wrong that imperils life is a wrong to the imperilled victim; it is a wrong also to his rescuer” (Cardozo, J, 1921 )

I am no lawyer, but I am told by those qualified that the law in this area has changed since the case of Mr Chadwick. But the point made by Cardozo, J is an important one. Responders risk their well-being to help others. In most major incidents the ‘zero’ responders are members of the public who think only of how they can help. Police officers, firefighters and ambulance staff demonstrate their bravery at every disaster and terrorist attack. In recent years BTP officers have been recognised for their bravery many times and in carrying out acts of heroism they are operating in a long tradition set by their forerunners in the force. The cry of distress really is the summons to relief and the fact that people like Mr Chadwick respond as they do is a sign of a civilised society. Few people outside the world of emergency management, (and perhaps specialist lawyers), remember the work of Henry Chadwick on that l night in 1957 but he personifies the humanity and sacrifice that we see after every tragedy.

Fig 3: Benjamin Cardozo: US Supreme Court


Benjamin Cardozo (1870-1938) was a famous judge in the USA. At the time of the Wagner case he was a member of the New York Court of Appeal. He went on to be Chief Judge of that court. His final appointment was as a Justice of the US Supreme Court. Cardozo was a prominent liberal and an active Democrat. His appointment, however, was made by President Hoover, a Republican. It is a rare example of a non-partisan appointment to that court, but his reputation as a judge outweighed party divides and he was confirmed by the Senate unanimously. Appointments to the US Supreme Court are obviously done rather differently now.

The fact that we know so little about the detail of the involvement of BTP in many of the post war incidents (1945-1975) is something that could be put right. There are still plenty of retired officers who will have attended these accidents and it would be good to get their memories down on paper. The force may also hold some information in addition to the surviving material in the care of the BTPHG. As always, we must ensure that other agencies don’t airbrush out the role played by the force.


A version of this note first appeared in the Newsletter of the Historical Special Interest Group of the Institute of Civil Protection and Emergency Management (ICPEM).

An exception to the lack of detailed information about the role of BTP in train crashes in this period can be found in the Connington Derailment, 1967. The extensive file on the investigation (which also detailed some of the tensions with the local force) was lent to an author who eventually produced a book on the subject: A Significant Accident by Courtney Atkin. The fact that the file was ‘out of force’ for so long saved it from destruction and hopefully it remains in the collection of the BTPHG.


Fig 4: The Memorial Plaque at Lewisham



Vaughan, A, (1989) Obstruction Danger; Significant British railway accidents 1890-1985. London: Patrick Stephens Ltd.

Rail Crash: Many Killed and Injured (1957). [Newsreel]. British Pathe December 1957.

Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zB4as3sCn Q [Accessed 20 September 2020].

Ministry of Transport and Aviation (1958) Report on the Collision which occurred on 4th December 1957 near St Johns Station Lewisham in the Southern Region of British Railways. Brigadier C.A. Langley. Her Majesty’s Stationary Office 1958.

Chadwick v British Transport Commission [1967] 1 WLR 912 QBD

Wagner v International Railway Company 232 NY Rep 176, 180 (1921)

Britannica (undated) Benjamin Nathan Cardozo US Jurist. Available from:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Benjamin-Nathan-Cardozo [Accessed 20 September 2020]


Extract from the June 2021 edition of History Lines (No. 132)