LEGER Week 1887 was in its third day. It had been, as usual, a good week for the borough’s tradesmen and its 25,000 inhabitants. A good week too for the caterers who rented the booths on the Town Moor. The popular local brews flowed without ceasing and the vendors of hot pies and fried onions did a roaring trade.
Good too for the day trippers from all corners of South Yorkshire, from North Nottinghamshire and across the Pennines. The hoteliers and countless licensed victuallers who ringed Donny market place and all who, by tradition, let their entire houses for visitors, they too were counting the profits.
It was also a the busiest week for the sugar boilers, the butterscotch men, the toffee apple dippers, the sellers of Grantham gingerbread.
Business in the borough – sometimes known as Sleepy Hollow for most of the year – was brisk. Shops in elegant and fashionable Hallgate and High Street stocked the latest fancy goods unobtainable at any other time. Toffs and swells, beggarmen and thieves, all were in town in Leger Week.
A good week too for the gamblers, the slick three-card tricksters, the bookies, the breeders of thoroughbreds, gathered for the greatest bloodstock sales in the world. A safe time for the sharp fellows, the snakeoil doctors, who attracted the gullible and dazzled to deceive.
Nobody minded much except the vicar who, by custom, raged from the pulpit of St George’s about the immorality and drunkenness – he didn’t like to mention prostitutes, the tarts – who regularly came into town at that time.
The extremely rich and the dirt poor; the aristocracy and the unwashed masses mingled with the Romanies whose vardos camped on the free course. Wives were happy to have their palms crossed with silver, dark ladies happy to tell fortunes to blushing maidens.
The gypsies having ripped up sprigs of heather off the moor tied them with coloured ribbon and sold them to mugs for luck.
Hard men stood bare-chested outside the boxing booths, challenging any young fellow to fight three rounds.
All walks of life were brought together by an event that rivalled Derby Day, the National and any other crowd-pulling money-making entertainment. Steam boats, swing boats, roundabouts, galloping horses; the lot. Something for every age.
Their love of the turf united them; the sights and sounds and smells that distinguished them brought them together.
It is difficult today for readers to appreciate just how important a successful Leger Week was as a showcase for a little country town on the Great North Road.
On that station platform at Hexthorpe, used because Doncaster station was too busy with Leger traffic, a mile or so from the town centre there stood just one train belonging to the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire company, the MS and L. It was hissing steam waiting just two more minutes for the whistle to be off, while ticket business was completed. (A ticket inspector could not move coach to coach as they were non-corridor.)
Then, just after midday few people might have heard, from far off, the familiar sound of an approaching locomotive as it emerged from a deep cutting in the limestone. It was due in at about 15 minutes past.
One of the ticket men thought it sounded rather loud, perhaps rather too close for comfort. Then, almost too late he realised to his horror that it was on the same track and never going to stop in time. It burst onto the scene.
“I could tell it wasn’t going to stop by its speed” he remembered. Shouting to all around him: “Run for your lives!” he leaped over the platform railings and tumbled onto the grass below.
Winded, and at first motionless, he was unable to rise up because of a sharp pain in his back. When at the third attempt he got on his feet, he witnessed a scene from hell.
The unstoppable, an express from Liverpool to Hull had come up at full speed and dashed into the back of the most vulnerable.
The scene, described as a woodyard with coaches telescoped and ripped to matchwood, was pure carnage.
“The screams and cries of the wounded were awful... some were thrown into a mass of bodies and so badly injured they could not be extricated until parts of the locomotive were removed.”
Lord and Lady Auckland offered to adopt a baby found in the wreckage unhurt. It was believed that its parents were dead, but within a few hours the three were united.
The boiler of the Manchester train was lifted from the framework and went partly through the rear of the Midlands van before hitting the last coach.
Nineteen on the Midland excursion had died at the scene, five later died in Doncaster Infirmary 50 were injured, some very badly. Some were decapitated, some disembowelled. These were only the initial totals; the final numbers were 25 dead and 66 injured.
A local man, Dr Hills, was at the scene almost immediately and a dozen or more doctors followed as the injured were taken by horse-drawn transport to the Infirmary in Whitaker Street.
“Every assistance was at hand and there was no loss of time attending to the dead and dying,” wrote one reporter.
But of course that infirmary, although equipped with the most modern equipment, could not cope. All the beds in hotels and boarding houses were full of race week visitors, but they required little persuasion to vacate them. The nearby Reindeer Hotel became a second infirmary.
People living nearby in Young Street, Cartwright Street and Society Street offered still more beds and bedrooms.
All the dead had been identified within 24 hours and taken to Sheffield, Mr Watson the Bentinck Street undertaker providing shells for the corpses.
Two days later, a Sunday, large numbers went to the scene of the accident but the coaches were covered in tarpaulin and the line cleared for normal working.
The train driver, a man with 29 years experience on the footplate and regarded as one of the safest and most experienced operators did not escape without injury. To his credit he was quick to acknowledge he had never seen the red flags which would have caused him to slow down. His fireman said he had seen them. Railworkers offered varying excuses.
At the inquest both driver and fireman were declared negligent, but much later, when they appeared before a court they were exonerated. It was revealed they were not the only persons negligent that fateful afternoon.
The tragedy came at a time when the movement of rail passengers during Race Week had reached its peak. Hundreds of trains, tens of thousands of passengers all wanted to be in one place at the same time for four successive days. It required a superhuman effort from the numerous companies running in and out of Doncaster.
They had not only to unload passengers, but to park the trains in miles of sidings, burning huge quantities of coal and taking on water, to be ready for the return journey facing the right direction.
There were no telephones, no portable radios, just pocket watches and a timetable. The result was described as a miracle of organisation.
The Gazette Editor wrote: “Our house of joy has become the house of mourning. Never before has a race meeting closed with the sound of weeping and the cries of anguish from the lips of the wounded. We may search the record of railway accidents in vain to find its parallel.”