“The Irish mail leaving London at shortly after seven A.M., it was timed in 1868 to make the distance to Chester, one hundred and sixty-six miles, in four hours and eighteen minutes; from Chester to Holyhead is eighty-five miles, for running which the space of one hundred and twenty-five minutes was allowed. Abergele is a point on the seacoast in North Wales, nearly midway between these two places. On the 20th of August, 1868, the Irish mail left Chester as usual. It was made up of thirteen carriages in all, which were occupied—as the carriages of that train usually were—by a large number of persons whose names, at least, were widely known. Among these, on this particular occasion, were the Duchess of Abercorn, wife of the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, with five children. Under the running arrangements of the London and North-Western line a goods train left Chester half-an-hour before the mail, and was placed upon the siding at Llanddulas, a station about a mile-and-a-half beyond Abergele, to allow the mail to pass. From Abergele to Llanddulas the track ascended by a gradient of some sixty feet to the mile. On the day of the accident it chanced that certain wagons between the engine and the rear end of the goods train had to be taken out to be left at Llanddulas, and, in doing this, it became necessary to separate the train and to leave five or six of the last wagons in it standing on the main line, while those which were to be left were backed on to a siding. The employé whose duty it was to have done so, neglected to set the brake on the wagons thus left standing, and consequently when the engine and the rest of the train returned for them, the moment they were touched, and before a coupling could be effected, the jar set them in motion down the incline toward Abergele. They started so slowly that a brakeman of the train ran after them, fully expecting to catch and stop them, but as they went down the grade they soon outstripped him, and it became clear that there was nothing to check them until they should meet the Irish mail, then almost due. It also chanced that the wagons thus loosened were oil wagons.
“The mail train was coming up the line at a speed of about thirty miles an hour, when its engine-driver suddenly perceived the loose wagons coming down upon it around the curve, and then but a few yards off. Seeing that they were oil wagons, he almost instinctively sprang from his engine, and was thrown down by the impetus and rolled to the side of the road-bed. Picking himself up, bruised but not seriously hurt, he saw that the collision had already taken place, that the tender had ridden directly over the engine, that the colliding wagons were demolished, and that the front carriages of the train were already on fire. Running quickly to the rear of the train, he succeeded in uncoupling six carriages and a van, which were drawn away from the rest before the flames extended to them by an engine which most fortunately was following the train. All the other carriages were utterly destroyed, and every person in them perished.
“The Abergele was probably a solitary instance, in the record of railway accidents, in which but one single survivor sustained any injury. There was no maiming. It was death or entire escape. The collision was not a particularly severe one, and the engine driver of the mail train especially stated that at the moment it occurred the loose wagons were still moving so slowly that he would not have sprung from his engine had he not seen that they were loaded with oil. The very instant the collision took place, however, the fluid seemed to ignite and to flash along the train like lightning, so that it was impossible to approach a carriage when once it caught fire. The fact was that the oil in vast quantities was spilled upon the track and ignited by the fire of the locomotive, and then the impetus of the mail train forced all of its leading carriages into the dense mass of smoke and flame. All those who were present concurred in positively stating that not a cry, nor a moan, nor a sound of any description was heard from the burning carriages, nor did any one in them apparently make an effort to escape.
“Though the collision took place before one o’clock, in spite of the efforts of a large gang of men who were kept throwing water on the line, the perfect sea of flame which covered the line for a distance of some forty or fifty yards could not be extinguished until nearly eight o’clock in the evening, for the petroleum had flowed down into the ballasting of the road, and the rails were red-hot. It was, therefore, small occasion for surprise that when the fire was at last gotten under, the remains of those who lost their lives were in some cases wholly undistinguishable, and in others almost so. Among the thirty-three victims of the disaster, the body of no single one retained any traces of individuality; the faces of all were wholly destroyed, and in no case were there found feet or legs or anything approaching to a perfect head. Ten corpses were finally identified as those of males, and thirteen as those of females, while the sex of ten others could not be determined. The body of one passenger, Lord Farnham, was identified by the crest on his watch, and, indeed, no better evidence of the wealth and social position of the victims of this accident could have been asked for than the collection of articles found on its site. It included diamonds of great size and singular brilliancy; rubies, opals, emeralds; gold tops of smelling bottles, twenty-four watches—of which but two or three were not gold—chains, clasps of bags, and very many bundles of keys. Of these, the diamonds alone had successfully resisted the intense heat of the flame; the settings were nearly all destroyed.”
– from the 1888 book, Railway Adventures and Anecdotes extending over more than fifty years, edited by Richard Pike.