Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber week 46

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Just over 90 years ago, an accident happened during a train journey between London and Ballachulish in circumstances which had all the hallmarks of an Agatha Christie mystery and one that might have attracted the legendary Hercule Poirot of the well-known mystery drama television series.

On a day in July 1927, an Eton College schoolboy, Douglas Charles Byng-Stamper, only son of Captain E P F Byng-Stamper, formerly of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and whose home was at Rodmell, Lewes, Sussex, died from injuries received through falling from an express train near Beattock, in Dumfries and Galloway, 40 miles from Carlisle. The boy, who had recently been with the Eton OTC camp at Aldershot, left there to catch the 7.20 night express from Euston to Scotland to join his parents at Ballachulish for his holidays.

The following morning he was found unconscious on the railway line in his pyjamas, suffering from severe head injuries and was removed to the Cumberland Infirmary, where he died.

The first class sleeping saloon in which the boy had a berth had been brought by the railway company into the railway siding of the hospital, where it was examined. Initially, it was believed that this was going to be another of those cases in which a night passenger awaking from heavy sleep had gone along the corridor and mistakenly opened the outer door of the train instead of the inner one.

On closer investigation, however, this was ruled out. The window of his berth bore feet and finger marks which were still plainly visible, and the attendant was emphatic that the boy had climbed out through the window. What his intentions were have remained a mystery. One could understand perhaps if he had been with a group of schoolboys because it might have been a dare, but he was travelling alone.

The body was identified by the father who hurried to Carlisle when he received the distressing news. He described him as a cheerful lad who had once walked in his sleep when he was younger, but all the time he had been at Eton he had never heard of such a thing. At school he excelled as an athlete and was top of his form. At the inquest, Dr Howden, house surgeon at the Cumberland Infirmary, told the coroner and jury that death was due to fracture of the skull. The boy never regained consciousness.

The saloon attendant, Sydney Gerald Morrison, said that when he joined the train he asked Stamper if he wanted anything, and that he had replied, ‘Bring me a cup of tea at 8am.’

That was the last time Morrison saw him. On arriving at Stirling the morning after the incident, Morrison was informed by a ticket inspector that someone had been found on the railway line near Beattock.

Between Crianlarich and Tyndrum stations Morrison went to the boy’s berth with his cup of tea. He found it vacant, and thinking the boy was in the lavatory he waited about 10 minutes, and then went back again. The berth was still empty. He reported the matter to the stationmaster at Dalmally, which was the first stop afterwards.

When the train arrived in Oban, the doors of the sleeping car under the attendant’s charge were inspected and found all intact, as was the boy’s clothing and luggage.

The sleeping carriage had no external door giving access to the platform. There was only one door and that led into the inside corridor and could be opened only by the occupant of the berth or the attendant. There were doors at each end of the corridor, but these were locked, and the attendant and the guard only had keys. The berth was unlocked when the attendant took in Stamper’s tea.

In the attendant’s opinion, the boy either stood on top of a stool or on the corner of the bed, put his feet on the outside sill of the window, and got hold of the gutter of the roof of the carriage. There was the print of a bare foot on the sill, finger marks on the gutter of the roof, and also outside the car.

There were also finger marks near the window inside the berth. The coroner asked Morrison, ‘There is no doubt in your mind that he went out of the window?’

To which he replied, ‘There is no other possible way. I had the corridor key in my pocket.’

Mr G W Davidson, solicitor, Carlisle, representing the LMS Railway Company, said that if he had got out of the corridor he could not have gone any further as the doors were locked.

The coroner, in his summing up to the jury, said there seemed to be no evidence of any negligence on the part of the railway officials, but there was some evidence of the boy having deliberately got out of the window of his berth, but for what purpose or under what conditions, they were left to imagine. He thought the jury must dismiss the idea of suicide, as, according to the father’s evidence, the boy was bright and cheerful. Of course, he might have got up in his sleep. That they were left to conjecture, but evidently he had walked in his sleep as a small boy.

The jury returned a verdict of accidental death from injuries accidentally received by falling from a moving train, and expressed their sympathy to the relatives.

The funeral took place at Mereworth, Kent. The deceased was a grandson of Rear Admiral Charles Davis Lucas VC, and a godson of HRH The Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll. On the card attached to her floral tribute were the words, ‘He has gone from one young life to another.’

Admiral Lucas from County Armagh in Northern Ireland performed the earliest actions to be recognised with the Victoria Cross.

The Callander and Oban Railway (C&OR) was built with the intention of linking Oban to the national railway network. This involved a long line from Callander through wild and thinly populated terrain, and shortage of money meant that the line was opened in stages from 1866 to 1880. It brought some prosperity to Oban, especially for the fishing trade and for tourism, but the winter traffic was limited.

The company built a branch line to Ballachulish, which included the construction of Connel Bridge over Loch Etive. The branch opened in 1903 but it was never commercially successful and closed in 1966.

The cantilevered B-listed Connel bridge was engineered by John Wolfe Barry and others and built by Arrol’s Bridge and Roof Company. By the time it was opened on August 20, 1903, it had cost almost £43,000.

The main line was crossed by the West Highland Line at Crianlarich, where a connecting spur was constructed in 1897. The C&OR section between Callander and Crianlarich was closed in September 1965. However, the section between Crianlarich and Oban is still in use today, with trains using the connecting spur at Crianlarich.

Iain Thornber