A life cut short by tragedy

On 19 August 1917, at about 3.30 in the afternoon, tram car 20 ran away down the hill leading to Crabble from the London Road in Dover. The tram jumped off the rails at the second bend at the foot of the 1 in 10½ gradient, struck the paper-mill wall, ran over the debris, struck the wall for a second time, and toppled over. Eleven people died as a result of the accident, and nearly 60 were said to be injured. Many critically injured were taken to hospital. Six people though died at the scene, including Miss Charlotte (Lottie) Eleanor Scrase, aged 27, the conductress of the tram. She had been on the upper deck, according to a witness. She lived at 80 Heathfield Avenue and was the daughter of the late Staff Sergeant Major Scrase, of the Army Service Corps, who had died in 1900 at St Helena, and Mrs Lottie Scrase, formerly Hocking. Her brother, Arthur, was a locomotive fireman; she left also two other brothers, William and Eugene, both on military service abroad, and two sisters, Ivy and Edie.

Miss Scrase was said to be very popular on the tram service, and was said to have kindly taken another woman’s shift that day.  She had been engaged to be married to Mr Tom Sayers. The wedding ring she would have worn was buried with her at Buckland.

The driver of the tram, Albert James Bissenden, aged 28, stated that he had done all the could to stop the tram as it gathered speed on the incline, and when he had realised he could do no more, had jumped off to save his own life.  He immediately came down the hill to help the casualties. A soldier since 1907, he had been discharged on 1 June 1917 as a private from the Army Ordnance Corps after a nervous breakdown owing to the heat in Egypt and his work of dealing with explosives.  He had joined the trams on 21 July 1917 as a learner driver, qualifying to drive in 9 days and being passed as competent on 1 August.

The coroner, in summing up, stated that the case was on the borderline between accidental and criminal negligence; the driver could be liable for a charge of manslaughter. The verdict at the inquest was of death by misadventure, and that inexperience and lack of judgment on the part of Albert Bissenden were the causes. The coroner commented that misjudgment “could happen in a moment of forgetfulness, without knowing or wishing to wrong.  Something forgotten or something to attract the attention in moment and then something happened.”

However, it is probable that there were other causes and contributory factors. One passenger claimed that the car had not stopped as quickly as usual at the Buckland stop prior to Crabble Hill (although this may have been normal practice for Sundays and the driver may have been beckoned on). Several witnesses stated that the car had not stopped at the brow of the hill, as demanded by the regulations. This stop enabled the controller to be turned off and the slipper brakes applied; once the handbrake was released the car would proceed down the hill under its own weight, checked by the slipper brakes. Driver Bissenden stated that he was most aware of the regulations and the procedure at the top of the hill and had tried to stop the car with the handbrake but in vain. He maintained that the handle of the handbrake turned easily and met with no resistance”, so he concluded the brake would not stop the car. Indeed, the chain was unconnected when the tram car was examined after the accident. However, this was dismissed as there were no scrape marks on the chain, as there would have been had it been loose and dragged, and the chain was likely to have dislodged during, rather than before, the accident.

There were three braking systems; the slipper brakes were also examined, being the drag mechanism on going down Crabble Hill. Blocks were replaced about once a month; the blocks on car 20 were worn, but evidence given suggested that worn blocks were better at gripping than new, and that the extent of wear would not have contributed to the accident. The driver had been seen attempting to use the slipper brakes, but they were unable to stop the car. The third braking system, the emergency brake, failed to operate; this, it was stated, was owing to the driving current not having been turned off. The driver stated that the brake was “jammed”. The Depot Mechanic, Mr Nye, stated that he had examined the car before use that morning, and passed it and the brakes as fit, although he had not examined the emergency braking system, stating that this was done once a week, and that drivers rarely had occasion to use it. He added that the handbrake had been reported slack on 30 July and taken up. The controllers were tested once a week, sometimes twice. No driver had registered concern about the performance of the car since. When questioned by Mr de Wet, who was representing the friends of casualties Mr and Mrs Joseph and Mr Barnstein, Mr Carden, the General Manager of the tramway, was reproved for uncertainty in his responses regarding maintenance schedules and reporting of the cars.

On examination of the wrecked car, the controller was turned to full speed, and the direction lever was placed at “ahead”. Driver Bissenden stated that he had turned the controller off before descending the hill, exactly as regulations required. This was dismissed, the coroner stating that he believed the current had been on. However, passengers on the car, notably Dragoon Gunner, had attempted to stop the car, and children subsequently had played with the levers, which were then removed by Mechanic Knott and handed to Inspector Elgar. This was over 90 minutes after the accident, whereas Mr Fred Cook, former driver and then clerk to the tramways, stated that upon his examination twenty minutes after the accident, the levers were in the “drive” position. Whether attempts to stop the car had moved the levers is uncertain; it was however stated that the accident would not have moved them.

War-time conditions may have contributed to the accident. On considering the driver and the conductress, the Coroner in his summing up said, “I do not think these are times for anyone in a case of this description to be too critical. We are in troublesome times and we have to do the best we can with very little material. … our expert men are gone, and what is left are boys and girls and invalided men.” It was a general view, nevertheless, that business at home should carry on as best possible. Driver Bissenden’s discharge from military service was not considered significant. He had qualified as a driver after the minimum period of instruction, and was said to be quick at picking up his duties, exceedingly alert and intelligent, and one of the best men Mr Edward Carden, the tramways General Manager, had “had to deal with”. He had shown no signs of nervousness during instruction, and stated that he was most interested in his work, keen to demonstrate his suitability to his employers, and that furthermore he had suffered no nervousness during his work; indeed it was doing him “the power of good”.

It was the responsibility of Lottie Scrase, the conductress, to ensure the behaviour of the passengers, and that the car was not overcrowded. She had instructed Driver Bissenden to proceed without stopping at St Bartholomew’s church, well before Buckland, as they were carrying so many there was no more room. The tram was overcrowded when it crashed. The capacity was 22 people downstairs and 26 upstairs, yet some 70 people were casualties. The exact number on the tram was not ascertained.

However, it was common for the cars to be overloaded, and the Corporation Tramway permitted extra people to be carried provided it was safe and on the level portion of the track. Mr Carden stated that “since the war the population had increased” and their “service had been reduced, and it is very difficult to prevent people overcrowding”. Only on the River route were the regulations strictly enforced; an inspector at Buckland was responsible for ensuring the cars were not over capacity before descending Crabble Hill. Inspector Elgar stated at the inquest that he did not see car 20 go past, and that he had other duties to attend to in addition. The former tram shed is right.

It may have been that passengers also paid little regard to the tramway staff. Conductress Scrase was said to have been on the upper deck, she may have been asking passengers to sit down as standing was not permitted or trying to persuade some to alight. Driver Bissenden noted that a gentleman had been standing on his platform, having got on at Buckland, and the gentleman’s wife was standing on the steps. The driver had told the man he could not stand there, but did not make him move as “one got sick of asking people to move as they often said they had a right to be there” and he also had been told to speak to no one. It is possible that the gentleman distracted the driver, and thereby contributed to the accident.

Certainly overcrowding exacerbated the situation. Although a section of the mill wall was demolished by the impact of the car, Miss Laura Bomford, in charge of National Registration and a passenger at the accident, stated that she was surprised “there was not a violent crash”,. The tram appeared to have fallen over on to its side slowly and smoothly, before sliding a couple of yards along the ground.  Too many passengers in the top deck would have raised the centre of gravity of the car, and rendered it unstable and therefore contributed to or even caused the fall. Furthermore, many of those hurt were thrown from the open-top car. The extra weight would also have influenced the speed of acceleration down the hill, and rendered the brakes less effective. Mr Carden noted in mitigation that there were fourteen children on board, who would not weigh as much as adults.

The trackway down Crabble Hill followed a steep gradient in which there were two sharp bends, the first having a radius of 90 feet and being the most acute on the entire system, and the second near the bottom of the hill. The rails on the outside of the bends had been elevated in order to help prevent the car leaving the rails, and the braking power had been increased, with the addition of the slipper brakes. The combination of curves and gradient meant that the place, nevertheless, was regarded generally as dangerous, though Mr Cardin said that he “did not look upon that as the most dangerous part of the tramways for a tram driver”. In addition, owing to the war, it was difficult to maintain the system and to obtain spares for the rails and trams.

In summary of the accident, although the verdict was that the driver had been at fault, it would appear that war-time conditions had their impact but that there was a slackness in the running and the upholding of the tram network beyond that.  Fortunately the prevailing conditions also led to the Corporation being able a little to ameliorate the effects of the accident. Owing to the air raids they had set up an organisation to manage emergencies and ensure prompt medical care. They had also bought and hired extra hospital beds. Casualties were being treated at the Royal Victoria Hospital until 10pm, with the help of two naval surgeons, and the soldiers had been removed to the Western Heights Hospital. Nevertheless, it was estimated that there was spare capacity for medical care for another thirty cases, should it have been required. The same was not true of the mortuary, which had room for only three bodies! The Market Hall was used instead.

[Information gathered from various Newspaper articles  in The Dover Express and East Kent News, The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph]

Next week in part two of this of this blog article, I will share some more information on Lottie Scrase.

RESEARCH UPDATE: I am slowing making my way through the Census records of England and Wales, such a time consuming job. At the moment I am still using Microsoft’s Excel to record the information (I am using separate worksheets for each area searched). I am currently looking at which program to use for recording the family reconstructions I am starting to produce, but as yet I am not sure which one to use 😮 .

Until next time………………………………..

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About Karen

Wife and mum of two who is a hobbyist photographer, a lover of books, genealogy and spending my free-time with my kids.
This entry was posted in Family History, Genealogy, GOONS and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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