Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Madsham Line

The Railway Hotel,
Friday 2nd December, 1910

Dear Max,

Please find below a summary of my investigations into the various incidents at or around Madsham Tunnel this autumn, as requested by the Directors.

A little background for the Board may be in order. Madsham is a new town, which grew up around the station during the last century. It is overlooked on high ground to the north by Madsham-on-the-Hill, which was large and thriving in the Middle Ages, but is now an isolated and semi-abandoned hamlet. As far as the London & East Anglia Railway is concerned, the most important thing about Madsham-on-the-Hill is the fact that Madsham Tunnel passes under it. The tunnel is almost six hundred yards in length and until this year largely untouched since it was completed in 1857.

My investigations have revealed five occurrences which seem to have sparked most of the rumours. The most recent and serious, and of course the one which spurred the directors to commission this report, is the death of Thomas Potts. Potts was the driver on a train that left King’s Cross at 7.09 on the 16th November. It passed through Madsham as normal, but on the approach to the tunnel, just level with the signal box, Potts suddenly applied the brake. I have interviewed Jim Benton, the fireman, and he attests that Potts swore while doing this, something which he almost never did. The train came to a complete halt about halfway through the tunnel, at which point Potts jumped down from the cab and ran to the front of the train. Benton followed, and found Potts sprawled on the floor, having had a heart attack. He lost consciousness and died within an hour without giving any explanation of his behaviour. I have spoken to his widow, and to his brother, and neither have any idea as to what might have happened.

But I am a little ahead of myself, Max. Let me take things chronologically.


As you will be aware, a routine survey undertaken by our engineers in September uncovered weaknesses in the middle section of the tunnel, between one hundred and two hundred yards from the northern entrance. The decision was taken to begin strengthening work as soon as possible, and the repairs began on 7th October under the supervision of our Chief Engineer, Henry Miller.

During these works, on October 13th, there was a near-fatal accident, for which no explanation has yet been found. It involved a team of four labourers, under the supervision of foreman John Kemp, who were replacing worn-out brickwork. Kemp's statement, on the face of it, is ludicrous, but I feel compelled to state that in my considered opinion the man is not a fantasist or liar. He is a Methodist lay reader and a teetotaller, and his account is supported by a second man – Jeb Paton. Kemp and Paton both say that, while removing a layer of bricks, Kemp uncovered nothing less than the face of a man, seemingly set into the very fabric of the tunnel. Kemp says that it was “grim, strange and pale”, and dwells particularly on its eyes, which were, he said, “the worst thing I ever saw”. He was previously a soldier, and says that even seeing men terribly hurt in battle did not affect him as much as the sight of this face, seemingly built into a wall and certainly not, he says, a mask or painting or anything of that sort. 

The others, who did not see the face, recall exclamations of shock and horror from Paton and Kemp, as might be expected under the circumstances. It was just a few seconds later that the roof of the tunnel collapsed, at the very spot where the two had seen the face. All five men were lucky to escape with their lives, it seems. Several tons of masonry and earth fell on to the tracks and it took twenty men two days to shift it all, and another week to make good the tunnel roof. I must here repeat that the cause of the collapse remains a mystery. My lengthy discussions with Miller and other specialists have shed no light. 

I must relate one last strange detail, Max. During the cleanup, three highly unusual items were recovered - a complete human skull, with a considerable amount of long dark hair adhering to it, and a femur and tibia, also apparently human. The discovery of these items is attested by numerous reliable eyewitnesses, including Kemp, who was in charge of the working party clearing the rubble, but curiously it has not been possible to establish the current whereabouts of the bones. Kemp apparently handed them to his deputy, Joseph Morrison, for safekeeping. Morrison insists that he removed them to a nearby signal box. The signalman has no recollection of any such thing, and a thorough search of the box proved fruitless. What puzzles me is that I believe that all three men are telling the truth.


A week after the collapse, there was a break-in at Madsham goods yard. We have two key witnesses: a Company nightwatchman, Robert Murray, and PC Randall of the Madsham police, whose beat passes close by the yard and was in the habit of joining Murray on his rounds. Like Kemp, Murray is a steady, dependable man and has been with us for many years. Randall is young and prone to exaggeration, but diligent and not in my opinion actually dishonest.

Randall and Murray report that around midnight on October 21st, they saw a tall man in dark clothes moving between two lines of wagons. When challenged, the intruder fled towards the large repair shed on the west side of the yard. They gave chase, keeping the man in sight until he slipped in through a side door. Both of them swear faithfully that they actually saw him enter. They followed him in. Murray, who had a key, immediately locked the door – which ought to have been locked already – so that they could search the building without fear of the man doubling back and escaping the way he had come. They checked the shed’s other doors, and found that all were locked as normal. Concluding, reasonably, that their man was trapped somewhere in the shed, they conducted a thorough search, aided after ten minutes by two more constables.

No intruder was discovered, and no trace of one has been found subsequently. The two men are quite sure that no thief could possibly have escaped from the shed without their seeing him, and I am inclined to agree. It is deeply improbable that an intruder could have obtained a key to the shed doors – there are only three copies, all of which are accounted for – and in any case Randall and Murray would have heard the doors being unlocked, then opened and shut, and locked again. This mystery has led to the growth of an legend among the yard workers, of an invisible man who can walk through doors and walls as he pleases. 

If there were just one witness, especially if it were Randall, it might be put down to an overactive imagination, but both men saw the same thing and tell the same tale.


The Tunnel re-opened to all trains on 1st November. On the evening of the 4th, about 7pm, a London-bound service, due into Madsham at 7.02, was held at a red signal just outside the station for around three minutes, as a late-running eastbound freight train was passing through. The three rearmost carriages, which included the guard’s compartment, were still in the tunnel. The guard, Albert Smethwick, started walking forwards through the train, having remembered that an elderly lady who was alighting at Madsham had asked for assistance. He says that as he entered a first-class carriage, he saw a tall man in a long coat enter the carriage through the external door. He emphasises that the carriage was one of those which was in the tunnel at the time and so the man must have been loitering on the tracks in the tunnel prior to climbing on board.

Smethwick called out a challenge. The man ignored it and passed through the gangway into the next carriage, which was all first-class compartments. Smethwick set off in pursuit, and as he was passing into the next carriage was hit hard on the head from behind and briefly knocked unconscious. When he recovered a minute or two later, the train was just starting to move and there was no sign of either the mystery passenger, or any assailant, or a weapon. Smethwick’s inquiries established that no-one else had seen the man get on board, or pass through the train. No-one answering his description alighted at Madsham, and Smethwick was unable to locate the man anywhere on the train. He was positive that no-one could have been in a position to strike him at the time of the assault, and having stood in the same place in an identical carriage, I am inclined to agree.

I have, of course, considered the possibility that he is inventing the story from whole cloth, or at least exaggerating. There are no corroborating witnesses, although a local practitioner, Dr Stanton, remembers diagnosing a mild concussion, congruent with Smethwick having received a substantial blow from behind.


Matters came to a head with the events of 15th and 16th November. The 16th saw the death of the man Potts, as already described above, but the events of the afternoon of the 15th are quite as baffling.

At 3.25pm on the 15th, according to the station-master at the Junction, the driver of a southbound freight train angrily remonstrated with him about trespassers on the line at the Madsham end of the tunnel. As soon as he was able, the station master asked a local constable and two porters to go up to the tunnel and investigate.

I note in this connection that the driver who raised the alarm was not from Madsham, and was an employee of another company. He was a Yorkshireman who did not usually drive on this route. For this reason I consider it unlikely that his account was influenced by the gossip current in the town, and in the Company, about odd happenings at or near the tunnel.

It is about three-quarters of a mile from the station to the tunnel. The three men sent up there – a PC Reedham, and porters Johnson and Bruce – say they arrived about ten to four, by which time it was getting dark. It was a gloomy and overcast day, and the tunnel’s southern end is in a steep cutting, so visibility was poor. Reedham says that the signalman reported that he had not seen anyone all day, except his wife who had brought him up his lunch. I have spoken to the signalman, a Mr Turner, and it is true that he says he had not seen anyone.

The three men searched the cutting for any signs of trespass. Reedham suggested that they extend their search to the tunnel itself. The others were reluctant, but Reedham says he insisted. Having established with Turner that there was a fifteen-minute gap before the next train was due, they entered the tunnel, each equipped with a small handlamp.

We now come to a very strange few minutes. Turner says that about two or three minutes after the others entered the tunnel, he thinks he saw someone follow them in. He is unable to be certain – it was past four o’clock by this time, and the light had almost gone. There are lamps at the tunnel mouth, but the signal box is some distance away, and the steep walls of the cutting cast long shadows. He was unable to leave his post to investigate further, as Company rules forbid him from doing so. Instead he leaned out of his window and shouted a warning.

Reedham heard the shouting very faintly. By that time he estimates that he, Bruce and Johnson were about seventy yards or so into the tunnel. When he heard Turner, he feared that an unexpected train was coming and told the other two to move to the recessed path at the side of the tracks and go back towards the entrance. Bruce and Johnson, by their own admission, were glad to turn back.

Reedham, however, stayed behind. He says that as he was turning to go, he heard a noise behind him; “the sound of something striking an iron rail”, perhaps a brick or some masonry. Having heard about the cave-in a few weeks before, and knowing that a train was due, he decided to check that the track was clear, using his handlamp to find the way. After a minute or two, Reedham says, he was satisfied that there were no blockages on the rails. He was about to join the others, when he caught sight of someone moving just beyond the circle of light thrown by his lamp. He hurried after the man, heading further into the tunnel, but then stumbled against the wall and fell, breaking his handlamp in the process and badly spraining his ankle.

When he tried to get up, he says, he had a strong sensation that somebody was close by. He couldn’t give any detail or accurate description, it being nearly pitch dark. All he could really see, in his own words, was “a much deeper shadow amid the shadows”. Now I can honestly say that Reedham is probably the single most unimaginative man I have ever met. By his own account and by my observation, he is not at all given to fancies or tall tales. But he is quite insistent about what happened next. He states that the shadow in the shape of a man seemed to grow and block out the rest of the tunnel, and then he was hit hard on the back of the head.

He came to, groggy and disorientated, with his ears ringing and what he calls a feeling of oppression. As he looked around, he says, he saw quite clearly someone leaning down to help him up. It was the figure of a man, tall and well-built, with the face oddly shadowed and hidden. The man put out a hand, and Reedham was putting out his own hand and pushing himself to his feet when he heard Bruce shouting words to the effect of:

“For God’s sake, stay where you are! The express is coming through!”

Bruce and Reedham estimate that the train missed the latter by about two feet. Reedham is quite adamant that if he had moved towards the man who had been holding out a hand, he would have been right in the path of the train, and equally adamant that by rights the man himself should have been hit. But there was no sign of that having happened, and Bruce and Johnson both insist that they saw no-one else in the tunnel. Turner too saw no further signs of anything out of the ordinary. Nor did the crew of the express which almost hit Reedham notice anything. There was no sign of their locomotive having struck anyone or anything in Madsham Tunnel. 

I am sorry to say, Max, that – as with the other incidents – I can offer no real explanation. Having made a thorough inspection of the cutting and the tunnel, I have seen nothing to cast any doubt on any aspect of the testimony given by Reedham, Turner, Bruce and Johnson. The fences and gates close to the tunnel mouth are in good order and show no sign of tampering or intrusion. 

Appendix: my visit to Madsham-on-the-Hill

More than one person here, when they guessed or discovered the purpose of my stay, suggested that I pay a visit to Madsham-on-the-Hill. Old Madsham Manor stands on the hill almost directly above Madsham Tunnel, and knowledgeable locals report that Sir George Green has for several years been troubled by subsidence in the east wing. The hypothesis that the hill’s instability might have been responsible for the collapse in the tunnel seemed eminently worth investigating.

It is a steep climb. The lane is narrow and ill-kept, though a cheerful stream rushes alongside and the hedgerows, though sparse and bare now, are doubtless delightful in the spring and summer. The first building reached is the Green Man public house. Beyond that is Manor Farm, and then a row of small houses. A second farm is further away to the east. A few hundred yards on from the little houses the lane comes to an end in front of the gates of Old Madsham Manor.

I was admitted to the house by a magnificently stagey butler. I must say, Max, I liked Sir George, despite his old countryman’s prejudice against London lawyers. In keeping with the grand Victorian tradition, he is an amateur scholar of some repute in an obscure discipline – cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia – and an occasional inventor.

After some small talk and the discovery that I had once been a schoolmate of one of Sir George’s nephews by marriage, I asked him about his problems with the east wing. He was aware of the difficulties in the tunnel, though only in a vague way. I received the distinct impression that he lives a lonely life up there, uninvolved and uninterested in the comings and goings of the locality in a way that would barely have been conceivable for his father and grandfather.

When I raised the possibility of a connection between his structural problems and ours, he pointed out one very striking fact. The tunnel runs not just under the east wing, but also under the remains of an old chapel in the grounds. After lunch, the two of us walked down to what remains of this chapel, about a hundred yards from the house. It struck me as we did so that the Manor is not so high up as I had thought. It is not actually built on the highest point of Madsham Hill, but on ground that gently slopes away to the west – the same part of the hill through which the tunnel is built. The ruins of the chapel are a good four or five yards below the level of the house, and its crypt goes down several yards lower than that. To be clear: my estimate is that the vertical distance between the roof of the tunnel and the crypt of the ruined chapel is not more than forty feet.

I must say, Max, there are some odd details connected with the destruction of this chapel. Sir George’s father, Sir John, was violently irreligious and mentally erratic. He ordered the building to be torn down sometime in the late 1850s when Sir George was still a small boy, despite its having stood for almost four hundred years. Some time after that, when Sir George was about twelve years old, the local police conducted a wide-ranging search of the land around Madsham-on-the-Hill, including the Manor grounds, in connection with the disappearance of a local farmer some years before.

The man who disappeared, Aldridge by name, was the owner of a large farm which lay in the path of the Company's preferred railway route and was later sold to us by his grieving widow. Before he went missing in January 1857, Aldridge had been determined not to sell at any price, a decision which had caused great consternation to Sir John Green. Sir John, who was heavily indebted, stood to make a great deal of money from the sale of land to the Company if and only if Aldridge also agreed to sell his land. If we hadn’t been able to get hold of the Aldridge farm, the line would have been moved to an alternative route three miles to the west, well away from the Green estate. To put it bluntly, the death of Aldridge – if death it was, for no body was ever found – benefited Sir John to the tune of several tens of thousands of pounds, and the last place Aldridge was ever seen alive was in The Green Man, which is about six hundred yards from the Manor as the crow flies.

Sir George communicated all this as we stood amid the ruins of the chapel. It was a strange sort of atmosphere, Max, I must say. We could hear the whistles of the trains as they approached the tunnel on either side of the hill, and the sound came to us distorted and strangled by the wind. A fine rain was starting to blow in from the north. The scaffolding on the unstable east wing gave the place a look of decay and unease. And then Sir George asked if I wished to see the crypt. 

We descended a flight of wet and mouldering steps. By the light of an ancient oil-lamp, Sir George showed me the tombs of all his ancestors as far back as the Reformation. Every few minutes, the faint rumble of a train passing through the tunnel came up through our feet.

Then came the discovery which has layered yet more mystery and confusion over the incidents on the railway over the last few weeks, and has had me racking my brains for the last twenty-four hours. It only happened because Sir George happened to glance towards the back wall of the crypt as we ascended the stairs.

I didn’t realise what he was looking at, until he took a few steps across the floor and held up his lamp, and then I saw it too; a long crack, about two inches wide and extending the whole width of the crypt, running diagonally down towards the south-eastern corner. He insisted that the crack had not been there the last time he came in to the crypt a few weeks before. As we moved a little closer I saw that where the crack met the floor was a stone slab, of the kind that covered the various tombs. But this was not one of the family graves. It was simply a large blank block of stone, and it was not flush with the floor. Rather, it was slightly raised up and askew, as if it had been opened recently. Between us we moved it just enough so that we could look underneath, and by the light of our lamps we saw a vast space in the earth that seemed to have been emptied out.

The chamber was much, much too big to have been the work of any animal, and there were no signs of animals in it. At the very bottom, about fifteen feet below, I thought I could see some rags of clothing. 

Sir George was utterly mystified and incredulous. The crypt, he says, is barely ever opened, and he is the only keyholder. The plot in question has never been used; has never been opened or dug, to the best of his knowledge. He is entirely at a loss to account for the excavations, and his conversation as we returned to the house was full of genuine bafflement. For myself, I walked back down into the town shortly afterwards, to the reassuringly busy public bar of the hotel. There I sat with a drink, enjoying bustle and warmth away from the chilly remoteness of the crypt.

Nevertheless, Max, I couldn’t stop thinking about the pile of ragged clothes. Hard as it was to distinguish any individual item, I am quite sure of one thing. Sticking out from under the pile, somewhat decayed yet unmistakeable, were a pair of farmer’s boots.

        Author's note: this report was found among the personal effects of Mr Edward Watson, of the London & East Anglia Railway Company, following his death in the Madsham rail disaster of 3rd December 1910. 

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