Sunday, 14 February 2021

Numurkah Railway Tragedy

Numurkah Railway Station c.1908
State Library of Victoria

Numurkah Railway Station opened in 1881 as the terminus of the railway line from Shepparton. The town expanded as the farmers of North-East Victoria brought their wheat harvests into town to be transported. The railway line was further extended in 1888 to Strathmerton, Cobram and Nathalia and then further to Picola in 1896. With the development of the railways, there came the inevitable accidents. Local papers reported many mishaps. A nine year old girl survived a fall from a moving train after she lent on a door with a faulty catch, a train ran into a laden coal wagon, when a switch hadn't been changed back to the main line, a train ploughed through gates narrowly missing the lady trying to open them and a drunk fell from the platform, smashed both ankles and survived being run over by a wagon. Another drunk wasn't so lucky.

Railway Lines c.1930

By far the saddest report, which was picked up by newspapers around the country, was the tragedy that occurred on 5 October 1905. On this hazy Thursday evening, with only a half moon for light, a buggy carrying six people was hit by a train at Allan's Crossing, about two and a half miles from Numurkah, resulting in the death of three people. The buggy, pulled by two horses, was being driven by Mr. George Russell, with him were his two daughters Edith, 20 and Winnie 16, Annie and Lily Callender and Orlando Purton, 14. Mr. Russell, Winnie and Orlando died whilst being taken by the train for treatment after the accident, Annie and Lily suffered serious injuries and Edith survived unscathed. The bodies of the deceased remained in the waiting room of the Numurkah Station until released by the Coroner on the Friday evening, despite a request by police for an earlier release to their families. 

The town of Numurkah mourned. Mr. Russell was from a local firm of Auctioneers & Commissioner Agents. His partner, Mr. Reynoldson was the representative for Deniliquin in the State Assembly. Annie Callender was the daughter of Numurkah Butcher, Robert Callender and Lily was the daughter of Samuel Callender, also of Numurkah. George Russell had lived in Numurkah for 27 years and was well known not just for his work, but his invovlement on several boards and his charitable endeavours. A large funeral for George and Winnie Russell was held 7 October 1905 and Orlando Purton's on the following day. Orlando's parents were not well off and generous donations paid for the the funeral and more.

Funeral of George & Winnie Russell
The Numurkah Leader, Fri 13 Oct 1905

An Inquest was held, before the funeral, on the Saturday morning, 7 October by the Coroner, Mr. Read Murphy, P. M. where Edith Russell, the surviving daughter, the engine driver, William Welsh and the Fire Guard all gave evidence. There were representatives for the Russell family, the Railway Department and the Crown. As the evidence unfolded, it appeared this was an accident that could easily have been avoided. Edith stated they were all aware of the train as they travelled in the same direction along the road parallel to the railway line, although she was unsure whether the train whistle had blown. They were returning from a day at the Nathalia Show. As they drew closer to the crossing which was at an angle to the road, her father whipped the horses as he believed he could beat the train, which they had also thought and it wasn't until the last minute when they turned to cross the track that they realized the danger and yelled to stop. It was too late, the train hit them. Edith said she was seated between her father and Orlando and remembered a big bump and coming to on the ground. She also added her father was a good driver and perfectly sober. The engine driver and the guard both said the whistle had been sounded, the lights were in good order and they were travelling at a rate of 30 miles per hour.

"Mr. Read Murphy said it was perfectly clear that Mr. Russell had seen the train a long distance off. The whistle was sounded and the lights in good order. No blame was attachable to anyone. Mr. Russell had formed an inaccurate idea of the distance. He (Mr. Murphy) did not intend to make any comment. Nothing had any effect on the public who regarded too highly the danger connected with these crossings. He found the deceased came by their death by being run over by a train at Allan's Crossing." The Argus (Melbourne) 9 October 1905.

It was considered an accident, but one can't help but wonder whether the same verdict would be given today.

 A chilling postscript to this story appeared in the Euroa Advertiser, 20 October 1905. Winnie Russell had recounted a bad dream to her mother on the morning of the accident. "Oh mother, I have had such a terrible dream. I dreamt that father and I were killed." When her mother asked how, her reply was " I don't like to tell you, it is too terrible." Another daughter, Elsie, away at school in Melbourne, had made an unexpected visit home on 28 September, the week before the accident, because she too had had a bad dream. In her dream she had been summoned home because Winnie and her father had been killed, which is exactly what happened a week later! 


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