The Yanwath railway explosion

The Yanwath railway explosion of 1867 killed two men instantly, woke people for miles around  – and had lasting effects for the village.

The Yanwath railway explosion outlined

The evening of Tuesday February 26, 1867, started out as a perfectly normal one for the residents of the quiet village of Yanwath.

The 1861 census shows the combined population of Yanwath and Eamont Bridge (then in Westmorland) to have been 381. 

Until the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway sliced through the countryside in 1844-46, life would have been even quieter. But villagers had had 21 years to get used the railway and when a goods train approached late that fateful night, it would have been ‘just another one’.

Except it wasn’t.

Because that goods train, running late from Tebay, was carrying two tons of gunpowder in one of its wagons.

And shortly before midnight, the Tebay train derailed – and another goods train came round the bend and smashed into the powder wagon.

The explosion was instantaneous – and deadly. ‘The driver and fireman of the up train were thrown into a field on the west side of the line, and were picked up dead.’ 

The fatalities

The Westmorland Gazette named them as engine driver John Little (actually Thomas Little), and stoker ‘- Butcher,’ (actually James Spencer) of Liverpool. Little was 31 and married, with children. Spencer was a few days short of his 19th birthday.

The Railways Archive link from which that quote comes is:


There, you can read an extract of the Accident Report into the explosion.

Scenes of devastation

The villagers weren’t just woken by the terrible and shocking sound of the Yanwath railway explosion. 

The blast blew out windows, felled telegraph wires, and debris from the engine and wagons rained down on homes and gardens.

It is incredible there weren’t more deaths, or injuries.

It was reported that: ‘A piece of the gunpowder magazine 8 feet long by 3 feet wide, and weighing upwards of 18 stone, was blown a distance of about

300 yards into a garden belonging to Mr Tremble, seedsman of Penrith, smashing the garden gate ‘to atoms’. 

The house was being rented by a James Gordon.

The Penrith Observer says seven windows in the house, including the stanchions, were blown in. While ’Mr Thompson’s barn, between Mr Gordon’s house and the line, was ‘nearly stripped.’

Another huge piece of iron was blown about 500 yards into a field on the west side of the line ; while a third piece struck the parapet of Yanwath Bridge, smashed the masonry for a few yards, and fell into a field. Yanwath’s famous Gate Inn was ‘very much shaken’.

The Carlisle Journal described the scene next day as ‘desolate’: village windows boarded up, and wreckage from the two trains strewn for 200-300 yards both sides of the tracks: ‘waggons without wheels, wheels without waggons… carpets, calico and wool in a smouldering state…’

The Gazette added: ‘At Mr Jackson’s house, a few yards further from the scene of the explosion than the public house, the windows shared the same fate, as did all of those of Mrs Jackson. 

‘At the Grotto, the residence of Cowper Esq, jun. the glasswork of the conservatory was smashed to pieces; and at Skirsgill Mansion, about a quarter of a mile distance from the railway, upwards of 40 panes of glass were broken’.

‘…In one house close to the line, the door was torn from its hinges, the lock of which was thrown with considerable violence against the wall where it stuck.’

Joseph Tremble

‘Mr Tremble the seedsman’ was Joseph Tremble (1828-1879). In 1861, he was still living with his widowed mother Mary in Halfway House, Bridge Lane, Penrith. 

His father, Joseph Tremble senior, had leased Halfway House in 1834 from owner Joseph Cowper (‘the ground is to become and be run as a nursery-garden only’).

Joseph Tremble senior’s wife Mary was née Mary Pears. She was born at Scales Hall, Skelton, in 1796, the daughter of Jonah Pears and Barbara (née Bowness).

Their memorial, at Barton Church, records: ‘In memory of Joseph Tremble of Yanwath Yeat, born at Kirkbride in Cumberland June 21st 1790, died at Halfway House, Penrith, February 12th 1861. Also of Mary his wife who died October 7th 1863 aged 67.’

The 1844 tithe map shows the relevant land and buildings were owned by William Jackson. By 1867, William Jackson junior and his sisters were the major land/property owners in the area still. However, the Trembles had nursery land at Yanwath. And an 1856 (and 1862) ‘to let’ notice offers:’a commodious and spacious dwelling house and farm buildings called Yanwath Yeat, with about 20 acres, including an extensive orchard: apply to the owner, Mr Tremble. (In 1864, Mr Tremble was also offering to let ‘the building and completing of four cottages’ at Yanwath).

Suitable for a genteel family

1867 October 22

PLEASANT RESIDENCE AT YANWATH, ONE MILE AND A HALF FROM PENRITH THE HIGH ROAD, ONE MILE AND A QUARTER BY FOOT WALK ON SOUTH SIDE THE RIVER EAMONT. LET, a good DWELLING HOUSE, Suitable for Genteel Family. Excellent GARDEN, well stocked with Fruit Trees. The number of Wall Trees in full bearing is 40. Excellent Out-offices, with Barn, Byre, Stable, and Cottage for Servant, opening out into valuable Four-acre Croft. Four other first class Grazing and Mowing FIELDS may had. The above may be taken from year to year, or for a term of years. The present tenant’s (Jas. Gordon, esq) term expires at Martinmas, and the premises may entered upon immediately after. This Advertisement will not be repeated, apply at once to Joseph Tremble and Sons, the owners, The Nurseries, Penrith. 

Not so pleasant after all

The 1867 Yanwath railway explosion caused serious damage to buildings in the village. A year later, Penrith coachbuilder Robert Graham Pears decided to move from the town and rent a farm and 64 acres of farmland at Yanwath.

And the buildings were those owned by Joseph Tremble – his third cousin.

It was a lovely idea. County air and space for Robert’s seven children (then aged 16 down to two years), and for him to enjoy his hobby: he was secretary of the Penrith Dog, Poulty and Pigeon Show committee, his interest being breeding prize poultry. An 1873 advert appeals for: ‘Wanted, a middle-aged man servant, must be a good milker and able to look after cattle. Apply Robert Graham Pears.’

But after just seven years, he had had enough. There is an advert offering 42 acres of land at Yanwath to let (owned by William Jackson and his sisters): being given up by Robert Graham Pears. An advert by Joseph Tremble offers the house and farm buildings etc to let from Lady Day 1875.

Third cousins on opposite sides

 In 1875, Robert Graham Pears and Joseph Tremble faced each other in court. Robert’s claim was for damage to hay and other crops stored in a barn rented from Tremble, caused by latter’s failure to repair the same: £30.

He further claimed £7 for damage to books, furniture and personal effects in the house, due to failure to repair the roof and walls. The premises had become damp, unsafe, and unfit for human habitation. 

The court heard that the farm had been taken on for ten years, but RGP broke the lease after seven, under mutual consent, as Tremble had failed his promise to repair the place. 

There were holes in the roof of the house and the barn was ‘little better than a ruin’.

So, why was it in such a state? General lack of maintenance, perhaps – but the Yanwath railway explosion had also played a part.

The sorry details

Robert Graham Pears said the rent was £79 10s a year. In 1867, the Yanwath railway explosion had ‘very much damaged the place,’ the magazine being blown over into the garden. The main walls and roof were very much shaken. The main walls were built with clay and porous. Tremble had promised to rough cast the walls, but hadn’t. 

The wallpaper, pictures, and clothing were spoiled, and they had to put pails in the bedrooms to catch the rain water.

The rent had been paid until the last year, but under protest.

The judge said Robert Graham Pears would have had a case if he’d brought it while living there, but couldn’t claim now as the lease had been ended (by mutual consent).

Tremble’s side then alleged the place had been left a mess, a number of valuable shrubs damaged, and Mr Pears had sold off manure arising from the premises. They claimed £45 for this, but the judge dismissed the claim.

The ‘dream’ may have ended in buckets in the bedrooms, but something good did come of the Pears family’s seven years in Yanwath.

For in 1872, eldest daughter Emma Pears married William Jackson.

And afterwards?

You can read what happened to the Yanwath property after the Pears left in this post on the charming Elizabeth Tremble

As for the railway – just a few weeks later, there was nearly another tragedy, had a local hero not risked his life to avert disaster. You can read that story here.