The school trip that ended in horror - and inspired extraordinary bravery

Three were killed and dozens injured in the train crash in 1964
-Credit: (Image: Manchester Evening News)

It's been 60 years since the residents of Stockport could only watch in horror as a tragedy played out in front of their eyes. But what they did next was extraordinary.

On the morning of May 28, 1964, a train carrying more than 230 children ploughed into a bridge in Cheadle Hulme. The trainload of schoolchildren and their teachers were travelling from Gnosall in Staffordshire for a day out at York Minster.

At around 9.40 am, the train travelling at speed reached Cheadle Hulme Station when one of the carriages began to rock from side-to-side. Eyewitness reports said the erratically moving carriage then rolled over on its side with a deafening crash.

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It was dragged on by the train and then the carriages behind it fell away, smashing into the bridge over Station Road and destroying the platform. People could only look on in horror at the carnage left on the tracks in front of them.

The Stockport Advertiser reported at the time how Cheadle Hulme became a 'village of horror... and heroism' as people rushed to help injured children. Adding: "There was a loud grinding noise, then a terrifying roar.

"It reached a frightening crescendo of splintering woodwork and tearing metal... then there was a silence. Tragedy came to a stunned Station Road."

The Manchester Evening News reported that "sandwiches, sweets, and comics, lay strewn among the tangled tracks" - the belongings of the children onboard. Badly injured children and teachers were trapped inside the carriages, or thrown onto the tracks from one of the carriages that had plunged onto its side.

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The tragedy took the lives of three people. Eight-year-old Christine Heffernan and 12-year-old Lewis Stevens, alongside Mr M Pedley - a railway representative from Burton-on-Trent who was travelling with the party - were all killed, with dozens more injured.

But what was astonishing is that more people were not killed in the devastating crash. One railway official said: "It is nothing short of a miracle. When you look at the damage to the carriages it is hard to believe that so many got out uninjured."

In the station there was a scene of utter devastation, with five wrecked carriages leaning at crazy angles, the bridge was partly demolished and the station platform had completely shattered. Many eye-witnesses were reported to have "wept openly" looking at the scenes after the crash. But large numbers of people ran straight into the twisted metal and rubble to help.

Devastated train carriages following the crash. May 1964
Diagram of Cheadle Hulme train crash in 1964

Mr Donald Pimlott, a butcher, of Swann Lane, Cheadle Hulme, told of coming to the rescue of a badly injured 10-year old girl. She told him: "Am I dreaming - I must be dreaming."

Mr Pimlott, added: "She was dreadfully conscious. I talked to her to comfort her."

Dozens of women were reported to have climbed up the steep embankment to the scene of devastation, and tore up clothing to attend to the injured. Others brought tea to the struggling rescue workers who had arrived quickly on scene.

Carriages and station platform torn to pieces following the crash in Cheadle Hulme, May 1964
Rescue teams try to free children and teachers from the wreckage

Among the horror and terror there were acts of tremendous bravery and decency. One seriously injured nine-year-old child travelling on the train was John 'Tich' Gibson.

He was trapped in an overturned coach for an hour - and described by an ambulance man as "the bravest kid I've ever seen". Trapped between a rail and girder with his head resting on a sleeper, the nine-year old's courage amazed his rescuers.

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He talked to firemen and doctors as they fought to free him and "never once complained". He was finally freed and taken to hospital with terrible injuries which resulted in having his arm amputated - but miraculously he survived.

Another incredible story was that of Mary Tiernan. The nine-year old lay in coma, critically injured with head wounds as well as fractured bones and burns at Manchester Royal Infirmary.

Cheadle Hulme rail crash 1964. An Ambulance man comforts this little girl who collapsed with shock after the crash
Devastated train carriages following the crash. May 1964

Nicknamed 'Sleeping Beauty' by reporters, she woke up three months later in hospital. Her first words were 'There's my daddy." She went on to make a full recovery.

Those who were not injured were reportedly taken to the nearby Methodist Hall where they sat in quiet groups while local women and social workers made tea. Many of the children cried while others "sat huddled and quivering with nerves" in the arms of teachers.

A lot of the teachers were injured themselves with "torn clothes and bloodstained faces" but they sang songs to calm the children like 'Ten Green Bottles' and gave out pop and cakes.

Speaking to the Manchester Evening News on the 50th anniversary of the crash in 2014, Frank Stringer, then aged 24, was a driver with the Cheshire County Ambulance service and was dropping patients off at Cheadle Royal Hospital when he was called to the station.

Frank Stringer of Heald Green was an ambulance worker on scene at the Cheadle Hulme train crash in May 1964. Frank pictured in May 2014
Carriages and station platform torn to pieces following the crash in Cheadle Hulme, May 1964

He witnessed the aftermath of the horror. He told the M.E.N: "My job when I got to the scene was to take the injured to Stockport Infirmary on Wellington Road South.

"I took two casualties and then returned to the scene where I was instructed to go to a nearby school hall and play the piano to entertain the injured children. Luckily, there was a reporter there called Brian Trueman who could play so I was relieved of my duties. I then helped to clear the track and look for more casualties."

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Frank, a grandad from Heald Green, later became a police officer at Manchester Airport. He continued: "When I got the initial call, I think my adrenaline was racing. I was just there to do my job.

"I think the scene affected some of the older ambulance men. It is a day that should be remembered."

Adding: "It was a big day for Cheadle Hulme and all the community who pulled together."

And it was the emergency services that Frank was part of that were praised for their immediate action. At Stockport Infirmary, doctors stood by to perform emergency operations while rest centres were set up around the disaster scene for the children who escaped physically unhurt, while the wreckage continued to be searched for trapped survivors.

British Rail officials later also thanked all the people living near the line who had helped with first-aid and the organisation of rest centres while supplying the professional rescue teams with refreshments. Like Frank said, it was in those moments of horror that the people pulled together.

An investigation by the Ministry of Transport found the accident was down to driver error and the train being driven at excessive speed.