On this day in history….12th June 1889

On this day in history : 12th June 1889 – 89 people are killed and over 170 are injured in the Armagh rail disaster, in Northern Ireland – nearly a third are children…. It remains Ireland’s worse ever rail disaster….

Public domain – photographer unknown

Each year the Armagh Abbey Street Methodist Church would hold a Sunday School excursion to Warrenpoint, a resort town on the northern shore of Carlingford Lough, about an hours train journey away…. The traditional day trip was extremely popular and open to all; lots of different religions:- Catholics, Church of England, Presbyterian and Methodists – of all classes joined in….

This particular year the demand for places was especially high and a special train with extra carriages was laid on…. Accompanied by the band of the Royal Irish Fusiliers around 940 passengers boarded the train – the doors were locked behind them to prevent non-ticket holders from boarding….and the train departed at 10.15am….

Three miles out of the city they ran into problems; the train tried to pull up the Armagh Bank, a gradient of 1.75…. The weight of the train, some 186 tons not including the engine, was too much – and on reaching Derry’s Crossing, almost at the top, the train stalled…. Realising it would be impossible to restart with that much weight it was decided to decouple the front four carriages and take them on to Hamiltons Bawn – and then return for the remaining eight….

Map of the Railway between Armagh and Hamiltons Bawn – Image credit: Afterbrunel (talk) (uploads) – Public domain

The handbrake was applied in the guard’s carriage at the rear – but as an added precaution large stones were placed behind the wheels of the waiting carriages…. However, the stones could not hold the weight and were crushed as the carriages began to roll back…. The runaway train gathered speed and finally crashed into the 10.35 – a powerful engine with a light load – at about 40mph…. There was little damage to the 10.35 but the last three carriages of the Sunday School special and their occupants were obliterated…. 64 were declared dead at the scene and over the following days this number rose…. The names of those who died are recorded in Abbey Street Methodist Church….

Illustrated London News, June 22, 1889 – Public domain
Recently installed memorial in The Mall, Armagh – commemorating the Armagh railway disaster

On this day in history….9th June 1873

On this day in history : 9th June 1873 – After only being open to the public for 16 days Alexandra Palace in London is destroyed by fire…. Less than two years later a new Palace opens….


The ‘Palace of the people’ had been an idea conceived in 1859 by Owen Jones, an English-born Welsh architect…. Designed to compliment South London’s Crystal Palace it was to provide the Victorians with a place of recreation, entertainment and education….

Alexandra Palace was built by Kelk and Lucas (who also built the Royal Albert Hall around the same time) – and many of the building materials used were recycled from the 1862 International Exhibition building in South Kensington, after it was demolished…. In 1871 work started on the Edgware, Highgate and London Railway to connect the site to Highgate Station…. Both Palace and railway were completed in 1873….

The grand opening took place on the 24th of May 1873, Queen Victoria’s 54th birthday….with concerts, recitals and fireworks…. In its first couple of weeks over 120,000 people were to visit….but then sixteen days after it opened disaster struck…. A fire in the dome quickly caught hold and all that was left standing were the outer walls…. Three members of staff lost their lives – and a loan exhibition of some 4,700 pieces of historic English pottery and porcelain was destroyed….

Original Alexandra Palace on fire in 1873 – Illustrated London News – PD-US

However, the Victorians were never ones to hang around…. Within two years, on the 1st of May 1875, a new Palace opened…. Covering 7.5 acres, the new Palace and surrounding Park boasted many features….centred around the Great Hall with its new Henry Willis organ – one of the largest in Europe at the time…. As well as the Hall a museum, lecture hall, library, banqueting room, a large theatre and art galleries were all included…. The grounds held a Japanese village, boating lake, nine-hole pitch and put golf course – and even the Alexandra Palace Racecourse….London’s only racecourse from 1868 until its closure in 1970….

Rebuilt Palace in 1875 – Illustrated London News PD-US

Of course the Ally Pally continues to be a leading venue for arts, sport and entertainment….but not without having to be largely rebuilt once again after being ravaged by fire…. In 1980 much of the building was destroyed when a fire broke out under the Henry Willis organ….

Image: John Bointon CC BY-SA 2.0

On this day in history….5th April 1847

On this day in history : 5th April 1847 – The opening of Birkenhead Park, Merseyside…. Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton it is the first publicly funded park in the World….

Birkenhead Park – Image credit: Benkid77 via flickr

The idea was to create a countryside landscape of open meadows, lakes and woodland – a green oasis in an urban landscape…. It was a turning point in social development at a time of poor health conditions as a result of the industrial revolution…. With its Roman Boathouse and Swiss Bridge it was meant as a ‘Park for the People’….

Public money was used to buy 226 acres of marshy grazing land….plots around the edge of the proposed park were sold off to help fund the project…. It took five years to complete – the design by Joseph Paxton but the building work supervised by Edward Kemp – both of whom had worked on the redesigning of the gardens at Chatsworth House…. The entrances, gateways, lodges and other structures were designed by architects Lewis Hornblower and John Robertson….

The Grand Entrance – ReptOn1x CC BY-SA 3.0

It was opened by Lord Morpeth, 7th Earl of Carlisle and around 10,000 people attended the opening…. The Park inspired the design of Central Park in New York….

Having been designated a conservation area in 1977 this was then upgraded by English Heritage to a Grade 1 listed historic landscape and conservation area in 1995…. By the end of the 20th century it had become rundown and neglected – and underwent an £11.5m renovation project which was completed in 2007…. Paths were improved, trees and shrubs replanted and the lakes emptied, cleaned and reshaped – restoring the Park to its former Victorian magnificence….

The Gabled Cricket Pavilion – ReptOn1x CC BY-SA 3.0

A new visitor’s centre and cafe were built and a children’s play area added…. It is home to two cricket clubs, a rugby club and has tennis courts, football pitches, bowling greens, two fishing lakes, a fitness trail and woodland walks…. Still a green oasis in an urban landscape….

Map of Birkenhead Park

On this day in history….29th March 1871

On this day in history : 29th March 1871 – The Royal Albert Hall in London is opened by Queen Victoria…. Originally it was to be called The Central Hall of Arts and Sciences….img_2677

Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, had a vision borne from the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851 – a venue to promote the understanding and appreciation of the arts and sciences…. After his death from typhoid fever in 1861 the plans were shelved – but later revived by his collaborator on the Great Exhibition, Henry Cole…. Inspired by the ancient Roman amphitheatres Cole’s original intention had been for an establishment to hold 30,000 people – but this was revised to 7,000 for financial and practicality reasons; nowadays, due to safety regulations it has a capacity of 5,500….

On the 20th of May 1867 Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone…. A special marquee designed to accommodate 7,000 was erected – but it was more like 10,000 who packed in to witness Her Majesty lay the red Aberdeen granite block…. Beneath the stone was placed a time capsule which has lain undisturbed ever since…. Inside we know are some gold and silver coins and an inscription from Prime Minister Edward Smith-Stanley…. Of what else lies in the capsule little is known; the foundation stone is now located in the K stalls, row 11, under seat 87 in the main auditorium….img_2676

Queen Victoria, who was still in mourning and wearing all black, was rarely seen in public…. As the stone was laid she said “It is my wish that this Hall should bear his name to whom it will have owed its existence and be called The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Science”…. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave the benediction and a composition by Prince Albert ‘Invocation to Harmony’ was performed by an orchestra…. The ceremony was closed by a 21 gun salute from Hyde Park and a trumpet fanfare by Her Majesty’s Life Guards….

The Hall at the opening ceremony, seen from Kensington Gardens. Public domain

At the opening ceremony of the Royal Albert Hall, some four years later, Queen Victoria was so overcome with emotion that her son, Edward Prince of Wales, had to make a speech on her behalf…. Her only recorded words of the day being that it reminded her of the British constitution….img_2678

On this day in history….26th March 1885

On this day in history : 26th March 1885 – The first official British cremation takes place at Woking Crematorium in Surrey…. It is the first of only three cremations in this year….

Woking Crematorium – Image courtesy of PicturePrince via Wikimedia

With the arrival of Christianity came the belief that cremation was a Pagan practice that made resurrection after death totally impossible…. However, by the late 19th century attitudes were changing – albeit very slowly…. Burial grounds were fast filling up – and there were those who raised concerns about the hygiene of burials…. Victorian funerals were elaborate, extremely expensive affairs – and for many, unaffordable….cremation offered a cheaper alternative to burial…. However, there were plenty who were terrified of the idea – of not actually being dead and being burned alive….

Woking Crematorium was founded in 1878 on land purchased by Sir Henry Thompson, Physician to Queen Victoria and a founder and President of the Cremation Society of Great Britain…. Seven years later the first cremation was to take place – that of a woman identified in The Times only as ‘a well-known figure in literary and scientific circles’….

Sir Henry Thompson

The woman in question was writer and painter Jeanette Pickersgill…. Born Jeannette Caroline Grover in Amsterdam around 1814, she had married Henry Hall Pickersgill, an English artist, on the 20th of July 1837, in Soho, London…. Jeanette was an accomplished artist herself, her work being exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1848 – 1863….

Her cremation took place six days after her death – which had been certified by two doctors to be on the ‘safe side’ – and the cremation process was completed within an hour and a quarter…. Hers was the first of three cremations performed in 1885 – a year that saw a total of 597,357 recorded deaths in the United Kingdom….

In 1892 a further crematorium was established in Manchester, followed by Glasgow in 1895 and Liverpool in 1896…. By 1901 there were six functioning crematoriums – but even so, out of 551,585 deaths that year only 427 bodies were cremated…. London’s first crematorium, at Golders Green, came into operation in 1902…. Nowadays over 70% of those who die are cremated….