The White House Tunnel disaster

White House Tunnel

(picture from SWOP website)

The White House Tunnel disaster occurred on Sept 6th 1902. It was on Friday 5th Sept that the tunnel was cut through under White House Farm, Loudwater, and work commenced on widening the hole. Day and night shifts were in operation. That night the men began work in the centre of the tunnel.
At 1.30 am on Saturday the tunnel collapsed. Six men were buried instantaneously, 3 men were injured but survived: John Waters (Irish Jack) - dislocated shoulder, brothers Bertram Smith (knocked clear of main fall) and Charles Smith (severely crushed) - but not related to George Smith who died (see below).
Bertram Smith was first to be brought out, John Waters next, then Charles Smith. Charles was taken to Wycombe Cottage Hospital.
9.38am local man Harry Morton's body was recovered. He was badly crushed. His elderly mother was 'prostrated with grief and her life was for a long time despaired of'.
At 1.45pm George Smith's body was recovered from tunnel (he was from Romford)
3.00pm John Read's body recovered (little or nothing known about him)
5.30pm Arthur Palmer (from Luckington, Wiltshire)
6.00pm Walter Knight (possibly from Weybridge)
9.00pm Sunday night! William Palmer (uncle of Arthur - but about the same age and from the same place)
On Monday at 11.00am an inquest opened at the Mother Redcap (now an Indian restaurant) where the bodies had been taken. The jury were local men from Wooburn.
Local woman Elizabeth Brown identified the body of George Smith. Superintendent Summers said 'I should like to say in regard to this witmess that she has been of great assistance to us. She washed all the bodies and laid them out, and her assistance was invaluable'.
Five victims of the disaster were buried in High Wycombe Cemetery on Tuesday 9th Sept in the following order:- Walter Knight (Cousin Walt), George Smith, Arthur Palmer, William Palmer (nephew and uncle but virtually the same age), John Reed (Smiling Johnnie). The only local man killed in the disaster, Harry Morton (nicknamed 'Smoker'), was buried two days later - which seems rather sad with the benefit of hindsight but it was probably due to the illness of his mother. Harry was buried in High Wycombe Cemetery on Thursday 11th Sept.
(The Palmer family travelled from Wiltshire to attend the funeral).
More details about the disaster, the route of the cortege and the burials appear in the South Bucks Standard of Friday 12th September with lots of gory details and a lengthy description of the funeral. The funeral was paid for by Messrs Pauling and Co (the tunnel contractors who had sublet the job to a Mr Aaron Arnold) and they also gave their workers a half day so that they could attend the funeral.
"Along the route of the funeral a collection was made for the purpose of defraying the cost of the erection of a tombstone in memory of the men." Since there were huge numbers of people who came to show their respect along the route that must have been quite a collecton. Huge crowds also gathered in the cemetery. (The funeral directors were Hunts who also now reside in the same cemetery, along Lime Avenue). The monument to the 'Railway Six' was erected by public subscription and has recently been given a 'new look' by the Council. It is a half column representing life cut short. (In 1859 5 deaths had taken place in a railway construction fall between Wycombe and West Wycombe).

Contributed by Sally Scagell Peace 2012

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