Killed by a train in a dark tunnel, late at night. One night in 1895, a coal miner from Clifton working at Helensburgh’s Metropolitan Colliery, took a fatal walk through one of Helensburgh’s train tunnels. His name is Robert Hails and his death in the railway tunnel is the subject of this article.
Robert was born 9 Nov 1855 in Southwick, Durham, England and migrated to Brisbane, Australia in 1876 at age 20. Robert made his way to Newcastle in NSW, where he was to meet his future wife Isabella Court. It appears that Isabella and Robert moved several times during their marriage between Newcastle and the Illawarra district, most likely in search of employment.
In the year 1893, Robert commenced work as a Coal Miner at Helensburgh’s Metropolitan Colliery, living with he’s large family at Clifton (wife and six children). Two years later on a Wednesday night, Robert decided to stay at Helensburgh late into the early hours of Thursday, 13th May 1895. Upon going home, Robert choose to walk through the tunnels.
The following is an excerpt that appeared in the “Illawarra Mercury” dated 15th June 1895:
A miner named Robert Hails was run over by a train and killed early on Thursday morning in one of the tunnels near Helensburgh railway station. He had stayed rather late in the township and on going home had to pass though the tunnel where the accident occurred. The driver of the train, feeling that something had been run over, stopped the train and went back, and found the deceased lying dead and terribly bruised. One leg was cut off and carried about two chains from the body. The stationmaster was roused, and the Helensburgh police communicated with, and the body was conveyed to a hotel for the inquest. The deceased, who was 39 years of age, leaves a widow and six children unprovided for.
Evidence was given by Isabella Hails (wife of the deceased), William Hanley, James Gordall, Henry Jeffreys (driver of the engine) Thomas Smith (guard), and the local constable (J.H. Wilkinson). The jury returned the following verdict – ‘That deceased came to his death by injuries accidentally received on the 13th of May through being run over by a passing train – No.67 – in No. 2 tunnel on the Illawarra line. We desire to add the deceased was trespassing on the line, and great credit is due to the driver and guard in calling instant attention to the accident and stopping the train’.
– A ‘chain’ is a unit of measurement equal to the length of one cricket pitch. (1 chain = 100 links = 4 rods = 20.1168m)
Robert’s life came to an end after being hit and run over by a train on the Helensburgh Railway line, in 1895. Robert was buried in an unmarked grave in the Church of England section at Helensburgh Cemetery. His daughter, Sarah was buried with her father when she died four years later. Several members of the Hails and related families were also later buried alongside Robert, including his daughter, Mary and her family, his wife Isabella, her second husband, Benjamin Batey and their infant son, Benjamin.
Interestingly the Illawarra Mercury article refers to Robert being killed in the No. 2 tunnel on the Illawarra line. The No.2 tunnel is the Cawley Tunnel. The article goes on to say that Robert had stayed late in the township, and that on going home he had to pass through a tunnel. Also stated is how the train driver found the deceased, then went and woke the stationmaster at Helensburgh. The train driver would have possibly had to move the train to the Helensburgh siding to inform the stationmaster of the incident as to not affect other traffic on the line that early morning. In another article found recently it is stated that the train originates from Sydney heading southbound. Helensburgh Stations siding could only be accessed quickly by up trains (but down trains could if they reversed); and it was very limited in its size and length due to being nestled in between Helensburgh and Metropolitan Tunnels. The loop at Cawley was not opened until 22 November 1901, and the Lilyvale siding (Saywell’s siding, later named Vickery’s siding), on 30 October 1900. There is the likely possibility that the driver of No.67 train from Sydney might have just parked it on main line.
It seems a stretch that on a Wednesday night, Robert would have knocked off work at the mine to make his way to Cawley for a late one. The Cawley township is roughly 2 miles (3.2km) north of the Metropolitan Colliery, the completely opposite direction to his home in Clifton. Cawley railway station was largely being used for the receipt of goods for works on the railway, and to deliver supplies for the Metropolitan Colliery. By 1895, 7 years had passed since most of the railway workers, (gangers) had move further down the rail line to finish its construction. The township of Cawley had all but disappeared by the late 1890’s-1900’s. To have Robert visit there late on a Wednesday night just doesn’t add up, but is plausible.
It is possible that Robert did indeed complete a 2 mile/3.2 km journey by road or a 1.2km journey to Cawley by walking the rail alignment for a late one, but I have reservations. It is reasonable to believe Robert was likely visiting a workmates home or an establishment on the lands immediately above the Helensburgh Railway Station. If he had visited West Helensburgh which development had commenced by this time, it would be reasonable to assume that he would have travelled along the track to the mine (present day access road), and over a bridge which would have taken him through both Lilyvale Tunnels. (Many residence at the time used this passage to travel to Bulgo, Burning Palms etc; even though it technically was trespassing).
In another article I have found recently from the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal – Friday 14 June 1895, gives us another clue or insight into where Robert died.
The article goes on to say in part:
“A wire from Wollongong says : — News is just to hand of a train fatality which occurred in the first tunnel this side of Helensburgh this morning, A miner named Robert Hailes, residing near Helensburg, was returning by way of the railway line to his home from Helensburg late last night, when it is believed he fell asleep on the line in the tunnel. As a pick up train from Sydney was passing through early this morning, the driver found they had passed over a body.”
Another article, this time from the South Australian Chronicle – Saturday 15 June 1895 goes on to say:
“He had apparently gone to sleep on the line in a short tunnel as he was returning home late last night from work.”
Some new information comes to light in these articles. Firstly, is that the fatality occurred in the “first tunnel this side of Helensburgh”, (remember the ‘wire’ was from Wollongong), and that the No.67 Train had come from Sydney [heading southbound]. Secondly, in the South Australian Chronicle article; “he had gone to sleep on the line in a short tunnel“
The first tunnel this side of Helensburgh (Wollongong side), could be open to several interpretations; like the Otford Tunnel, Lilyvale Tunnels 1 & 2, and the Metropolitan Tunnel. What does narrow the potential location, is where the second article states he was asleep in a short tunnel. Tunnels in the area are listed below, but I’ll mention them here: No.5 tunnel – (Lilyvale No.1 tunnel) 80m and No.3 tunnel – (Helensburgh tunnel) 80m. (Incidentally Cawley Tunnel [Tunnel No. 2], is the fifth largest tunnel out of the eight tunnels in the area at the time).
The Illawarra Mercury article states that the jury returned the verdict that Robert Hails was killed in the No.2 tunnel (Cawley Tunnel) on the Illawarra line.
With so many conflicting reports, I’m yet to be fully convinced that Robert died in, (or immediately near) the Cawley Tunnel. Unfortunately it still brings me no closer (in my mind) to the exact location (Tunnel) in which Robert’s life came to an end; with Lilyvale Tunnel No.1 being the most likely.
Still so many questions unanswered in this story of Robert Hails; and without further evidence, the whole true story will remain a mystery. (Just the way I like it.)
To end this on a brighter note; I did managed to locate Robert’s unmarked plot in the Helensburgh Cemetery. A couple of years ago, I made a headstone and erected it; it still stands today.
Rest In Peace Robert.
Tunnels on the Illawarra line in and around the Helensburgh area late 1880’s:
No.1 tunnel – (Waterfall tunnel) 221m
No.2 tunnel – (Cawley tunnel) 381m
No.3 tunnel – (Helensburgh tunnel) 80m
No.4 tunnel – (Metropolitan tunnel) 624m
No.5 tunnel – (Lilyvale No.1 tunnel) 80m
No.6 tunnel – (Lilyvale No.2 tunnel) 322m
No.7 tunnel – (Otford tunnel) 1550m
No.8 tunnel – (Clifton tunnel) 1000m
* Correction – In the Illawarra Mercury article, it appears the year 1895 is correct but the month was incorrect. Robert died on the 13th of May 1895 when it was actually the 13th June 1895. Thanks to Natasha Watson for uncovering a correction regarding Robert Hails date of death.
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