A Royal Mishap

May it please Your Royal Highness, On behalf of the citizens of Perth, the capital city of the State of Western Australia, we, the Mayor and councillors, beg to tender to Your Royal Highness a loyal and hearty welcome.

PrinceAnd welcome him they did. The people of Perth lined the streets and cheered loudly as Prince Edward, standing in a car specially provided for him, acknowledged the thousands who came into town to see him.

The official schedule for his visit was jam-packed. The Prince was not only staying in Perth, he was spending 10 days in Western Australia and was visiting some of the country towns.

He was to travel to each destination by railway (the fastest way to travel in 1920) and, in order to ensure that the Prince travelled in the comfort he was accustomed to, a special carriage was constructed and fitted out accordingly.

On 4 July 1920, after spending four days attending various events in Perth and Fremantle, the Prince and his retinue departed Perth Train Station for the southwest. Their first stop was Pemberton where they would inspect the timber country and the mills.

When he arrived on the following day the rain was falling heavily and the morning was described by The Daily News as “a cheerless spirit-damping day“. Irrespective of the wintry weather, the schedule went ahead as planned. The party breakfasted on board the train and then departed to spend the day in the bush, admiring Western Australia’s timber industry. Leaving Pemberton in the afternoon, their next destination was Bridgetown.

After briefly stopping at Jarnadup (today Jardee) station, the train continued north towards Bridgetown. En route, at about 2:45 pm, Prince Edward was in his carriage when he heard an odd noise. He remarked to Admiral Halsey (his Chief of Staff) that the wheels sounded as though they were grating on the sleepers. They sat motionless to listen to the sound when the world suddenly turned topsy turvy. The carriage had derailed.

The next instant everything seemed to be turned upside down and he was rolled and bumped about in a confused way with the fittings.

Luckily for the Prince (and perhaps for Western Australia) his fall was broken by some overturned sheets and blankets. Admirable Halsey had also escaped unscathed despite having landed on and broken a window. Righting themselves, they remained inside the carriage collecting their belongings and papers.

Rescuers madly scrambled to the carriages expecting to find a terrible scene. Breaking the windows and beginning the task of freeing the occupants from the carriage, they peered inside and were stunned to find the Prince casually reclining, smiling and smoking. When asked if he was hurt he was said to have responded, “Hurt! Bless your heart, no! And I’m glad to say the whiskey flask is not broken either.” Prince Edward, Admiral Halsey, Lord Mountbatten, Lord Claude Hamilton, Surgeon-Commander Newport and Colonel Grigg were then helped out through the now skywards facing window.

Both the Prince’s carriage and the ministerial carriage had overturned. In the ministerial carriage were the Premier (Sir James Mitchell), the Minister for Works (William George) and the Honorary Minister (Francis Willmott). Apart from a few concerning cuts, no one was badly injured.

Despite the accident, Prince Edward was said to have been in good spirits after emerging and remarked, “At last, we have done something that is not in the programme.” I suppose there must have been some truth to the reports with regards to his mood as not long after the event everyone stopped to pose for a photo.

Prince & Carriage
Prince Edward is centre dressed in the light coloured suit.

Several other photos were taken which showed the overturned carriages from different angles. The people involved can be seen hovering around outside, inspecting the damage and waiting to continue on with their journey.

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As the shocking story of the royal mishap spread around the state, newspapers ran articles with large eye-catching headlines. Several took the opportunity to utilise the word ‘sensational’.

“Sensational Disaster”

“Sensational Escape of the Prince of Wales”

“His Sensational Experience”

Reports stated that the train was only travelling at approximately 12 miles per hour when the accident occurred. If it had been going any faster the consequences may have been dire. What was omitted was that the Prince had been saved by a cow.

A cow on the line had caused the engine-drivers of the two locomotives to bring the train to a standstill only a few minutes previously, and it was only travelling about twelve miles an hour.

Having eventually moved the cow off the tracks, the train had only just started to build up speed again when the carriages overturned.

The cause of the accident was blamed on the heavy rainfall which resulted in the tracks spreading. While the tracks did indeed spread, the rainfall may not have been the only factor. The newspaper Truth believed the heads of the Railway Department had a few questions to answer for breaking their own regulations.

First, that under no circumstances shall an O.A. class engine run beyond Bridgetown on account of the light 40lb. rails there. And yet here were two O.A. engines one behind the other on this weak line!

A second regulation stated that no more than two carriages should be positioned behind the brake van and that an examiner should ride in the last vehicle. The Royal train consisted of two engines, a brake van, three cars, dining car, ministerial car and the Royal car. Unable to see what was happening at the end of the train, the guard in the brake van could not use the brake to slow and stop the train.

Had the brakevan been in its place on the end of the train the guard would in duty bound have applied his handbrake, and could have steadied the whole train.

The Commissioner of Railways was questioned as to the cause and refused to speculate, stating, “It was simply bad luck.

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This photo shows the extent of the damage to the railway tracks. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia.

Despite the drama and excitement and with no one seriously injured, they stuck to the schedule and the tour forged on. The stricken passengers were collected and Prince Edward made his way to Bridgetown and then Bunbury in a non-royal carriage.

In Bunbury his run of bad luck continued. Driven around Marine Drive in an open car in the midst of a thunderstorm, lightning flashed overhead and he was showered with hail. The Truth’s rather ominous article titled ‘Omens!‘ seemed to have some weight. They wrote, “Omens of a darkish hue continue to dog the travelling Prince.” At the time Prince Edward was also known as the Prince of Wales and was the heir to the British Throne. Given all that we know today (Prince Edward abdicated and his younger brother, Prince Albert became King George VI) perhaps these bad omens held some sort of meaning after all.

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6 thoughts on “A Royal Mishap

    1. The carriage that the Prince overturned in was WAGR Vice Regal car AN 413. This car was repaired and served until the mid 50’s as Vice Regal car. Once a newer AN 413 was built the old carriage was reclassified as AL 4 and became a departmental inspection vehicle. It has survived and is in the Bassendean Railway Museum – not normally open to the public due to it’s very original condition, but can be viewed under supervision.

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      1. Thanks so much for the additional information, Ian! I think I’ll have to pop down to the Museum sooner rather than later. To view the carriage, do I simply ask someone who’s there if they’d be happy to show it to me?

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      2. Jess, anybody wishing to have a look in AL 4 at the Bassendean Railway Museum just needs to ask the staff on duty and be specific that they want to have a guided tour through the vehicle. There is usually one staff member who is on yard duty so they will have the time to open up the carriage. If the staff question whether this is allowable you can tell them that you got this information from me, the Secretary of Rail Heritage WA.

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