THIS story by John Cuthbert of the Yorkshire Dales Community Archives tells of a quiet and simple life led by a family living in a remote, Dales cottage. It also tells us how that quiet existence was suddenly changed.

Nancy Dawson had lived at number 1, Blea Moor Cottages since she was 18 months old. Along with Nancy, lived her mother, father and two older sisters. The family’s reason for being in such a remote spot was her father’s occupation: the maintenance of the railway. Blea Moor Cottages was about one and a half miles north of Ribblehead Station, on the Settle to Carlisle line.

There was no electricity, gas, or running water in the house. Lighting was done with candles and a Tilley lamp. Warmth was achieved by paraffin lamps and coal fires.

Water was brought in from the ‘wash house’ and cooking was done over the open fire. There was no bathroom, just an outside privy – “which was very draughty, basically a hole in a piece of wood”. Normally, just one coal fire would be lit in the winter months, although Nancy can recall one occasion when a second fire was lit in a bedroom – “when my father had measles and was delirious”.

The family had no car, but as the house had no access road this was hardly a disadvantage. The family would use a path, or more often simply walk down the railway track to Ribblehead Station and get the train. Walking on the track was considered safe in such a remote area. Shopping was done in Settle and there was a grocery delivery, via train, from Dent each month.

This quiet life in the Dales was shattered on the 18th of April 1952. The Thames-Clyde Express, travelling south, was derailed as it came out of the Blea Moor tunnel. One of the steam engines and four of the carriages were tipped onto their sides.

At the time, the 14-year-old Nancy Dawson was sunbathing on the roof of one of the outbuildings when the sound of escaping steam made her look up towards the track. She could see from her vantage point that an accident had happened and rushed indoors to tell her mother. She then made her way out onto the fell towards the railway. In front of her was the wreckage of the Express, with passengers trying to escape from the overturned carriages.

For an hour and a half, the only people there to help were Nancy and her mother. The signalman nearby could not come to their aid as he had to stay in the signal box to stop further trains on the line and coordinate help from British Railways.

Nancy and her mother helped people escape and gave special assistance to the more severely injured. Nancy remembers one passenger in particular – “a young boy, about the same age as me, with legs cut by the glass from the broken carriage windows”. They took him to the cottage and put him in the ‘front room’. It was probably the first time the room had been used in many months as Nancy said it was kept “for best”.

Amazingly, there was not one single fatality. A day later, when the injured had been taken away and the rest of the passengers had been taken south, the press arrived. The reporters wanted a first-hand account and recognised a good story when they heard the person at the centre of the rescue was a 14 year old girl. Nancy, however, did not enjoy being the centre of attention and disappeared ‘on a walk’ at the first opportunity. She never gave a newspaper interview.

However, her help and assistance did not go unrecognised. Nancy received a letter of thanks and an engraved watch from British Railways, a letter of congratulations from Settle Girls’ High School, plus a letter of commendation from the Girl Guides.

This story is told in an interview with Nancy, now Edmondson, published on ‘Capturing the Past’. Alongside the interview, there are photos of Nancy’s family, photos of Blea Moor Cottages and photos showing the end of steam travel in the mid-1960s. A full report on the incident by the Department of Transport is also available, as are press photos of the accident itself. If you’d like to learn more about Nancy’s life in the Dales and the Thames-Clyde accident, please visit: Nancy’s story can be found by clicking on ‘View the catalogue’ and scrolling down to the ‘Nancy Dawson Collection’.

This excellent glimpse into our history is one of many within the ‘Capturing the Past’ project. We collect historical images, documents and words from those who lived or are living in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Capturing the Past is managed by Friends of the Dales and was developed by the Ingleborough Dales Landscape Partnership, led by YDMT and supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

If you’d like to have a conversation about contributing something, email John Cuthbert at: