All writing © 2009-2015 by Colin Salter unless indicated otherwise. All rights reserved.
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Saturday, 3 November 2012

HUGH PIPER (1885-1917), THE TRAMS AND THE RUNAWAY TRAIN



“Chum” isn’t a word you see in print very often. But there it is in the Ayrshire Post’s report of the funeral of Hugh Piper, my grandmother’s distant cousin. “Lance-Corporal Haswell, a chum of the deceased” broke the news to Hugh’s parents, and accompanied the coffin on its procession from church to cemetery.

My Piper line’s origins are in Ayrshire in southwest Scotland. Although my grandmother’s branch had migrated to the capital, Edinburgh, most had stayed in the area. It was Hugh’s father who brought his branch from its rural roots into Ayr, the county town. There, by 1901 and aged 16, he had a job as an apprentice coach painter with the newly established Ayr Tramway Company. It was a steady, secure, respectable job and four years later Hugh married an Ayr mill-worker, Sarah McConnachie. 

An Ayr Corporation Tramcar, 
probably painted and driven by Hugh Piper;
Trams ran in Ayr from 1901 to 1931. 

Over the next nine years they had six children, the last two – twins – born in May 1914 just two months before the outbreak of the First World War. Hugh had just turned 29. With a large family and good employment prospects with the town corporation, where he was now a tram driver, Hugh was in no hurry to volunteer to fight. Indeed, the rush to enlist nationally was so great that there was no shortage of soldiers to send to the front.

But as the number of dead began to soar, volunteers became thinner on the ground. Britain was running out of cannon fodder and in January 1916 conscription of men aged 18 to 41 was introduced. At first only single men were called up, but the new compulsory enlistment failed to solve the problem. There was soon a huge backlog of appeals by men seeking exemption on the grounds of conscientious objection, health or employment in civilian occupations essential to the war effort. Running the trams did not fall in any of those categories. In May 1916 conscription was extended to married men; Hugh did not immediately receive his papers, but in due course he joined the 4th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers.

 Carriages and engine heading downhill from Catterick Camp 
(photo taken in 1950s)

He was not alone, and many of his chums at the tram depot went off with him to their basic training at Catterick Army Camp in North Yorkshire. When their training was complete in September 1917 they were allowed home on leave before being sent off to war. They marched up from the camp to its railway station at 3.30am on 15th September, where their carriages (not yet hitched to an engine) were waiting. In his letter to Hugh’s parents, his chum William Haswell takes up the story:

“We had some time to wait. I spoke to Hughie as we were sitting on our kitbags together – little did we know it was for the last time. Hugh got into No. 1 carriage, and just as I was about to climb into mine the carriages began to move, and I slipped off again until the train would stop.

“But it did not stop, and some of us were left standing, hoping there would not be an accident. We waited in suspense until the sergeant came back and reported that the carriages had overturned and many were hurt. A party set off at once. I was one of them, and we met two men walking back with bandaged hands. It was a dreadful scene. When we got there the carriages were in all positions, some right over with their wheels in the air, and others smashed to matchwood.

“I asked people if they had seen Hughie, but no one had. The first man I saw was Donald Hogg, and he had been helped out of the debris. He was cut about the head and body, but able to walk. Then I met Aitken, his face cut and covered with blood. Neither had seen Hughie.

“Later, I saw some men take someone from underneath the carriage and carry him to a wooden hut. I went with an officer to see if it was one of the men from my platoon. When they removed the coats, I saw the back of his head. ‘My God,’ I said, ‘is it Piper?’ Then the next thing I remember was the officer saying, ‘Come away old chap, we can do no good.’ Hughie must have been killed instantaneously.”

Lance Corporal Hugh Piper (1885-1917)

Four men died in the accident, and at least two of Piper’s and Haswell’s Ayr tramway colleagues – Hogg and Aitken – were injured. An inquest into why the brakes of the carriages had not been applied that night could only guess that escaped German prisoners of war might be to blame. The weight of the men boarding the wagons had been enough to send them on their way down the steep incline which led away from the platform, until, travelling at over 60 miles an hour, they came to a curve and derailed.

The route of Hugh’s last journey was lined by thousands of Ayr citizens. It followed the tramline which Hugh himself once drove. Mourners including his chum and his father went either on foot or in a heavily draped Ayr Corporation tramcar which followed the cortege. Hugh’s coffin was accompanied by the brass band of the Royal Scots Fusiliers and a funeral party of his military colleagues, who fired three volleys at the graveside before sounding the Last Post. He was, reported the Ayrshire Post, most popular and highly esteemed by all who knew him.

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