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TOPIC: The Station Master of Van Reenen's - the 3rd Curry brother

The Station Master of Van Reenen's - the 3rd Curry brother 6 months 2 weeks ago #61853

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Pat Curry's story brings to a close the trilogy which started with brothers Michael Arthur and continued with George David

Patrick William Curry

Station Master, Van Reenen - Natal Government Railways - Anglo Boer War

- Queens South Africa Medal to Mr. P.W. Currie (sic), Natal Govt. Rlys.

Patrick William Curry was born in Durban in the Colony of Natal in 1869, the son of an Irish immigrant, John Curry and his wife Louisa, born Adams. Louisa was the daughter of a Colonel John Adams, an early Durban resident whose house, and the one in which Patrick and his many siblings were born, stood in central Durban on the very spot where the old Durban Station was erected.

Patrick was the third-born to the couple, following on the heels of John and George and followed by Michael Arthur. Both George and Arthur also served with the N.G.R. in a number of capacities, and have been the subject of a trilogy I have written about them - now it is time to turn our attention to Patrick William, the Station Master at Van Reenen’s Pass during the Boer War.

Unlike either of his two aforementioned brothers Pat was not involved in any shape or form in the Frere train incident involving Winston Churchill, and neither did he ever claim to be, leaving that to his siblings to claim for themselves.

Family legend has it that the Curry’s returned to Tipperary in Ireland towards the latter half of the 19th century to assist in the rescue from financial ruin of a dairy farm belonging to them. No shipping records to substantiate this claim have been found; suffice it to say that they were all back in Natal by the time the Anglo Boer War broke out in October 1899.

Patrick that took the marital plunge at St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Durban where, on 18 June 1892, at the age of 24, he wed Harriet Ada Manning, a 21 year old spinster. His brother George was a witness to the wedding. The officiating priest was Father Murray who was to play a prominent part in Dundee after the battle of Talana. Curry was noted as being a Guard by occupation and it is in this capacity that we first encounter him, in what became known as the Glencoe Train Disaster – an event that made headlines in January 1896 - then and, based purely on the high number of fatalities – forty two dead in number, would have made headlines now as well. The Glasgow Herald carried the following article:-

“The public attention has been absorbed this week by the terrible disaster which befell a train crowded with refugees from the Rand on their way to Durban.

A passenger gives the following description of the accident in the Johannesburg Times:-

At the time the disaster occurred I was looking out to see the train coming round the curve. It consisted of four Natal Government Railway carriages and six Netherlands carriages and Guard’s Van. The Natal carriages turned the curve safely, but the first of the Netherlands carriages rushed straight on, followed by the others thus causing the disaster.

When I got out the sight presenting itself was awful. Here and there lay mangled almost unrecognisable bodies, some gasping and moaning. A young lady I saw was still breathing, but had bitten her own tongue off, and her vision was obscured by a quantity of blood on her face. Both her legs appeared broken. We could do nothing for her, and she died in a few minutes.

There were only about six uninjured men left, and we were working nearly half an hour before any assistance arrived. At the time of the accident we were travelling about 25 miles an hour, and, in my opinion, the disaster was caused through the Netherland’s Company’s carriages being unadapted to the curves and being top heavy. They are also flimsily constructed, and so light that they can be rocked by one man.

The Natal Witness describes the scene on arrival of the first train at Pietermaritzburg with the wounded: - The excitement and anxiety were intense, and the military and the police were forced to keep back the immense crowd. Many affecting and some remarkable incidents are related. In one compartment a party of four were playing cards, a sum of £40 being in the pool. Every person in the whole carriage was killed except for these four, who were more or less injured.

Several statements have been made that the dead were robbed. Some of the wounded indistinctly remember being handled, and when they came to themselves were minus money and valuables. It was declared that several of the passengers who left Johannesburg with next to nothing, were afterwards in possession of hundreds of pounds, besides valuables.”

The Natal Witness of 8 January 1896 carried an extensive article on the matter covering the official enquiry into the incident. Relevant passages are quoted from below in respect of the testimony given by Mr Hunter, The N.G.R. General Manager and it is here we find mention of our man Curry and, his brother Patrick who was also an employee on the train:-

“Mr Hunter said it was very difficult to arrive at any proper solution to the cause of the accident. The position in which the unfortunate accident took place was very exceptional, and occurring as the accident did just at that particular point, the carriages came into violent collision with large stone boulders in a side cutting on the line there. The engine and the first four carriages of the train being Natal stock passed over safely, and that the carriage that caused the catastrophe was the first of the Netherlands carriages following immediately behind the fourth Natal carriage.”

Under a sub-heading “The Fireman” – George Curry (Patrick’s brother) was quoted as saying:-

“George Curry said that on rounding the curve he noticed that the train jolted as was usual on a curve. When they had just passed it the engine broke loose from the train. They stopped the engine as soon as possible, and on looking back he saw that the van was on its back down the bank, and that some of the carriages were off the line. At the time of the accident they were travelling at from 24 to 25 miles an hour. Sometimes trains ran at 20 miles an hour around this curve. And sometimes at a lower rate of speed. He had no idea what caused the train to be derailed.”

Under the sub-heading “The Guard” – Patrick (A.W. Curry sic) was quoted as saying:-

“A.W. Curry said he took over the train at No. 1 Reversing Station. On noticing the great length of the train he asked the driver whether the brakes were alright. The driver assured him that they were. The first thing he observed at the curb where the accident occurred was that the Netherlands carriages did not seem to take the curve.

The next thing he saw was that the carriages had turned over, and his van followed on toppling over on the opposite side to that on which the other carriages fell. There appeared to be no unusual oscillation in the Netherlands carriages before the accident. They were travelling from 20 to 25 miles an hour. He did not observe any slackening of speed around the curve. The Netherlands carriages always oscillated going round curves, whilst the Natal carriages took the curves smoothly. He felt safe in stating that if the train had been entirely composed of Natal carriages the accident would not have happened. The curve was the sharpest one on the line from No. 1 Reversing Station.”

Many years later, in 1966, an article under the heading “Crashed 70 Years Ago” wherein his brother George was quoted appeared. This article provided a bit more context to the Glencoe Train Disaster and, more to the point, the role Patrick played. It could almost be said that, through his timely action, many more lives were saved. It read as follows:-

“Today is the 70th anniversary of the Glencoe rail disaster in which 42 people were killed and 56 injured, and it has special significance for a Durban man – the only remaining survivor.

He is 94 year old Mr George Curry, who was fireman on the train, and who today claims to be the oldest living Durban-born resident of the city. It was probably only the action of Mr Curry’s brother Mr Pat Curry, the mail guard on the train that prevented an even greater disaster.

Mr George Curry. Now a little deaf but still able to read newspapers without spectacles, told me at his home at 12 Allenby Gardens, Durban, how the disaster occurred.

The train was carrying several hundred Johannesburg evacuees down to Durban. When it arrived at Newcastle it was “broken up” and two separate trains made because the single load was too much for one engine to pull through the hilly “Dannhauser bank”

Several miles from Glencoe the train, made up of four-wheeler fixed-axle coaches which were said to be unsuitable for the Natal track, overturned on a bend. About four coaches and the guardsvan left the rails.

Mr Curry said his brother (Patrick), in the guardsvan, was saved only by the soft mailbags which protected him from injury as the van rolled down a steep bank.

Mr Pat Curry then got out of the van, climbed the bank and was only just in time to signal to the other ”half” of the train which was travelling five minutes behind.”

If this intimation was true it was probably never brought to the attention of the authorities, for I feel sure that, had it been mentioned officially, Pat Curry might well have received some or other commendation for the role that he played.

Four years later, on October 1899, war broke out between the two Boer Republics to the north and west of Natal and the British Empire and it now fell to the N.G.R. to transport both men, stores and equipment across the length and breadth of Natal – wherever the line would take them in order to assist the Imperial troops in the war effort. By this time Patrick Curry had been elevated to the position of Station Master at Van Reenen’s. This station was in an isolated but important spot on the border between the Colony of Natal and Orange Free State Republic – in other words straddling the great divide between Boer and Brit.

The site was an important one for it was almost the very first port of call that the Boers would make as they headed over the Drakensberg Mountain range to invade Natal. In his book “The Colony of Natal – An Official Illustrated Handbook and Railway Guide” Mr J. Forsyth Ingram, in 1895, described the station thus:-

“Van Reenen’s Station is situated on the western frontier of natal, and leaving it, the Orange Free State Republic is entered. In the vicinity of the station there is a hotel and Custom House. To the left of the line, great isolated mountain masses are visible, each one standing like a palace of mystery.”

To say that Curry was in the firing line would be stating the obvious – he would be one of the first Colonial civil servants the Boers would encounter and it doesn’t take the medal roll off which his Queens Medal was awarded to remind us that he was “Under fire at Van Reenen’s” and “At Ladysmith thro the Siege.”

Stott, in Chapter II - The Commencement of Hostilities – stated thus:-

“The first distinct act of war was committed by the Boer forces at Harrismith. Here the train due to leave for Natal at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, October 11th, was seized by the Orange Free State authorities. This railway line, running from Van Reenen's Pass to Harrismith in the Orange Free State, belonged to the Natal Government and was worked by it. It thus happened that even before war was declared, before the time limit as laid down in the ultimatum had expired, this hostile act had been performed. The capture of this train was of immense importance to the Orange Free State commandoes, as by it both men, artillery, and provisions were conveyed from Harrismith to the burghers at the front around Ladysmith during the subsequent siege.

The Boers, prior to the delivery of the ultimatum, had taken possession of all the passes in the Drakensberg adjoining Natal, expecting that they would have to hold them against the advance of the British troops. Finding, however, that, after the ultimatum had been received, there was no forward movement among the British, the Boers began to move down from their strongholds into Natal, thus commencing the war by invading British territory. The Boers who first entered Natal were principally the Orange Free State commandoes, and they came through the Tintwa, Van Reenen's, and Bezuidenhout passes.”

The Daily Telegraph of Friday, 13 October 1899 carried a report “From Our War Correspondent” which read thus:-

“It seems that yesterday there was much movement among the Boers along the Free State border. A small column was also seen in natal along Van Reenen’s Pass. Women and children are still being sent down country.”

Later in the same article it was stated that:-

“Beside the driver, the guard and stoker, and a few others were captured on the Harrismith train which was seized by the Free State Burghers. The railway through to Harrismith is owned and run by the Natal Government Railways. The Station Master’s at Van Reenen’s, Brakwel and Bester’s Stations, who were coming in when the seizures were made, escaped upon trolleys.”

The same publication carried the report, on the following day that, “The Boers have taken possession of Van Reenen’s Station, belonging to Natal.”

So there it was, Curry had had to make good his escape, making his way to Ladysmith at some point little knowing that the place was to be besieged for three long months.

On 17 November the majority of the Boer Commando camped there left for Ladysmith to add to the numbers surrounding the besieged town although a military presence was maintained in order to ensure the smooth running of trains from the Orange Free State up to the Ladysmith perimeter. It was only in August 1900 that the British reoccupied Van Reenen but it is not known whether or not Curry resumed his duties there.

Little is known of Curry’s movements after the war – the Superannuation Fund Report of the N.G.R. for 1905 show that all three Curry brothers were still employed by the Railways.

His first wife passed away where after he remarried – an Eveline Mary Hartigan – in East London in 1927 where one assumes he was stationed with the South Africa Railways. He passed away at Addington Hospital in Durban on 27 August 1942 survived by his second wife and five daughters. He lived at 198 Currie Road, Durban at the time of his death and owned property in Fish Hoek in Cape Town which was of “doubtful” value. The acquisition of this property probably stemmed from the fact that he lived in Cape Town in 1929 when his Last Will was drawn up.

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