Bluff train disaster remembered

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Bluff Promotions chairwoman Heather Ryan holds The Invercargill-Bluff Railway and Bluff School Train book which reports the story of Francis Kipling Dixon whose portrait author Alex Glennie donated to Bluff Maritime Museum curator Trish Birch.

IT should never have happened.

But tragedy struck on Monday, April 23, 1917, as the 5.10pm train from Invercargill to Bluff pulled out from the Woodend station.

Francis Kipling Dixon was just 13 years old when the disaster took place.

More than a century later, he has been remembered.

Author Alex Glennie, who wrote and compiled The Invercargill-Bluff Railway and Bluff School Trainrecently gave the Bluff Maritime Museum a portrait of Francis.

Glennie said he had learned of the Southland Boys’ High School (SBHS) pupil’s death while researching his previous book about the Awarua Radio Station.

As a result, the tragedy had “inspired” him to write about the “infamous” Bluff School Train.

In the book’s foreword, Glennie wrote regarding the SBHS pupils who travelled by train to the school throughout the last century. “Many of these journeys began each and every day with a ride on the ‘Bluff train’…

“The history contained in this book is a fascinating account of adventure, tragedy and the evolution of a vital link that serviced not only the families, whanau and students of the Southland community but also the industry of the region and was the last surviving ‘school service train’ in New Zealand.”

Crucially adding, it “… gives an insight into why the train may be described by many as ‘infamous’…”

Glennie said he “was just poking around… looking for information” when he found out “Francis was the only child to be killed on the Bluff school train”.

Francis had been travelling to his home in Bluff and, as it was during World War 1, had been talking to some soldiers.

When the soldiers got off at the Woodend platform, Francis also disembarked to continue the conversation, Glennie said.

Unfortunately it was when the guard signalled the train was leaving the platform, and Francis tried to jump back on, he found the gate on the carriage had slammed shut.

The newspaper of the time said, “As the 5.10pm train from town was pulling out of the Woodend station, three Southland High School boys were standing on the rear platform of the front platform of the front carriage. The train had gone only about 30 yards when two of the lads, who were talking together saw their companion, Francis Dixon, apparently slip and fall on the off side of the train into the railway yard. The train had proceeded about three-quarters of a mile when Guard Conway, being informed by the boys of their chum’s mishap, applied the brake.

“Assistant-guard Day was dispatched back to make enquiries and the train proceeded.”

Too late, Francis had been killed.

Glennie said the book had been dedicated to Francis, with the proceeds from its sale donated to the Southland Boys’ High School Old Boys Association, the Bluff community and Bluff Promotions.

Two memorial portraits were also commissioned and donated to the SBHS museum as well as the Bluff Maritime Museum.

Frances was buried in the Bluff Cemetery.

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