RAY Little was a reporter in Oldham when the Royton rail disaster happened in 1961. He shares his story with us...

That day I was starting my second month as a 17-year-old very junior reporter on the Oldham Evening Chronicle.

One of the jobs of the junior, was making the calls, which was a two-part job.

The first part of the job involved arriving at the office in Union Street before 9am and phoning all the police stations in the circulation area outside Oldham to see if anything newsy had happened overnight and whether anything of interest – such as inquests – were due during the day.

The second part involved catching the bus to call at the Oldham ambulance depot near the junction of West Street and Featherstall Road to pick up the details of casualties of the previous 24 hours.

Then it was on to Oldham Fire Station, then in Ascroft Street and where Spindles Mall now stands, for details of minor fires and then to the central police station, then in Mill Street, down the side of the town hall, to the traffic department for details of road accidents.

At 11am, it was the daily police press conference with the deputy chief constable (just him and me usually).

The morning telephone calls rarely revealed anything much beyond the opening of inquests, but it was one of the bits of routine vigilance on which newsgathering was based.

It wasn’t very exciting but a good bit of experience for the office junior and probably tedious for the policemen who answered the phone.

However, Royton’s PC Jack Ripley, known as Rip, had his own way of livening up the routine with his dry and deadpan sense of humour.

He would say: “Well, you know Ray, nothing ever happens in Royton.

“Well there was one thing; we had a bank raid in the night and they blew the safe and got away with thousands.”

Or it might be have been a bus running out of control and crashing into a wall injuring dozens or a body being found in Royton’s bit of the Rochdale Canal, clearly the victim of foul play. This was a game we both enjoyed.

I would smile. “Any inquests today?”  

He'd say: “Yes, three o’clock. Byssinosis”.

Frequently the inquests were on men who had spent a lifetime in the mill. The inquest was needed to establish whether byssinosis, otherwise known as cardroom dust disease, had contributed to their deaths to make their widows eligible for a government pension.

Sometimes the inquests were on veterans wounded or gassed in the First World War, some of whom had carried unremovable shrapnel in their bodies for more than 40 years.

Sadly, occasionally they were old soldiers with wounds of a different sort, unable to live with their memories any longer.

As it happened it was PC Ripley who answered the phone when I called on the day of the crash.

Same routine.

He said: “You know Royton, Ray. Nothing ever happens here...well there was just one thing.

“Train came through the station around six o’ clock’ Didn’t stop. Driver jumped out onto the platform. Train went through the buffers, through the wall, crossed Highbarn Street and smashed into a row of houses”.

Moments later the office door opened and Denis Taylor, the chief reporter appeared.

Normally he was very well groomed and dapper; this morning he looked dishevelled. His collar was awry as was his hair and he had a dirty smudge on his cheek.

He said: “You’ll never guess what’s happened at Royton this morning.

"Train came through the station. Didn’t stop. Driver jumped out. Train went through the buffers, through the wall, crossed Highbarn Street and smashed into a row of houses.”

He had been phoned at his home in Rochdale by one of his friends in the emergency services and had driven straight to the scene and got the story.

Miraculously nobody in the houses or on the street had been killed or even seriously hurt.

I was out of that office and off to the ambulance station before anyone could say: “Did you pick that up on the calls?:

Nobody, and I never said a word. It was the biggest story I ever missed.

It was a story that went all around the world.

I went to look a day or two later and the train was still stuck in the houses.

Who said nothing ever happens in Royton?