Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Aberystwyth Funicular Disaster

The sea bathing of the elephants at Aberystwyth of 5th July 1911 is well known: Salt and Sauce were taken by their keeper from Bostock and Wombell's Menagerie, which was visiting the town, for a bath, and photographed by Arthur Lewis.

The famous 5th July 1911 scene in which Salt and Sauce join
the Aberystwyth bathers. Photographed by Arthur Lewis.

Less well known is the catastrophic aftermath: the keeper - revelling in public attention - chose to walk the elephants up Constitution Hill to the popular tourist attractions at the top. The path is steep, and crosses the equally popular Aberystwyth Cliff Railway (visible in the photograph). The railway opened in 1896 (being electrified in 1921) on a water balance system and had operated without incident.

The precise chain of events remains unclear, but it appears one of the animals was badly spooked by the sight of the descending car and blundered through fencing (which gave way easily) onto the track, colliding with the ascending car. The force of the collision unbalanced the car which fell on its side: the descending car was brought to an immediate halt but the connecting cable remained intact.

The scene today of the disaster.
The elephant entered at the left.

The damage to the ascending car and its occupants was considerable: two people and a small dog belonging to a woman named Pugh lost their lives at the scene and many injured were carried the laborious journey to the recently opened Waterloo Hydro Hotel. At least two later deaths among these were attributable to the incident.

It is not known which of the elephants was the victim/culprit: it sustained lacerations and bruising but it is believed to have recovered.

While the accident is of note for its seriousness and unusual cause (the only known instance of an elephant causing a funicular mishap), of equal interest 100 years later is the cover-up that followed. Aberystwyth was being marketed as the Biarritz of Wales; furthermore, King George V was scheduled to lay the foundation stone of the new National Library of Wales later in the month. The authorities were desperate not to attract negative publicity and sought to prevent any coverage of the incident. They were abetted in this by the happy chance that HRH Princess Alexander of Teck (later Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone) was in the descending car. Shaken but uninjured, the 28 year old mother of two was keen to conceal her presence in the town as plentiful circumstantial evidence suggests she was midway through a torrid affair with a local apprentice baker, Dewi Gryffydd, and wanted nobody to know of her presence.

Times being what they were, it was straightforward for the combined forces of the Princess's office and the local authority to suppress all press coverage. The Cambrian News and Welsh Gazette carried nothing on the incident - not even the famous bathing. Their columns were dominated by plans for the forthcoming royal visit, and the present deplorable state of Penparke [sic] which was brought before the Council with disgusting plainness.

For many years afterwards the town population knew better than to mention the matter in public. The principle of secrecy for the common good ensured that within two generations the incident was almost completely forgotten. A tourist from Remscheid near Wuppertal did discuss the matter on his return home and it was reported in the Krefelder Zeitung. The Princess's German influence was enough to get this excised. The Wuppertal connection is ironic, given the elephant-related monorail event of Wuppertal in 1950.

The 1950 Wuppertal "Tuffi" incident, in which
an elephant leapt from the monorail into the river.

What must have seemed a generous payoff to the Gryffydd family (whose descendants until recently still ran Y Popty on Terrace Road) ensured that Dewi said nothing. The incident could indeed be completely forgotten if Dewi's brother Alun had not written an account in semi-literate Welsh, complete with sketch of the scene. This account is held in the National Library, still under a level of security that prevents access to all but the most privileged of readers. Alun was later killed on the Somme and no other authoritative account is known, although it is argued by some that Mark Storey's poem The Elephants at Aberystwyth is a veiled reference.


  1. Is this a new plot for a Malcolm Pryce book?

  2. It's alright - Malcolm knows all about it

  3. 100 years later? Typo? Was HRH 128 years old or King George V visiting in 2011?!

  4. Curious as to when this funicular shut down.
    One page shows the line running merrily, and another shows the ticket station as converted into a residence,
    Is is still operating, or has another line replaced it nearby?

  5. What an amazing story! Thanks very much for this fascinating blog post.

  6. My home town and I'd never heard of this incident.

  7. I have this photo on a tea towel that I bought at the museum in Aberystwyth and always chuckle when I look at it. I was just folding it when I looked for the photo to share on facebook and stumbled on this story. Now I'm sad. I'll see my tea towel differently now. We went there during our honeymoon trip to Yorkshie and Wales. Had a great day in Aberystwith.

  8. Great story! Complete bollocks, but never let that get in the way