The tragedy of Blue Bank

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The view towards Whitby from the top of Blue Bank
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Blue Bank in Sleights is one of the steepest hills on the north York Moors
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An escape lane has been installed for vehicles that lose control descending the steep Blue Bank in Sleights

I’ve been a bit of a detective this week, and I hope my policeman dad would be proud of my sleuthing activities, for which I have reader Clive Button to thank. I thought you might be interested in what I’ve discovered, so my dad’s 1980 column is taking a back seat this week.

Mr Button contacted me after reading my column a couple of weeks ago in which I mentioned the letter Thirsk weatherman Bill Foggitt had written to my dad telling the story of a phantom bus that haunted Blue Bank in Sleights. According to Mr Foggitt, the original bus had overturned ‘with tragic loss of life in 1930’.

But that was all the information that Bill had given and I was struggling to find out any more. But then Mr Button contacted me with this rather intriguing account: ‘My father, born 1919…who had relatives at Sleights, told me about this, though he was uncertain of the year in which it happened. He believed a bus ascending the hill missed a gear change and ran backwards down the hill, crashing into the farm at the bottom. The bus demolished several bee hives and some passengers were stung to death.’

Could bees really be responsible for some of the deaths associated with the crash? Clive suggested the local papers might hold the answer. And then I stumbled across the British Newspaper Archive, which is in the process of digitising the nation’s papers, dating right back to the 1700s. To be able to browse online, I had to sign up to a subscription service, but I felt it was well worth it as it would be likely I would use it over and again.

It still wasn’t straightforward to find what I was looking for, but after a while I came across an article from the Yorkshire Post from 1930 in which it mentioned the accident and a golden nugget of information – that it had occurred on 21st July 1929.

I was so excited as it meant I could immediately go to the papers around that date to learn what had actually happened from a contemporary account. I spent the next few hours totally absorbed by all the newspaper articles I found, from the very first one published the day after the accident, to subsequent days and months, until they petered out the following year. So here is what really happened on that fateful day in July 1929.

Three buses owned by the East Riding Motor Company were travelling in convoy along the A169 towards Whitby, each carrying 36 passengers, on a trip organised by the Hull British Legion. As they started to descend Blue Bank, the driver of the first bus was alarmed when in his wing mirror he could see the bus behind him coming towards him far faster than expected. The driver of the second bus, realising his brakes had failed, pulled into the opposite lane to avoid crashing into the first bus. He careered past the first bus plus another a car, only to see more cars coming up the hill directly in his path. Desperately clinging on to his steering wheel, he swerved again to avoid them, the bus all the time gaining speed, before it crashed into a wall and rolled over twice, tearing off its roof. It came to rest just yards from a cottage where a family were eating their lunch.

The bus had hit a number of bee hives, and swarms of angry bees hampered rescue efforts by stinging the locals who had rushed to assist, as well as the injured victims. However, no-one was killed by the bees.

Sadly, though, three people died at the scene, and three more died in from their injuries in the months afterwards. The driver spent weeks in hospital, and an inquest was only held once he was fit enough to attend. It found that he was not to blame, and his heroic actions in avoiding the other vehicles prevented further deaths and carnage.

So that is one half of the mystery solved. But what of the sightings of the phantom bus told by Bill Foggitt? I searched the archives for any mention of ghostly apparitions after the crash, but again have come up empty handed. So if you know of any account of the phantom bus, do get in touch by contacting me via this paper, or through my blog page, http://www.countrymansdaughter.com.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 20th and the Gazette & Herald on 18th March 2020

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