IT was the railway’s worst nightmare: two steam engines had somersaulted in a mass of metal down a steep bank at the entrance to Teesdale, tearing up the track as they toppled.

And, in just a few hours’ time, this track was due to carry the most important royal guests for years to their holiday in the castle of the lord who owned most of the dale.

A race against time began...

The drama of October 24, 1905, began at 10.40am when a heavy goods train left North Road station in Darlington bound for Barnard Castle. As it was then due to climb over the Stainmore summit to Tebay, two large engines hauled it.

The first was driven by Robert Pearson, of Cumberland Street, Darlington. His fireman was William Smith, of Pease Street, in the town. The second was driven by H Mountsey, of Ann's Terrace, in the Hopetown area of Darlington, with J Brown, of Harcourt Terrace, as his fireman.

Just as the iceberg that sunk the Titanic dropped off its Arctic shelf days before it drifted into the path of the world’s largest liner, so as the goods train passed through Piercebridge and onto Gainford, the railway fates were preparing all sorts of pitfalls in front of it.

A gang of platelayers was at work, lifting rails and replacing them.

As the train left Gainford and crossed over the two bridges over the Tees, the gang misread the timetable and removed a rail.

A signal had been set to warn the drivers of the work ahead. Inexplicably, both of them missed it.

The gang had fixed detonators to the line – little explosives that were supposed to go off when an engine’s heavy wheels went over them – to alert the drivers to the danger ahead. Inexplicably, the detonators failed to fire.

The platelayers had placed a watchman to watch their backs – but he wasn’t stationed far enough away. The line was greasy, and the train’s load was heavy. As it rounded the corner beneath Selaby Hall at 11.30am, it came to the spot where the rail was missing, and it couldn’t stop.

"The first engine went off the line," said The Northern Echo, the D&S Times’ sister paper, the next day. "It suddenly overbalanced down an embankment of nearly 40 feet, turning two complete somersaults sideways.

"The driver (Pearson) was shot from his place. Smith, however, went round completely with the locomotive at the first turn, and was then thrown out onto the bank.

“The engine landed in the field below on its side."

Pearson sustained two broken ribs and was hurt quite badly; his fireman enjoyed the "miraculous escape". "Singularly enough, Smith only received a flesh wound to his leg," said the Echo.

The second engine slid ignominiously halfway down the bank, although its crew were able to jump clear without any difficulty.

The accident happened at the start of the straight stretch of line which leads to Winston station. It was clearly visible behind Grant Cottage and Whinfield Farm from the A67 between Darlington and Barnard Castle.

A large crowd gathered to watch as the retrieval operation began.

"Some anxiety was created as to the possibility of the line not being ready for the journey of Princess Henry of Battenburg to Winston," said the Echo.

At 5.49pm that very evening, Princess Henry – Queen Victoria's youngest daughter – was due to arrive at Bank Top station and travel in a special royal train along the line to stay with Lord Barnard at Raby Castle. She was accompanied by her 18-year-old daughter Princess Victoria Eugenie, who was known as Ena to her friends – seven months later, Ena would marry King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and on her marriage day would survive an anarchist bomb attempt that splattered her wedding dress with blood.

That autumn day on the edge of Teesdale, nothing could be allowed to de-rail their travel plans.

The D&S reported that “information was a once despatched to Darlington, and a breakdown gang proceeded to the spot”. As no one had been seriously injured – driver Pearson was taken to his home for treatment for his ribs – there doesn’t seem to have been any need for an inquiry or investigation, so the cranes tidied away all the debris and the platelayers replaced the wrecked rails, and the line was re-opened at 4pm.

And so the welcoming of the royal train – the first for a decade – into Darlington’s Bank Top station was able to go ahead as planned. A large and loyal crowd cheered, there was a huge arch saying “welcome”, and a band played the national anthem.

“Thank-you very much for your kind expressions,” said Princess Henry, who wasn’t one for great declamations.

She and her daughter were "cosily clad in sables", and the poor things had to hang around on Platform No 4 for some minutes – “an unexpected wait” – as the engine that would pull their royal saloon to Winston was drawn up.

"The front of the engine was adorned with the Royal coat of arms surmounted with three small flags," said the Echo.

It was ushered out of the station by three loud hurrahs and the band playing the anthem. It passed over the mended line near Gainford without incident, and the royal guests safely made it to Raby.

Next day, the princess returned to Darlington to officially open the Grand Bazaar in aid of Greenbank Hospital. On the third day of their “sojourn in the north”, they visited Randolph Colliery at Evenwood before taking a "motor tour through Barnard Castle to the Bowes Museum". They had a few Royal engagements in Stockton and Yarm on the fourth and final day of their stay.

One wonders if they even knew of the railway drama that threatened to derail their holiday before it had even begun. It was just another railway accident in the days when they were two-a-penny – the D&S’ headline, referring to a “singular railway mishap”, really downplayed it.

The only reason we know of it today is because of this marvellous set of dramatic photographs taken by William Benjamin Eggleston, who was a quarry manager at Barton.