Eric de Schmid was born in Devon in 1880 to William Herbert Ferdinand de Schmid and Wilhemina Stopford Hunt. His grandfather was German born Baron Louis de Schmid but his father, who was known as Captain W H F de Schmid, considered himself very British having served for more than forty years in the Devonshire Regiment and then as superintendent in the county’s constabulary. The family lived in The Rectory in Nymet Rowland.
Eric married Gladys Constance Satoor Abid in July 1909 and became the Chief Constable of Exeter City Police in 1912 at the tender age of 32. This was a short appointment lasting from January 1912 to April 1913 as he moved on to become the Chief Constable of Carlisle. They had one daughter, Barbara Constance de Schmid, born in August 1911 in Devon.
Gladys’ family history was interesting as she was the oldest child of Persian Armenian Avietick Satoor Hyrapiet, later known as Alfred Abid. He made his extreme wealth by being valet to the world’s richest man, the Nizam of Hyderabad. Alfred noticed that the Nizam only wore his finest clothes once and so he ‘recycled’ the items by replenishing them and selling them back to the Nizam in paper packaging. The wardrobe of the Nizam was the largest in the world, occupying the entire wing of a palace. Abid married Annie Evans, an English governess, in 1882 and they travelled frequently but their home was Dulford House, Kentisbeare from 1894. They often entertained locals of Broadhembury with parties and gave gifts. Abid immersed himself in local life as much as he was able, relishing his much aspired role of an English gentleman. The original Dulford House no longer stands having been demolished in 1931 but a new house was built on the same plot and remains of the original building and outhouses can be seen.
It was while Eric was serving in Carlisle when an event occurred that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Being the CC of Carlisle also meant that he was Chief of the fire service. On Saturday 22 May, 1915, he was at home and received a disturbing call regarding an incident involving several trains and fire with many casualties.
Scottish soldiers who were beginning their journey to Gallipoli for war service were on a train that collided with a local passenger train in Quintishall near Gretna, ten miles north of Carlisle. The signalman, who had just started his shift, forgot about the local train so did not change the lights indicating its presence. The troop train, carrying over 500 soldiers, impacted the local train at speed and the catastrophe ensued.
Shortly after the first devasting collision, a Glasgow bound train then ploughed into the carriages that had been derailed. Many were trapped after the impact, others walked about dazed and wounded but then further disaster struck as gas used for carriage lighting, leaked, and became ignited by the hot coals dispersed from the engines. The carriages transporting the solders was made of wood and they very soon ignited, creating an inferno from which few could survive.
It was nearly two hours after the incident when a sailor who had been travelling on the Glasgow train made his way to Carlisle which was the closest police station, being about ten miles away, entered the station to relay the news and Eric was then called at 8.40 am.
The fire service from Carlisle arrived some three hours after the incident. Eric, as Chief, was criticised heavily despite the delay in his being made aware and further delays in receiving help from elsewhere. He had also been ill-informed of the events so made incorrect decisions before preparing to leave. Despite all the hurdles, Eric’s fire crew departed Carlisle only 15 minutes after first being notified of the disaster.
At least 226 people were killed in the disaster, many disfigured by fire with burns and loss of limbs. The death toll may have been higher, but the heat had been so intense, it became impossible to provide a true figure. More tragically, ‘mercy killings’ took place where soldiers shot others who were suffering, some took their own life rather than be consumed by the intense fire from which they could not escape. The irony of the tragedy was not missed by the press later when the horrors of Gallipoli became more known.
Eric was at the scene for over 30 hours. It was the worst rail disaster in British history. The press was cruel to Eric, not least because of his name, ‘de Schmid’ as it attracted unwelcome attention, rumours even spread that he was a German spy. His family suffered abuse and Eric even endured two years of being stalked, his life threatened by one male who also accused him of using pigeons (owned by the head of police training) to send messages to Germany.
In a newspaper dated November 1917, Eric Herbert de Schmid changed his name to Eric Herbert Spence. He was awarded the Kings Police Medal in the 1925 New Year Honour’s List by George V. He retired to Devon with his wife Gladys; she died in 1955 and Eric died in 1960.