What the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ database shows really nicely – and importantly – is how numerous the ‘mundane’ accidents were: the cases that injured or killed workers in their ones or twos, but which cumulatively produced a total number of casualties far in excess of the passengers who were affected by accidents. In our blog we’ve tried to show these unexceptional cases, highlighting what we may learn from them and why they are revealing about the everyday reality of work and accidents on Britain’s railways around the time of the First World War.
However, from time-to-time we find a case that stands out because of its unusual nature. Whilst we wouldn’t want to focus unduly on these, they are worth flagging up occasionally – and today’s blog post features one of those cases.
At Aintree on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, on 29 August 1911 a routine movement was being made: a train of 25 wagons was being moved from a siding into the shunting neck. However, ‘instead of taking that road [i.e. that line – the shunting neck] the engine went into the water-column road and collided with the buffer-stops.’ What happened next sounds something rather like a silent film: ‘The stops were displaced and the engine fell down the embankment.’
Acting fireman E Murphy ‘was injured in jumping off the engine’, and guard T Dinwoodie injured his head, face and ribs as a result of the collision. Driver Martin doesn’t seem to have been injured, curiously – nor does the report, by Inspector John Main, relate what Martin (who, as he wasn’t injured, isn’t given a first name or initial) did when the crash took place: did he, too, jump, or did he stay on the footplate?
Martin was firmly blamed for the incident, as he ‘failed to look at the directing signals … and when he found that he was taking the wrong road it was too late to bring the train to a stand before the engine struck the stops.’ More revealing, Main noted that ‘Martin accounts for his failure by the fact that he was engaged for the moment in trying to open one of the injectors which was somewhat stiff’ (1911 Quarter 3, Appendix B). This reflects the reality of railway work – once again the pressure of work and companies’ desires to economise meant that vital steps like routine maintenance were often given insufficient attention. When they contributed to or even caused an accident, it was all too easy to focus attention on the individual member of staff involved, rather than the bigger factors over which the employee had little control.