This post is one of a series exploring how different types of historian might approach the same source in different ways, so we can better understand each other and work together more easily. There’s an introduction to this, and the associated posts, here.
We know that the railways were complex, messy places – physically, of course, but also administratively. In our period (pre-1939) each company followed its own logic about the locations it served. Towns and cities might end up with three, four, five or more companies offering passenger and goods services. Those companies might have been able to lay their own tracks and build their own stations. However, sometimes they had to make do with arrangements to use another company’s tracks or stations. The case of goods guard Beaumont was one of these latter cases.
E Beaumont – the accident report doesn’t reveal his first name – was a goods guard on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. As a goods guard, he would be in charge of a freight train, responsible for ensuring that the wagons on his turn were picked up or dropped off in the correct places, and that everything ran safely. On 8 March 1911 he was in charge of a movement which took his brake van and engine on to ‘enemy territory’: the Hull and Barnsley Railway. They were going to pick up a train waiting at the Hull and Barnsley’s Cudworth sidings, in Yorkshire.
From Inspector JPS Main’s accident report, we learn that at 11.40pm, when trying to attach the first wagon and the engine, Beaumont realised the coupling on the wagon was too short. This was clearly an issue he had encountered before as ‘he then obtain a set of loose links from the front of the engine’. However, as he was attempting to hang them in position on the engine ‘they slipped and fell on his foot, crushing his toes somewhat severely.’
Unfortunately it doesn’t say anything about lighting conditions at the site. Some locations – particularly the bigger ones – had gas or electric lights in key locations. Guards like Beaumont would have carried a hand lamp, both for illumination and to communicate at a distance with the engine’s crew. From the lack of comment in Main’s report, do we assume that lighting wasn’t an issue at these sidings? It’s not certain – what we can imply is that Main didn’t think it was an issue. Doing the work, on the ground, at nearly midnight, 2 hours into a shift with potentially another 6 hours work ahead of you, it might have been another matter, of course.
Main put the injury down to misadventure. However, he also commented on the fact that this issue was a known problem for the Lancashire and Yorkshire: ‘it would appear, however, that difficulty in coupling up certain Lancashire and Yorkshire stock fitted with short couplings to engines and tenders is not uncommon, and for this reason a loose set of links is carried.’ This smacks rather of a systemic issue, over which the staff – who ended up injured – had little or no control. It also neatly demonstrates some of the variations in practice between different railway companies. Staff were simply expected to watch out for problems and then try to work around them.
We learn a little more about practice on the railways from the report. Main noted that short links ‘prevents free use of the coupling pole’. This was a wooden pole with a hook on the end, used to help give leverage and get one wagon or coach’s couplings up and attached to the hook on the next vehicle that would hold the two together when the train moved. Coupling and uncoupling – especially whilst stock was moving – was a real skill, and timing was everything. If you couldn’t un/couple from outside the stock, it might be necessary to go between the wagons and do it by hand. This was a dangerous position to be put in, and the source of a large number of crush injuries and fatalities. (For more on couplings, brakes and other very physical aspects of railway stock which produced accidents, see this blog post.)
Main also passed comment that ‘unfortunately, the number of the wagon was not taken and it cannot now be traced’ (1911 Quarter 1, Appendix B). Each wagon was given an individual number, which meant that it could – in theory – be located on the railway network. Tracking stock like this needed ‘number takers’ – staff whose role it was to record the numbers on each wagon they saw, sending those numbers in to the Railway Clearing House, a centralised organisation which helped tally up monies owed between railway companies. (See what I mean when I said the railways were administratively complex!) As you can imagine, the lot of a number taker was a dangerous one (one such case, involving a 14 year old boy, features in this blog post). So, we see a rather throw-away comment (because it was self-evident to those in the industry at the time) as opening up for us another aspect of railway working.
Finally, the report tells us about the process of accident investigation and what might happen next. Main recommended that the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway should have its attention drawn to the problem of the short coupling links. As we have explored before, the state inspectors like Main were in a tough position: they couldn’t compel the railway companies to make changes. As a result, they had to appeal to the better nature of the companies, making recommendations which were often couched in very gentle ways so as not to alienate the intended audience. Drawing the Company’s attention to the problem left the problem firmly within the remit of the Company to resolve – either by making changes or by ignoring it. Cynically, it is easily possible to imagine which route the Lancashire and Yorkshire took here. The state faced opposition from the railway companies, which saw regulation as ‘interference.’ In addition, the state itself was often ambivalent about getting too closely involved in what it saw as relations between employer and employee, particularly where adult male workers were concerned.
Sadly we don’t know how Beaumont’s injury was treated at the scene; if the first aid book for the location (as there would almost certainly have been one) survived perhaps we might be able to find out more. Given only accidents which involved several days off work were reported to the Railway Inspectors at this time, presumably Beaumont was convalescing for a little while at least. Crush injuries were reasonably common at this time, though might be more severe – as when workers were caught between vehicles. In this case, whilst no doubt uncomfortable, at least Beaumont survived.
So – from a relatively short report (3 paragraphs, about 500 words), it’s possible to pull out a number of details which tell us a lot about early 20th-century working practices and accident investigation on the railways, and about the ways in which staff accidents were produced by factors and decisions over which individual workers like Beaumont had little control. In itself the report tells us something about the ways in which the state regulated the railway industry – and of course, it gives us a little bit more insight into the lived experience of one railway worker.