A World War Two case

So far we’ve largely confined ourselves to the cases found in our database, to give you more detail on a small – but increasing – number of the 3,915 individuals involved in accidents, and to demonstrate some of the value of our project. Today’s post, however, strays beyond existing territory – and is a precursor of things to come.

We’re currently working on extending our project coverage – and we’ll be saying more about that shortly, so watch out for more news soon. One of the ways we’ll be extending is by bringing the database forwards in terms of the years covered, to include the inter-war years. Today’s post comes about as a result of this. In addition to the usual project partners, the University of Portsmouth and the National Railway Museum, we’ve been helped by the rail industry regulator, the Office of Rail and Road – the agency that carries on the work of the railway inspectors who feature so heavily in our database. We’re grateful to them, as they’ve made available the full run of inspectors’ reports into worker accidents, allowing us to digitise them and get details into our database.

As a part of this, I recently went up to London to collect the volume for 1939. By this time the Railway Inspectors were no longer reporting to the Board of Trade, but to the Ministry of Transport. Initially, it appeared that the 1939 volume didn’t exist, as a result of the Second World War – as in the First World War, investigations into worker accidents were changed during the national emergency. However, as the 1940 volume did exist, I was lent this instead; as it turns out, it does contain some cases from 1939 – but also the accident which killed SC Lang at Vauxhall on 5 June 1940. This was significant, as over the weekend his case appeared on Twitter, via @SunnySouthSam, who posted the following extract from the Southern Railway Magazine for July/August 1940:

Southern Railway Magazine, July/August 1940, note of SC Lang’s death. Courtesy @SunnySouthSam

We have more detail from the report by Inspector JLM Moore. Lang actually retired a considerable length of time before the war – on 1 November 1932, at age 61. He was therefore in his late 60s when he resumed his post as Station Master at Vauxhall, which included supervision of Queens Road and the Locomotive Junction signal box between the two stations. This signal box was found on a gantry above 8 of the running lines close to the entrance to the Nine Elms shed complex – the location seen below, in an earlier (1913) map, before the raised box was added, and in the photo from 1946, part of the wonderful Britain from Above resource from Historic England.

1913 map showing accident site. Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

Nine Elms area, 1946; the signal gantry and box are towards the bottom left of the photo. Courtesy Britain from Above: https://britainfromabove.org.uk/en/image/EAW001426

After what was described as a ‘routine visit’ to the box, Lang climbed down the staircase at the south end, reaching ground level at ‘a wide space between the down local and a coal siding.’ He started to cross the running lines, pausing for an unknown reason between the rails of the down through line. The driver of an electric train on the up local line noticed this, and sounded his whistle. Lang did not respond ‘until the train was within a short distance of him. He then suddenly stepped forward onto the up local line’, where he was hit and killed ‘in spite of the motorman’s efforts to avoid the accident.’

Moore observed in his report that between Lang’s retirement and his return to work, the lines had been re-arranged, including reversing the direction trains were travelling in on the two lines concerned. Lang knew about this, so Moore could only speculate that Lang became confused and instinctively started to move from one line to the next, believing himself to be stepping into a safer position. Why Lang was on the tracks at all was unclear: ‘His motive for retracing his steps southwards instead of continuing northwards is obscure – as also his reason for being on the tracks.’ He was expected to be returning to either Queens Road or Vauxhall station ‘and as there was a safe route available to either place clear of all running lines he was remiss in attempting to go via the track.’ Moore’s conclusion was therefore that Lang ‘took a wholly unnecessary risk and must be held responsible for the accident.’

Lang’s case is an interesting precursor of what might be to come as we extend our project’s dates. It also once again demonstrates the value to be gained from our work, as it enables different sources to be linked and a fuller picture of individual stories to be appreciated. There are plenty more sources that might be added to those used here – the Ministry of Transport accident reports and the railway company magazines – and one of our aims is that we’ll get to a point where we bring together as many sources as possible. Ambitious, but if we can do it, it’ll provide a huge and valuable resource for all sorts of interested people.

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