Contracting out accidents

In the past we’ve blogged about individuals appearing in our records but who weren’t employees of railway companies – detailed here, with an overview here. Some of these accidents happened to people who had reason to be around the railway (like coal merchants or Post Office staff) and some who were working on the railways as contractors. Today’s case from our database is one of the latter.

Map of the accident location.

1914 map of the Prince of Wales Dock, Swansea. Loading tips are plentiful.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

The railway companies had huge interests beyond just the railways – including stretching into shipping. Even so, they couldn’t cover everything, so would also contract work out as needed. The Great Western Railway, like many of the companies that operated in south Wales, were major coal transporters, from the mines of the valleys to the docks. On 20 August 1912, coal was being unloaded at Prince of Wales Dock, Swansea, into a vessel belonging to Powlesland and Mason, a contractor to the GWR.

Coal tipping in action.

Coal tipping c.1910 at Garston Docks, using a similar process to that employed in Swansea.
Courtesy National Railway Museum, 1996-7316_CR_MC_280.

The process of unloading coal involved running loaded wagons in on ‘low level’ (i.e. ground level) and ‘high level’ (i.e. elevated) lines, to be able to tip coal into the holds of ships. On this occasion, a wagon was run in on the low level line at No. 4 tip, and then hoisted up to get the height to pour the coal. As Powlesland and Mason’s vessel was smaller than usually dealt with, the hoist had lifted the wagon to an unusual position, just below the high level line. Charles Parker, a 43-year old employee of the shippers, was unloading the coal. He released the wagon’s end door catch on one side, released the brake lever and then went behind the wagon to get to door catch on the other side. Unfortunately, ‘while doing so the wagon ran back instead of as usual forwards towards the spout’.

As a result, Parker was caught between the wagon buffer and the high level line, bruising his right thigh. Inspector JJ Hornby noted that the hoist was usually tilted towards the tip’s spout, to prevent the wagons from running back. However, in this case it wasn’t done – a failure attributed to Parker (1912 Quarter 3, Appendix C).

Contractors feature elsewhere in our data – at least 40 other cases so far, but no doubt many more to come. In some cases contractors were even doing jobs we might expect to have been done in-house, like maintaining the track. We might think of contracting out work like this to have been a product of privatisation in the 1990s, including tragic consequences like the 2004 Tebay accident which killed 4 workers and injured 5 others. But our database is showing that ‘new’ models are in fact rather older. These relationships could do with further exploration – as could the accidents they produced.

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