Dorset’s railway accidents

28 March was originally planned to host Dorset History Day – though obviously that’s now been postponed due to Coronavirus. However, as we’d written this blog post already, we thought we’d still put it up!


What would have been Dorset History Day offers us a cue to consider local and regional history and how our project might both contribute and benefit. So, in this post we’re going to have a look at some Dorset-specific cases and think about where Dorset fits into the wider picture of staff accidents – but the same might be done for any of the counties in Britain or Ireland that fall within our database.

To start with it would be useful to put Dorset into a bit of railway context for the period our project is exploring, c.1880-1939. Reflecting the county’s relatively rural nature at this time,  it was comparatively sparsely served with railway lines, certainly in terms of route mileage. Three companies had a presence, the London and South Western Railway, the Great Western Railway and the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway. Between them they headed for the county’s major urban spaces, Weymouth (with its quay and links to the Channel Islands) and the Poole-Bournemouth conurbation (something which the railways helped encourage).

The restricted route mileage and relative lack of heavy industry in the county meant that there were fewer miles on which to run services – Dorset had only 46 stations, for example. As a result, there were – compared to those counties which were better connected – fewer opportunities for staff accidents. Yorkshire, for example, with its coal, steel & manufacturing industries, plus port towns, had a much greater route mileage, and a much higher number of accidents that were investigated by state officials (upon which a large portion of our current database is based). So, at the moment Dorset features only 13 times in the section of our database covering 1911-15.

This isn’t to say that there were only 13 accidents to staff in Dorset during this period – only that these were the cases selected by the Railway Inspectors for investigation. There would have been a great many more cases, but the historical record is missing. Some of the other accidents for this period may be captured as we extend our project coverage into the trade union records, and more accidents will come in as we bring more records in, covering the interwar period and the period from c.1890 until 1911.

Those 13 records we have got are useful in helping us get a feel for the sorts of dangers that railway staff faced in their jobs, as well as giving us some specific cases to work with.

Dorset locations in our database.

Dorset accident locations currently in the database, for 1911-15.

We can see where the accidents happened – all were individual cases, split between single events in unique locations and the larger locations which had more railway lines and so incurred more than one accident (Shillingstone being the exception here: a smaller location with 2 accidents).

Roles of staff injured or killed at work.

Roles of people injured or killed at work in Dorset, 1911-15.

We can also see who was involved, by grade of staff/ staff role. The ‘top 3’ roles (porter, driver & shunter) were all staff who might have to work on or around the tracks and go in amongst the stock – highly dangerous tasks. The shunter’s job, for example, was to couple or uncouple coaches and wagons – in other counties with more goods traffic and heavy industry we might expect to find more shunters featured. As Dorset had less of these sorts of movements, so fewer shunters were exposed to danger.

Charts showing the outcomes of accidents for Dorset & Britain and Ireland.

Charts showing the outcomes of accidents for 1911-15, by county and national level.

Finally, we can put Dorset into a national context – in this case, in terms of the outcomes of the accidents. Unsurprisingly, with just 13 cases included in our sample, we don’t see the full range of outcomes found in the national level data. But it is possible to see some similarities. The first four categories are common between the two charts, for example, and though the relative balances differ a bit, it’s not marked. Cumulatively they occupy a similar proportion of the total (national: 63%; Dorset: 54%).

There are plenty of other comparators in our database, of course – all of which help to put Dorset (or any counties) accidents into a wider context. We’ve used the absolute numbers in this quick look at the figures. With so few cases, even a single case more or fewer can have a big impact on the ways the charts appear, so all of this must be taken as indicative. A better way to do it (and to make it more comparable across counties) would be to calculate by relating the absolute numbers to something like route miles in the county, relative numbers of staff working within a county, or traffic run on a mile of track (if such detailed statistics exist – or even existed). In the meantime, this preliminary look at one county’s cases is still useful, if impressionistic.

And what of the people involved? They were more than simply numbers, of course, so it’s worth looking at a few of the accidents in more detail, using the records revealed by our project. In this case, they all come from the accident reports produced by the state inspectors appointed to investigate railway staff accidents.

Shillingstone station, 1901

Shillingstone station in 1901 – imperfectly knitted together from 2 sheets, as the station sat across the join! The gradient dropped from the top of the map in the direction of the station. The accident is believed to have happened near the ‘SP’ and ‘MP’ markers up from the goods shed and crane.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

In the first case, checker and porter Samuel Crane was working at Shillingstone, on the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway, on 1 January 1912. He was to manoeuvre a horse-box from a train into a nearby siding. Whilst the train was waiting in the station, he loosened the connection between the horse-box and the rest of the train – but didn’t fully uncouple it. Crane rode on the steps of the horse-box as the train drew forward, past the points for the siding. The driver stopped the train again, to allow Crane to fully uncouple the horse-box; when he saw the horse-box was running back towards the siding (away from the train) the driver moved off. Only later was Crane found lying between the tracks, with head injuries which quickly proved fatal. The state inspector, JPS Main, concluded that ‘it is fairly evident that Crane lost his balance [whilst uncoupling the horse-box as the train was slowing down]. The horse-box, which passed over him, followed the train for a short distance [as it still had momentum from the train], after which it dropped back towards the siding on the falling gradient.’ Main noted that ‘it has been the usual practice to detach [horse-boxes] in this manner. I am assured that this will now be put a stop to’ (1912 Quarter 1, Appendix B). In future staff were to wait until the train had fully stopped before uncoupling the horse-box.

Sherborne station in 1901

Sherborne station, c.1901. The accident is believed to have happened near the goods shed.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

Whilst most of the cases in our database involve railway employees, there are some non-railway staff in there too. One of these accidents took place in Sherborne, served by the London and South Western Railway. On 14 August 1912 railway user Arthur Gibbs, 64, was moving his furniture from a railway wagon to carter AJ Hodges who was in charge of ‘a road vehicle’ – we presume horse and cart, but it is possible it might have been a motor vehicle. The wagon Gibbs was in was bumped by other wagons which had been shunted (i.e. moved) up against it. As a result ‘Gibbs was thrown against the side of the vehicle’, injuring his right side. Inspector JJ Hornby investigated the accident, but received conflicting evidence from witnesses. In the end he decided that head porter Thomas Dodderidge, who was in charge of the movements in the yard, hadn’t warned Gibbs and Hodges that shunting was about to take place – something he should have done, according to the rules.

1930s warning image

Posed 1930s accident prevention image, showing what might happen in circumstances similar to those at Sherborne!

These are only two of the Dorset cases in the database, with more to come in the future as our volunteer teams expand our coverage. We invite you to explore our resources and to make use of them in your research. For local and regional historians, the accident reports shed fresh light onto the very particular (the accidents), but also connect town and county to the national situation in one of the nation’s largest industries at the time.

We’re keen to hear from you if you are using our resources to expand and add to your research – and we’re always open to guest blog posts, putting the railway accidents in their local context, so please get in touch if you’ve an idea you’d like to offer.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes