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Dying for a wee – 2

Two weeks’ ago we looked at accidents to carriage and wagon staff who were keeping the railway network’s on-train toilets stocked. Provision was clearly made for passenger comfort and convenience – but what about the staff?

In this week’s post, we’re looking at those cases where operating staff had to improvise when they wanted to use the loo and an accident resulted. Most of our database is clearly connected with accidents – cases of discernible physical harm. However, the question of welfare surrounding sanitary provision is an unusual topic, as it binds health and safety firmly together. Lack of proper toilet provision could lead to some insanitary practices, which as well as being threatening to health could be dangerous.

Accident prevention image warning about a similar cause of accident to that of fireman McKellar
Caledonian Railway 1921 posed photo, warning about a similar cause of accidents to that experienced by fireman McKellar.

Staff who were based in a fixed location on the network might expect some lavatory provision to be made for them. Stations, depots and offices were a straightforward proposition. But a great many railway staff were mobile, and that made things more challenging. That included the loco crews, like 21-year old fireman J McKellar of the Glasgow and South Western Railway. He was injured on 12 August 1912 at Stevenston in Ayrshire. He left his engine to ‘answer the call of nature’, as Inspector Charles Campbell delicately put it, and thereafter paused to talk to a track worker. Driver Fingland ran the engine around the train; as it was passing McKellar attempted to climb on board but slipped and fell. His right leg was run over and later amputated. Campbell placed responsibility with McKellar, but also noted that Fingland broke the rules by running the engine on the main line by himself (1912 Quarter 3, Appendix C).

Track workers were also mobile, expected to maintain a particular section of track which they inspected regularly. 13 January 1913 was a foggy night in Hull. Thomas Macklin had been at work at Albert Dock, on the North Eastern Railway for over 13 hours. He had been to a use a nearby toilet, over the tracks, but as he returned he was knocked down and run over by an engine. His left foot was amputated (1913 Quarter 1, Appendix B).

Comparative maps of Niddrie West
Niddrie West in 1913 (above) and 1932 (below). Was the change called for by the inspector made? In the 1932 map, are those two buildings next to the ‘Tk’ (water tank; centre left, between sidings) the new toilets?
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

Sometimes an accident produced a change for the better. Thomas Turnbull’s death in 1915 was one of these cases. At 7am on 8 January he clocked on at Niddrie West, Midlothian, for the start of his shift as a North British Railway shunter. Just 15 minutes later he was found lying between 2 sidings, with both legs and his right arm having been run over by wagon wheels. Inspector Campbell’s report recorded that ‘when the unfortunate man was found he was able to explain that he had gone underneath some wagons … for the purpose of responding to a call of nature’. The wagons were moved and he was ‘no doubt’ attempting to get out from under when he was caught. Turnbull should, according to Campbell, have made sure the wagons weren’t going to be moved and in not doing so, ‘incurred grave risk of injury and the accident was the result.’ At the same time, ‘the want of water-closet accommodation contributed to the accident.’ Since then, the Company had agreed to provide toilets and urinals in north and south yards at Niddrie ‘as expeditiously as possible’ (1915 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

Sometimes the trip to the toilet was implicated as an indirect factor in the accident. One such case took place on 30 October 1911, at Cowdenbeath in Fife, on the North British Railway. The train crew (driver, fireman and 56-year old goods guard A Beveridge) had shunted 7 wagons into a siding, when the fireman ‘alighted to respond to a call of nature’. The driver was running past the wagons, a move Beveridge was not expecting, and just as the engine drew up to Beveridge he stepped out in front of it. He was knocked down, losing his legs as a result. Whilst Inspector Campbell found Beveridge’s ‘want of care’ to be the primary cause of the accident, he noted that driver Sneddon ‘deserves censure’ for moving the engine without his fireman. This was particularly so as if fireman Downie had been on board ‘he would have been on the side favourable for seeing Beveridge, and would, no doubt, have observed the man and warned him in time to prevent the mishap’ (1911 Quarter 4, Appendix C).

(Was the North British Railway more lax than other companies in providing toilets for its staff? I suspect it’s unlikely, and that this apparent concentration of NBR cases is more an artefact of the reporting and the selection of cases to investigate. It’s doubtful that other companies were any the more conscientious about staff welfare, sadly.)

Even fixed location staff might still have to walk to access a toilet. On 3 February 1913 springsmith George McCracken, 42, was at work in the Great Northern Railway of Ireland’s smith shop at Great Victoria station, Belfast, when he needed to use the loo. Men in the smith shop were not allowed to use the station lavatories – staff very much being second class citizens. Instead they were expected to use the facilities in the goods yard, around 300 yards away. Nevertheless, McCracken headed to the station toilets. He ‘rushed across No. 4 platform line immediately in front of a passenger train … his intention evidently being to get on the platform ramp.’ Unfortunately he was caught the footboards of the coaches and crushed between them and the platform, dying late that day. Inspector Campbell decided that McCracken exhibited ‘an extraordinary want of care’ as he had, apparently, seen the train before attempting to cross. Campbell recommended that ‘in view of the fact that in order to reach [the lavatories in the goods yard] the men have to cross certain lines, the Company might consider the advisability of providing another lavatory at a more suitable place’ (1913 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

Map of Melton Mowbray.
Melton Mowbray in 1902. The accident location is believed to be near the signalbox (‘S.B.’) by the bridge over the river.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

In our final case the distance travelled was not far – but far enough to produce an injury. On 1 April 1914 signalman Thomas Brown, 57, left his box at Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, on the Midland Railway, to visit the toilet a few yards away. On his way back he tripped over the highest signal wire of a group of 7 which ran between the signal box and toilet; he injured his shoulder. Inspector JJ Hornby put the case down to misadventure, but also recommending that the possible the wires should be lowered – the highest was 20 inches above track level. Interestingly the report notes that the Company agreed to do this – and to protect all the wires at this location (1914 Quarter 2, Appendix C). They didn’t have to do this – the inspectors could not force companies to act and were only able to make recommendations, although in some cases (like trip hazards such as this) there was an added imperative from a set of rules imposed by the Board of Trade in 1902 (see this post).

Moving around the railway clearly came with dangers, whether a direct part of staff roles or to answer the call of nature when a toilet wasn’t provided in the same location. This wasn’t an issue which disappeared at the end of our period (1939). It would be interesting to know what, if any, additional provision was spurred with the increased number of women working on the railways during the First and Second World Wars – though with the caveat that women were less likely to be put into the more mobile roles which had less access to proper toilet provision.

It looks like the problem remained. It was neatly captured in a letter read out in Parliament in 1958 by David Jones, Labour MP for The Hartlepools. A constituent noted ‘that men of the British Railways working on shifts at a yard known as the New One Plant siding have neither water nor toilet accommodation.’ The yard was built after 1955, so sanitary facilities were evidently not planned: once again, the staff were a blind spot in welfare provision. Jones continued ‘There is no toilet accommodation whatever and it is disgusting to say the least that men are compelled to do their business between lines that men have to walk over in the course of their job.’ The health implications were clear enough to Jones, but this was also a safety hazard. To this day, some types of railway work are hard to provide for – loco crews and track workers remain a challenge, given the mobile and often remote nature of their work. That may expose them to greater health and safety risks than we’d expect in the 21st century – and once again, a look at our project data demonstrates that these issues have a long history.



We’d like to thank all those kind people – former & current railway staff – who helped us on Twitter last year when we put a plea out about provision of toilets for staff & passenger trains emptying loos direct on track. For some illuminating(!) replies that say a lot about staff welfare past & present, & about some of the challenges of keeping the railways operating, see this thread.

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  1. Pingback:Dying for a wee – 1 - Railway Work, Life & Death

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