Menu Close

Dying to save her life

Our database is for the most part representative of the accidents incurred by British and Irish railway workers around the time of the First World War. However, there are some gaps. Some reflect the particular administrative structures of the time: staff in the workshops weren’t covered in the Railway Inspectorate reports, something discussed in an earlier blog post. Some probably either reflect what the Inspectors regarded as important or what they felt they could achieve in the limited time they had for any given case. This might have meant that their attention was focused on the jobs which exposed workers to greater dangers – broadly speaking, the manual roles like track work, or shunting.

One effect of this might have been to focus on what were – at the time – understood as male roles. As a result, women are rather under-represented in our database. This is something we discussed when the first of our 3 female cases came up – and we return to now, for the second case.

Saughton station, c.1914. Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

This one occurred on 9 July 1913 at Saughton station, on the North British Railway – now a suburb of Edinburgh, though at the time rather more secluded as the map demonstrates. Just after 9am foreman carriage cleaner Robert Watt and carriage cleaner Williamina Gardiner were standing between up south and down north running lines, waiting for the Dundee to Edinburgh train to pass over the connection between up north and up south lines. As it approached, Watt and Gardiner moved out of the way, but unaccountably, Gardiner ‘turned back and stepped on to the connection about five yards in front of the engine. Watt turned back and endeavoured to pull Mrs Gardiner clear of the connection, but both of them were struck by the engine and sustained fatal injuries.’

Gardiner & Watt’s accident, as imagined in the Illustrated Police News of 17 July 1913. Thanks to Helena Wojtczak for the image.

Inspector JH Armytage’s report noted that there was an old signal box to the south of the lines, used as a mess-room and store for the cleaners, and the pair were presumed to be making their way across the complex of tracks to get to the carriage sidings to the north of the  lines. Armytage’s presumption was that Gardiner mistook the route of the train and Watt ‘met his death while endeavouring to save Mrs Gardiner’s life.’ He went on: ‘It is satisfactory to learn that the Company have decided to erect a mess-room and store on the north side of the lines’ (1913 Quarter 3, Appendix B).

From the Dundee Courier of 29 August 1913 we learn that Robert Watt was 39, and lived at Trafalgar Street in Leith. His actions were recognised by the Carnegie Hero Fund, ensuring that his wife and 4 children received an additional 25 shillings per week, above the statutory compensation awarded after Watt’s death. Throughout the whole of the short note, Williamina Gardiner was not mentioned by name – she was very much a bit part in the drama from the focus of the report.

It is perhaps unsurprising that we have an accident involving carriage cleaners – yet another of the grades expected to work on the lines, sometimes including avoiding moving traffic when cleaning and sometimes when getting to or from work sites. And again reflecting some of the wider societal notions of what female railway workers might do, it is similarly unsurprising that our second female case involved a woman employed as a cleaner. As we extend the project into the interwar years, we will see if more women feature in our expanded database and what roles they performed.

Updated 8 July 2019 with further detail supplied by Helena Wojtczak, gratefully received.


  1. Pingback:Women of the twentieth-century railway - Railway Work, Life & Death

  2. Pingback:Elizabeth Trevelyan, signalwoman - Railway Work, Life & Death

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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