Eagerly anticipating travel

As a project we’re keen on archives! No great surprise, given the records we rely upon are cared for in archives – and one of our partner institutions, the Modern Records Centre, is an archive, and another, the National Railway Museum, contains an archive. We also know that not everyone can get to physical archives in person (when they’re open: roll on the end of Covid!). So one of the hopes of our project is to create a virtual archive, making more easily available, at a distance, information about accidents to British and Irish railway staff in the past.

All of this means we’re supporters of the ‘Explore Your Archive’ campaign, from the Archives and Records Association UK & Ireland. It’s intended to showcase archives, reminding us how important they are. One of the ways they’re doing this in 2020 is via monthly themes, allowing archives to showcase their related holdings – and to show us how varied archives and their records are. July’s theme is … travel!

It’s a theme highly relevant to our project, of course. The railway network was all about travel – and passengers and goods wouldn’t have been able to move without the staff that kept the system running. So, all of the accidents in our database are, sadly, intimately linked to travel. There’s no doubt that railway travel brought many upsides – but it came at a cost, which our project is making more readily visible.

Needless to say, staff travel – to and from work, for example – appears in our database, as in the cases of two men killed at the same location, two days apart, or two 15 year-old train register boys killed on their way home. Travelling for work on the trains, as crew – whether driver, fireman, passenger guard or goods guard – could be dangerous. And working in and around moving trains was, of course, hazardous. But in this post, we wanted to highlight a slightly different way in which travel was involved: the anticipation of travel.

Map of accident location

Newark’s Great Northern Railway station, c.1915. The red circle indicates the believed site of the accident.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

On 9 July 1912 wagon fitter Wallace Scott had been called out from his base at Retford, to Newark, in Nottinghamshire, on the Great Northern Railway. A wagon had ‘run hot’: it had been detached from its train and left in No. 5 siding for attention, as a result of a hot axle. At around 3.50pm Scott needed some cotton waste, to be had in the examiners’ cabin on the far side of No. 6 siding. Scott therefore needed to either cross No. 6 siding or walk around it.

Amos Ford’s investigation noted that, although Scott’s shift was 12 hours, he had by this point been on duty for 14 hours and 20 minutes. Understandably he was ‘anxious to complete his work so that he might return to Retford by the 4.12pm train’. As a result ‘he unwisely attempted to pass between some wagons standing about two yards apart in No. 6 siding.’ As he did so, a shunting move further along the siding struck these wagons, ‘and before he could get clear the wagon struck his left shoulder and turned him round, on which the thumb of his right hand was pinched between the buffers.’

Image of the type of accident

A similar issue, featured as a warning in a 1932 accident prevention booklet.

Fortunately he suffered just that pinched thumb – it could have been a lot worse. Interestingly, this was one of the cases in which the railway companies’ catch-all rule 24a was noted: ‘However good his intentions may have been Scott is to blame for exposing himself to danger contrary to the Company’s Rule 24a.’ Ford did at least have the grace to note the issue of the long hours: ‘I learned from the Company’s representative who attended my inquiry that the Company have already dealt with the question of excessive hours in this case, and that arrangements have been made which will prevent a recurrence’ (1912 Quarter 3, Appendix C).

It would have been wonderful had those arrangements been detailed, or the circumstances which led to the excessive hours in this case – but sadly they weren’t included. What we do see, though, is an unusual way in which travel might underlie some of the accidents we find our project. Searching our database reveals a myriad of such cases, and we invite you to have a look. Be creative about how you think about ‘travel’ – and let us know what you find!

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