In this guest post, Helena Wojtczak explores fatal accidents to women working on and living around the railway, particularly those women either paid and employed as gatekeepers or those women engaged in an ‘informal economy’ and carrying out work on behalf of their husbands who were otherwise indisposed when required. In doing so, Helena gives lie to any idea that women didn’t work on the railway or have accidents until well into the 20th century. As our database has shown – albeit so far with only a handful of cases (for example, see here), but more are expected – women railway workers were definitely not immune from the dangers of life amongst moving trains. Here Helena’s richly researched contribution adds another layer to our understanding of women’s work & accidents on the railways.
We welcome guest contributions like this, including on periods thus far out of the scope of the project data, so if you have an idea, please get in touch with us: railwayworkeraccidents[at]gmail.com.
Day-to-day life in close proximity to railway lines meant constant exposure to mortal danger. A lineside crossing cottage was hands down the most dangerous place to live. Countless gatekeepers and their spouses, their children, their pets and their livestock were struck or run over by engines, carriages and wagons. Because of the sheer size and weight of trains, their speed, the distance it took for them to stop, and their inability to swerve, anyone who failed to get out of the path of an approaching train would be hit, and very few survived.
The first woman I found who was killed whilst operating a level crossing was Elizabeth Ingham, whose husband was gatekeeper at Little Thetford Crossing, three miles from Ely on the Eastern Counties Railway. Deputising in his temporary absence on 8 May 1846, she crossed the line to open the gates when she noticed that her three-year-old had toddled after her and into the path of an oncoming train. She dashed forward and pushed it out of the way, but was herself hit by the engine, which ripped her arm from her body and bashed her head so dreadfully that death was instantaneous. A one-shilling deodand was placed upon the engine, a practice that was later abolished.
Sarah Scott was the wife of the gateman at Long Marston gates, three miles from Aylesbury on the London & North Western Railway. One foggy morning in March 1851 her husband overslept and the driver of a luggage train, seeing the gates closed across the line, blew his whistle. She rushed out to save the gates from destruction — and her husband from disciplinary proceedings. The engine driver spotted her, blew the whistle again, shut off steam and reversed the engine, but it was too late. She was knocked down and all of the carriage wheels passed through or over her body. When the train stopped the driver called out to Mr Scott and together they carried what the press called ‘her lacerated remains’ into the gatehouse.
In 1856 at Decoy Crossing, Doncaster, Great Northern Railway, Eliza Gittings and her toddler, Mary, died under the following circumstances:
The engine driver noticed something on the up-line, and the sun just having set he fancied it was a dog. To be sure, however, he whistled, and approaching near the gatehouse … he found it was a little girl, who was walking towards Bawtry. He turned the steam off, and reversed his engine, but the child could not be saved. When the whistle sounded … the wife of Gittings, the gatekeeper, hastened out to see what was the cause, and she saw her own daughter, only two years and a half old, about thirty yards in front of her. Crossing the up-line, she ran along the six-foot and reached her child. She put out her hands and was in the act of dragging the child off, when the engine came up, knocked down both of them, and killed the child on the spot. The guard of the train, which had stopped a few yards beyond the spot, returned, and with the assistance of some men carried the child and her mother into the gatehouse, and then sent to Doncaster for medical assistance. Mr. Fairbank, the company’s surgeon … hastened to the spot, being conveyed thither by a pilot engine. Mr. Fairbank found the child had been killed instantaneously by a blow on the head. The mother, who was bleeding profusely, had the left thigh fractured, the left foot crushed, and the toes of the right cut off, as though by a sharp instrument. The collar bone was also broken, as well as two of the ribs. Other internal injuries are supposed to have been sustained. Amputation was decided upon, but the medical gentlemen who arrived afterwards, and assisted the company’s surgeon, decided that it could not be safely performed. The poor woman is greatly prostrated, and not the least hope is entertained of her being able to survive any operation. The girl, it has since transpired, has often gone up the line about a quarter-past five, to meet two platelayers, who lived with her father, and to whom she was particularly attached. She was going to meet them when this unfortunate accident happened. The men were only about 300 yards off when the child and its mother were knocked down.
In 1857 the wife of the signalman at Barnes (London & South Western Railway) saw her child stray onto the line and instantly rushed to rescue him. She saved his life but lost hers: she was run over and both her legs were severed from her torso.
At Stretton, Midland Railway, in 1858 the wife of Station Master Simms was knocked down by an engine whilst attempting to cross the lines, and ‘the wheels of the carriages cut up the body into numerous pieces’, whilst poor Simms ‘was an agonised spectator of his wife’s unhappy and untimely death.’
The first bona fide ‘employed and paid’ gatewoman I found who was killed was 38-year-old Elizabeth Buckley, whose crossing, Waterfield, was just south of Knottingley, near Wakefield, Great Northern Railway. One summer’s afternoon in 1858 she was run over whilst chasing a pig off the line, leaving her platelayer husband with nine children, and the youngest one year old. Fifteen months after her death he married Harriett, a widow twenty years his junior, who worked as gatekeeper whilst raising fourteen children.
In 1862 Gatekeeper Mrs Robertson was killed on Rosewell crossing near Hawthorden.
Sixty-two-year-old year-old Sarah Johnston is another wife who lost her life in the service of the railway. During an evening snowstorm in January 1867 she and her husband David, of Embleton gate, Cockermouth, Keswick & Penrith Railway, heard a train approaching from a distance. The company had failed to notify David that a special was en route to collect ice-skaters from the frozen-over Bassenthwaite Lake. He had left the gates closed across the railway, so he and Sarah dashed out to save the gates from destruction. She went first and opened the furthest gate, but when she passed back across the line the train came into view. David shouted to her and ‘stretched out his hand with the intention of grasping her’. The engine struck him a severe blow to the arm and knocked Sarah down. David then saw its huge wheels slice his wife’s body in two. When the train had passed the full horror was laid out before him: the upper part of Sarah was outside the rails. the lower part was between the rails, and ‘blood and pieces of flesh were scattered about’.
The local paper stated that the CKPR ‘have been severely censured’ for failing to give gatekeepers notification of specials; however, if Johnston had obeyed the rule to keep the gates closed across the road, and not across the railway, ‘the accident could not have occurred’. The coroner’s jury, ‘after a somewhat lengthy deliberation’, returned a verdict of accidental death.
In 1870 an unnamed gatewoman at Camps Junction Crossing, Kirknewton, Caledonian Railway, was killed closing the gates.
Mary Haviland, keeper of Marston Crossing, died on 14 March 1870:
Shocking railway accident. On Monday afternoon an Inquest was held at the house adjoining the railway crossing between Marston-on-Dove and Rolleston … on the body of Mary Avelin [sic], aged 42. The … deceased had attended to the gates of her crossing for about four years, her husband being employed as a nightwatchman on the North Stafford line at Egginton.
On Saturday morning she was drying some clothes on the bridge next to the down line, and she crossed over the rails to attend to them at about twenty minutes past eleven o’clock, at which time the passenger train from Burton to Tutbury and the Macclesfield luggage train were due, and closely approaching the crossing. On her return, it is supposed, she was either discomfited by the boisterous wind, or her attention attracted towards the passenger train, for she was knocked down in the four foot by the luggage train, run over, and her body literally cut in two. The husband, who was working a few yards away in his garden, hurried up to render his unfortunate wife assistance, but only got there in time to find her a corpse, and her mangled body lying — one part in the six-foot, and the other part in the four-foot. Verdict: Accidental death. 
Mary left four children; the youngest aged ten. Within months her husband had married another Mary, one half his age, who took over from her predecessor and added a few more children to the family.
Hannah Earley, née Gainsford, another supposedly ‘non-working’ wife, was killed in 1871 at Middleton Road Crossing, half a mile south of Darsham, Great Eastern Railway, where they had lived and worked since 1859. Her husband George went out one evening to buy her a pint of porter at a time when four trains were due. Road users became impatient at being made to wait whilst three up trains passed, and kept shouting ‘gate’; so as soon as the third passed Hannah, with Emma, her thirteen-year-old daughter, began to open the gates. Suddenly Emma saw the down train thundering towards them and shouted a warning but it was too late: the engine smashed into the gate Hannah was opening. Poor Emma found one of her mother’s boots on the track, then another a few yards away, but no sign of her. A man took a lamp and found, twenty yards up the line, ‘a crushed and disfigured mass by the side of the metals’. It seems that the noise and steam of the up goods train masked all sound and sight of the down train. Hannah was thirty-seven and she left four children, the youngest aged five.
In 1875 Gatekeeper Mrs Smith was killed at Star crossing between Rye and Appledore.
In 1877 Susan Withams, ‘an aged and weak woman who tottered a little’, was run over on her sixty-fourth birthday at her crossing at Widford, Great Eastern Railway. One of her gates had jammed, and in a determined struggle to wrench it open she not only failed to hear the approach of a train but fell backwards across the rails. The man for whom she was opening the gates shouted a warning but it was too late. He averted his eyes to save himself from witnessing the moment of impact, but after the train passed he was confronted with the horrific sight of a human being cut to pieces. The coroner remarked, that ‘the poor creature had sustained sufficient injuries to kill a dozen people.’
In 1883 Mrs Brodie was knocked down by a speeding engine and instantly killed whilst helping her husband open his gates near Cupar Angus on the Caledonian Railway. In 1885 Jane Frayn, sixty-two, was hit and killed whilst crossing the tracks to access her outdoor sheds at Bury Street Crossing, Lower Edmonton, Great Eastern Railway.
In December 1886 a gatewoman at Lugar Ironworks on the Muirkirk Branch of the Glasgow & South Western Railway, ‘hearing a shunting engine whistle for the gate to be opened, came out with a lamp. The driver, observing a clear light, and believing the gate open, went on. The woman was knocked down, and both her legs were cut off.’
Widow Margaret Cowie was gatewoman at Kinnaird Crossing, Caledonian Railway, for twenty-seven years. One day in February 1894, when snow lay thick upon the ground, she opened the gates during what was described as ‘a blinding snowstorm’ to allow two men to lead a horse across the rails. The strong wind blew away one man’s cap, and she waited whilst he retrieved it. Because of the weather conditions she failed to see or hear the approach of an unscheduled goods train carrying a consignment of fish. Although the engine struck her, the men saw that she was alive and carried her into her cottage, where she died minutes later. A local reporter wrote that ‘Mrs Cowie’s sad end will be received with deep regret by all’, as she was ‘held in great respect for her courteous and attentive manner.’
In 1905 Jane Trueman, aged seventy-seven, was trying to shoo her dog off her crossing at Melmerby Gates, Ripon. She was struck by the buffers of a goods train, hurled bodily against a telegraph pole, and died later that day in the local cottage hospital.
Sarah Smith, aged fifty-three, died in 1906 operating her husband’s gate at Wroot Crossing, Finningley, Great Northern & Great Eastern Joint Railway. She was closing the gates in thick fog after a motor car had crossed when an express train crashed into one gate at 50mph, killing her instantly. Her body was ‘terribly cut up and mangled’.
My sadness whilst reading about and collating the sad stories of the many women who lost their lives in horrific accidents at railway crossings whilst serving the railways and the public was compounded by how little their sacrifice was acknowledged. They were quickly forgotten, and their existence has been obliterated by the oft-repeated lie that ‘no women worked in railway operating prior to 1915’. Until now, no railway historian has documented or published their stories.
Because they were just poor women, their lives were accorded no significance, and in death they were sometimes denied even the basic respect of being correctly named in the press. If named at all (some reports stated merely that ‘a gatekeeper’ had been killed) they were either ‘wife of’ or ‘Mrs’, followed by their husbands’ surnames, which were all too often misspelt. A ‘Jane Fargon’ turned out to be Jane Frayn. Mary Avelin was really Mary Haviland, and one referred to in various newspapers as Emma or Anna Arley, Airley, Herley or Hurley was in fact Hannah Earley.
I have made every effort to establish their full and correct names and, where possible, to present a little about their lives in order to give context to the stories of their tragic deaths. It felt like the least I could do to honour their sacrifice.
Helena Wojtczak was the first female guard employed by British Rail, holding the job from 1978 until 1998, when a train accident ended her career. She is the author of Railwaywomen (2005) the first and only book to present the story of women who worked in all roles on all of Britain’s railways since the 1830s. The book is now out of print and she is currently writing a new and much enlarged edition, and would welcome any material or images suitable for inclusion. She can be contacted by email: hastings.press[at] gmail.com and her website is www.hastingspress.co.uk
 Bury & Norwich Post, 13th May 1846.
 In 1860 a station was built adjacent to the gates.
 Morning Post, 17th March 1851. Bucks Chronicle and Bucks Gazette, 15th March 1851.
 York Herald, 23rd February 1856.
 Gloucestershire Chronicle, 21st February 1857.
 The Bradford Observer, 22nd April 1858.
 Leeds Times, 10th July 1858, West Yorkshire baptisms.
 Norfolk Chronicle, 26th January 1867.
 Carlisle Journal, 25th January 1867.
 The ‘four foot’ is the space between the two running rails – it is a contraction of 4ft 8 1/2 inches, the standard gauge; the ‘six foot’ is the space between two sets of running rails.
 Derby Mercury, 28th March 1870. www.derby-signalling.org.uk .
 Ipswich Journal, 23rd September 1871. Her surname was misreported as Arley, Airley, Herley and Hurley. The cottage is now a private dwelling and although the crossing is still there it bears automatic half-barriers
 Chelmsford Chronicle, 4th Mary 1877.
 Eddowes’s Journal, 8th August 1883.
 Manchester Times, 1st January 1887.
 Montrose Review, 2nd February 1894.
 Leeds Mercury, 6th July 1905.
 Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 26th November 1906. Sheffield Independent, 28th November 1906.