‘Further accidents may be anticipated’

When looking at safety, risk and accidents, on the railways and more widely, many interesting questions occur. Some of them are relatively small scale – about day-to-day activities, for instance, or on a slightly bigger scale, about working, living and playing conditions. Some of them are much bigger – what role should the state play in the lives of its citizens? All are surprising and, when viewed historically, tell us a lot about prevailing attitudes and ideas, whether in the workplace, on the streets, at home or in wider society. Sometimes we even get a glimpse of the biggest of all questions, about the very nature of the ‘accident’, such as how we define the accidental and whether or not it is possible to foresee an accident.

One case from the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project – and it is not unique – touches on a number of these issues, from the smallest to the largest scale. Set at Brindle Health Junction, Salford, on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, it saw a narrow escape – though still significant injury – for Shunter J Reyolds.

At 7.10pm on 20 January 1911, Reynolds and Guard Dwyer were involved in a shunting manoeuvre in the sidings – so, moving wagons between sidings to form trains. They were working at a pinch point, where two sidings joined together: ‘in this space the staff conducting the shunting operations […] have to work while simultaneous movements are being made’ on the adjacent track. So, at a micro level we have detail about particular working practices.

Reynolds was struck by a wagon on one siding and thrown against another wagon on the other siding. His feet were injured, one later being amputated – not such a narrow escape perhaps, but as Inspector John Main’s report continues ‘Dwyer rushed to catch Reynolds, and he was able fortunately to prevent him from falling below the waggons [sic]. Dwyer’s prompt action and presence of mind is to be commended.’ At a personal level we have detail about the individual impact of an accident.

The recognition of Dwyer’s role is pleasing to see – all too often the only mentions of the staff are for their believed misdeeds or where blame was being levelled (as in last week’s post). Main’s investigation then went on to do something else unusual, namely clearly criticising the company for its inaction. Firstly he noted that ‘the place is distinctly dangerous as the clearance is insufficient and to this fact the accident must, in a great measure, be attributed.’ He followed this up with two previous cases of accident (which had been investigated, including one fatality in 1910) – demonstrating the Lancashire and Yorkshire as unwilling to change either the layout or the working practices of the location – a slightly larger scale comment, possibly on the economics of railway operation and the costs involved in making changes.

Main also added the comment that ‘Representations have, I understand, been made by the men working in the sidings, and the danger of the place is appreciated by the local officials.’ We get something of an idea of the unequal power relationship between company and staff, who made representation very much as a supplicant – classically at this time, the power of the railway management was strong, and they didn’t like their prerogative to deal with the staff as they saw fit being challenged.

We also get an impression of some of those bigger scales issues involved, namely the relationship between the company and the state. Main’s report commented that ‘It is to be regretted that no practical improvement has been effected. I would again most strongly urge the Company to take the necessary steps to provide a safe clearance […] without further delay.’ Due to the way in which the railway companies had been able to influence and limit the remit of the railway inspectors, they had only the power to make recommendations following accidents and not to force the companies to make changes.

Main concluded his report with the comment that unless changes were made ‘further accidents may be anticipated’ (1911 Quarter 1, Appendix B). This gets at the question of how we define an ‘accident’: does it need to be something unforeseen and unforeseeable? If so, would future injuries or deaths at the same location from the same cause genuinely be ‘accidents’?

That this apparently minor case and nondescript location was the setting for such big questions demonstrates how pervasive issues of accidents, safety and risk were (and are), as well as the importance of really exploring these topics closely. We learn much about work, life and death on the railways, and about the ways in British society understood accidents at this time.

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