Heatwave! July 1911

The UK is currently undergoing a very warm spell, with today, 25 July, looking like it’s going to be the hottest day of the year so far. Searching our database to see if there were any hot weather cases, we found two in which the heat was mentioned as a possible factor. Both were in July 1911 – and looking further, we find that this was part of a heatwave that affected the nations from early July until mid-September. Fingers crossed the current hot patch won’t last that long!

Wenfordbridge station, c.1912. The line which curves around and off to the right is the quarry tramway.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

The first of the cases occurred on 21 July, at Wenfordbridge (given simply as Wenford in the original report) in Cornwall, on the London and South Western Railway (LSWR). Whilst the station formed the terminus of the line, there was a tramway (with a connection to the railway) which continued on to the local stone quarry. This almost certainly accounts for the fact that the worker killed in the accident, William Dingle, wasn’t an employee of the LSWR but a labourer with the United Stone Firms. At about 10.30am he was moving two wagons but ‘shortly afterwards he was seen lying at the side of the rails … On examination he was found to be quite dead, his vertebrae having been dislocated.’

Inspector John Main noted that as there were no witnesses it was impossible to be certain what had happened. His hunch was that Dingle had ‘either slipped or tripped against a sleeper end when applying the brakes’ or ‘it is possible that he may have been overcome by the heat which is stated to have been very oppressive.’ He attributed the accident to misadventure, but asked the company to raise the level of ballast to the sleeper edges where the staff had to walk (1911 Quarter 3, Appendix B).

 

The second case occurred a week later, on July 28, on the Metropolitan District Railway, and was another fatality. George Clark was an ‘acting ganger’ – a ganger being someone in charge of a permanent way gang (a group of track workers), so presumably Clark was undertaking the role temporarily. He was working between Boston Road station to the north-east and Osterley Park and Spring Grove station (actually sited next to the wonderfully, but rather less elegantly, named ‘Scrattage’). Just before 4pm, motorman Charles Foster, driving an electric passenger train, spotted Clark sitting on the outer rail of the line he was on; Foster ‘sounded the whistle and subsequently applied the emergency brake, but Clark made no attempt to move, and was run over’.

Wood Lane overbridge is seen towards the centre of the map.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

Inspector JH Armytage was investigating, and he too noted the weather, which was ‘exceptionally hot and sunny, and Clark was sitting in the shadow of Wood Lane overbridge. He was apparently either fast asleep or unconscious.’ He was also away from his gang, which he’d left around 45 minutes before the accident to walk over the length of line for which they were responsible. Armytage too put the accident down to misadventure, but pulled the Company up on the fact that Clark had been on duty for around 16 hours at the time he was killed. He noted that it was ‘particularly desirable that a ganger when inspecting the line should be alert, both for his own safety and for the safety of the travelling public’ – an interesting (and, for these reports, relatively unusual) combination of staff and passenger safety. Armytage concluded by noting that the Company had changed practices to ensure that track workers’ hours ‘will be kept within reasonable limits’ (1911 Quarter 3, Appendix B) – presumably meaning ‘only’ 12 hour shifts.

The July 1911 heatwave was sufficient that in some areas changes were made to working patterns, to avoid exposure to the midday sun – though this seems to have meant starting and finishing the working day sooner, rather than a reduction in hours. Some of those undertaking strenuous work in hot environments went on strike in August, including dockers at the Victoria and Albert Docks. Deaths such as those recorded here were not confined to the railway industry, and The Times even ran a ‘deaths by heat’ column. Melting asphalt on roads, for example, was reported to have caused accidents.

As always, just because we’ve only got two cases in which the heat was suggested to be a factor it doesn’t mean there weren’t more. Many railway jobs at the time were, frankly, hard. Imagine toiling in any conditions for 10 or 12 hours a day, to keep the lines maintained by shovelling ballast or lifting rails, moving tons of coal whilst firing a steam engine or running after stock to couple or uncouple it; now imagine doing it in temperatures of up to 33°C or more. People are doing many of these same tasks on the railway to this day, of course, so let’s spare a thought for them. And whatever we’re doing on the railways – working or travelling – hopefully we can keep cool and hydrated.

To return to the heatwave of July 1911, what the absence of further heat-related cases in the database suggests is that they either weren’t investigated or that the hot weather wasn’t thought at the time to be relevant. Today we might take a different view. This latter type of case is notoriously difficult to handle, as it involves our making judgements on past events without full details or witnesses to hand, and with rather different standards and expectations – a difficulty which besets a great many approaches we might take to the past.

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