History repeating itself? Same location, same accident, same outcome – 2 days apart

One of the important things that our database makes it easier for us to see is how often similar cases occur: whether it be the same type of accident, the same type of injury, the same causative factors, the same location, the same grade of worker, the same people (subject of a coming post) … or any other number of possible links. Previously it could be difficult to make those connections: you’d have to dig through all the investigation reports making a note of the factor you were looking to connect. With 3,911 cases to go through for the period 1911-15, this would be no mean feat. With our database you can find those links in a matter of seconds.

One example of the links would be the two fatalities which occurred at Old Oak Common, just outside Paddington, on the Great Western Railway on 18 and 20 February 1911. Both men involved were struck by trains whilst crossing tracks on the way to work, and both cases had interesting things to say about who was responsible for worker safety, as well as the ways in which workers acted in the real world.

The first case was that of W. Waitman, foreman shunter. His body was found between the rails of the down main line at 12.10am on 18 February. The inspecting officer, JPS Main, concluded that he had been knocked down by a train whilst on his way to book on at the shunter’s cabin located on the opposite side of the tracks. Main also noted that an entrance to the site was provided which would have meant Waitman did not have to cross the tracks, and which was as convenient to Waitman as the route he took. As a result, the accident was attributed to Waitman’s failure to use this entrance.

Main went on to note that the GWR had painted an order of 1910 on a board at the shunter’s cabin, to the effect that ‘“All persons leaving the Yard must do so by the proper exit into Hythe Road, which has been provided, and anyone found leaving by any other route will render himself liable to dismissal.” This, however, only refers to leaving the yard.’ Much like the threats contained in the Company’s rule book, exposure to danger could, in theory, result in punishment – though finding evidence that these threats were carried out is extremely difficult to do.

Main also picked up on a notice issued in February 1910, which did tell staff they had to use the road entrance to the yard, but found that he ‘could obtain no assurance that Waitman had seen this notice or was acquainted with it, and although I am assured that it was posted in the shunters’ cabin at the time, it is not in evidence there now.’ As an aside, we can see a secondary value of the accident reports, in that they capture valuable detail about the rules, regulations and orders that were issued – a factor searchable in our database.

Ultimately this was another case in which the inspector could conclude that although the employee concerned was at fault, what he had been doing was common practice, well known by the management: ‘The route which Waitman was taking … has been used and is still being used by a portion of the staff with the knowledge of the Company’s officials.’ Main recommended an order be issued against the use of that route, with ‘stringent measures taken to enforce compliance’ (1911 Quarter 1, Appendix B).

Given the investigation into Waitman’s accident took place over a month after his death, its conclusions came too late to help WA Watson, killed at Old Oak Common in similar circumstances on 20 February 1911 – just two days after Waitman had died. Watson, who had started work as an engine cleaner only 18 days before his death, was due to book on duty at 6am; his body was found, between the tracks of the down main line, just before 7am and again it was presumed he had been attempting to cross the lines to get to work.

JPS Main was the inspecting officer, so could bring to bear his knowledge and experience gained from Waitman’s case – probably the two investigations were conducted in parallel, given the similarities. Again, the entrance from Hythe Road was noted, as were notices forbidding men to cross the lines – and, tragically, the fact that ‘a circular, in which reference is made to the fact that the practice of walking along the lines, except in the execution of duty, is forbidden, was found in the pocket of the deceased lad.’ Watson had signed a chit to say that he had received and read the circular, so the Company had a cast-iron case that it was not to blame. As a result, Main could ‘only conclude that the accident resulted from a failure to comply with the instructions.’

Interestingly Main went on to note that Watson lived to the south of the locomotive sheds ‘and his shortest route to the sheds was by way of the gas works entrance and across the main lines. This was known when he was engaged, and it is to be regretted that Watson was not impressed at the time with the importance of coming to work by the Hythe Road entrance and distinctly forbidden to use the other.’ Snippets like this provide a human touch, but also reveal why workers acted in the ways that they did – exposure to danger might seem irrational, but very often there were underlying, understandable and rational reasons.

Main finished this report by referring back to Waitman’s accident and once again reiterating the call to the GWR to issue a direct order forbidding the use of the route across the tracks (1911 Quarter 1, Appendix B). Did the Company do this? This might be discovered by a thorough search through surviving circulars, some of which are held at the National Archives at Kew. All that can be said from the database is that a similar accident doesn’t occur again at this location – though was all too familiar across the railway system through the period 1911-15 and beyond.

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