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‘Improper propping’

It seems every aspect of railway working was (is?) full of arcane practices. Shunting – moving wagons and carriages around to get them into the right place for use – seems to have accumulated more than a few of these terms: fly shunting (more on that, here), tow roping (more here), horse shunting (unlike fly shunting, this was as described: using horses to move stock) and ‘propping’, the focus of today’s post.

Pushing a wagon with a prop
Wagons being prop shunted at Willesden, London, 1915. A wooden prop is used between the locomotive and the wagon to propel it on the adjacent track. Image courtesy National Railway Museum (1997-7409_LMS_3200).

As the name might suggest, propping or prop shunting involved using a pole to push a wagon (typically) where there might be some reason the locomotive had to run some distance behind the wagon. This might include propelling a wagon into a siding running from the line the engine was on, or moving a wagon on an adjacent line. It was clearly a tricky practice. You had to get the right level of force to keep the pole/ prop in place, effectively wedged between engine and wagon; but not so much force you broke the pole. It needed someone – a man at this time – to put the pole in place and retrieve the pole when done. Unsurprisingly, then, it produced accidents.

Significantly, the practice was viewed by the Railway Inspectors to be sufficiently dangerous that it fell under the scope of the 1902 Prevention of Accidents Rules. Whilst not banned outright, it was clearly discouraged. That meant, however, that it left some discretion with the railway companies about whether or not they continued the practice – and needless to say, some companies did. In our first run of data, covering 1911-1915, we’ve identified at least 9 accidents relating to propping in the database, though there may well be more.

Salford docks, big picture
Some of the maze of lines at Salford Dock.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.
Detail of the complexity at Salford Dock
Detail showing the sorts of dockside track arrangements involved in Nabb’s accident.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

One of these took place on 1 November 1912, at Salford Dock on the Manchester Ship Canal Railway. At about 3.30pm shunter Henry Nabb was told to move a wagon loaded with scrap timber from one of the many lines at No. 9 dock. Another wagon, ‘loaded with long timber,’ was blocking the set of points that Nabb wanted to use. Nabb asked some of the timber loaders working on some of the ‘considerable number of wagons’ being loaded there (a reminder of the scale of Salford docks at this time), but no-one responded. The long timber on the wagon he needed to move meant it wasn’t possible to get a shunting engine next to it, so Nabb improvised: ‘he therefore attempted to move the wagon by means of a prop … the prop consisted of a piece of timber about nine feet long and four inches square, which he found on the ground.’

The by-now predictable happened: ‘the timber was not sound, and broke while the wagon was being moved.’ It hit Nabb, ‘splitting his breast bone’, fracturing 3 ribs and straining his right arm. Inspector JH Armytage investigated, noting that the Company forbade propping ‘except when performed by authority of the Railway Superintendent or other responsible officer, who will supervise the operation.’ The challenge of that, of course, was that first you had to find a responsible officer: no mean feat in a complex as large as the docks. When a wagon was needed elsewhere, taking the time to follow the rules to the letter might have been a luxury the workers couldn’t afford. In this case in Armytage’s view ‘Nabb and the engine driver, Robert Topping, were fully aware of this prohibition, and must share the responsibility for the accident.’

Was a blind eye being turned by the Manchester Ship Canal Railway Company to illicit propping? Armytage strongly implied so: ‘from the evidence given at my inquiry, however, I am satisfied that a considerable amount of improper propping is performed on this railway’. The dock inspector (a Company official) said that under the circumstances here he would have used a prop. Armytage, however, was of the opinion that wagons shouldn’t be left overhanging points and criticised the Company for its failure to provide proper props. Indeed, he concluded ‘I consider the practice of propping should be entirely abolished on this railway,’ giving the 1902 rules as an explanation (1912 Quarter 4, Appendix B).

Map of Hindpool, Barrow in Furness
Hindpool (to the top of the map) in c.1910.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

An improvised prop at Salford Docks wasn’t a one-off. Another case was investigated by Inspector Charles Campbell in 1915, at Hindpool in Barrow on the Furness Railway. On 27 March, foreman Thomas Cornish, 59, decided that he was going to move 14 wagons by propping. He chose a ‘plank … about 15 feet in length.’ The plank broke ‘and a section of it struck Cornish and knocked him underneath one of the wagons.’ He fell over the rail and a wagon wheel ‘came against his right hip, crushing it severely.’ Fortunately it didn’t pass over him, as that might have been fatal. Campbell put the accident down to a breach of the general rule which all railway companies had adopted, ‘which prohibits the movement of vehicles by means of a prop except in cases where specially authorised by the Superintendent of the Line’. In addition the Furness Railway (in theory) did not permit propping on any part of its system, though once again practice – and accidents – demonstrated that reality did not match the Company’s expectations.

Coal tipping in action.
Coal tipping c.1910 at Garston Docks, using a similar process to that employed at Tyne Dock. The teemer can be seen on the platform.
Courtesy National Railway Museum, 1996-7316_CR_MC_280.

In January 1913, two cases occurred in quick succession on the North Eastern Railway at Tyne Dock. The first of these occurred on 21 January, injuring Robert Coulson, a coal-teemer – that is, a man who led wagons into coal hoists at staithes and docks, and opened the wagon door to allow coal to empty when the hoist was raised. At about 1.45pm Coulson needed to move a wagon to one of the tipping points – a hint of the scale of the operation is that it was number 16 spout on number 3 jetty, and the image below shows the substance of the infrastructure at Tyne Dock. The wagon was being moved by gravity, but stopped across some of the lines. As a shunting engine was on one of the lines, it was moved forward ‘and two comparatively ineffectual attempts were made to move the wagon by the use of a prop.’ On the 3rd attempt, the prop slipped and hit Coulson, bruising his left shoulder. Inspector Armytage felt that Coulson and the driver, William Burns, were ‘to blame for attempting to use the prop in this case in an unnecessarily dangerous manner’. At the same time, he caveated this with the comment that ‘I am inclined to attribute the accident mainly to the fact that the operation of propping is permitted at this and other jetties at Tyne Dock.’ Tellingly this was not a new problem: ‘the attention of the Company has frequently been drawn to the danger of the practice’. Some progress had been made, as Armytage recorded that electric winches had been installed at number 1 jetty around 1910, and propping had therefore ‘been abolished’ – though one wonders if it still carried on illicitly, as has so clearly been seen elsewhere. Either way, Armytage concluded hoping that ‘the Company will take steps to abolish the practice on the other jetties as soon as possible’ (1913 Quarter 1, Appendix B).

Tyne Dock and the 4 North Eastern Railway coaling staithes seen from the air, 1918.
Tyne Dock, as photographed in 1918 by Gladstone Adams. Image from Kevin Blair, courtesy of Dave Waller, from Tyne Tugs and Tug Builders (

That abolition didn’t happen within the following 8 days, so on 29 January, a very similar accident occurred. Coal-teemer William Rennison was moving wagons by gravity down to number 3 jetty (again). At about 4.30pm four wagons ‘were wanted urgently on the jetty.’ As in Coulson’s case, Rennison had a problem getting the wagons moving. Inspector JH Armytage noted that ‘instead of fetching the engine from the jetty’ instead Rennison intended to use a prop, pushed by 8 wagons in the adjacent line which he could get moving. He held the prop in place whilst the other wagons were moved up against it, but as they made contact the prop broke ‘and Rennison’s right thumb was burst open.’ Rennison knew he shouldn’t have used the prop, but interestingly Armytage stated ‘I am not satisfied that the Company have hitherto taken sufficiently drastic measures to prevent this dangerous and unnecessary operation’ at this location ‘and their attention should be drawn to the point’ (1913 Quarter 1, Appendix B).

Tyne Dock in close up, c.1913.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.
Tyne Dock from the air, 1928, with the loading jetties to the right of the image.
Courtesy Britain from Above.

From this selection of cases we can see that this form of shunting, propping, evidently had some particular dangers, in what was already a dangerous role. There were, of course, fatalities, too – and likely cases which involved propping but which were not recorded as such because those involved wished to hide what had happened. And this wasn’t something confined to the UK, either – for an informative look at the practice in the USA, where it was known as ‘poling,’ see here. It will be interesting to see how many more cases of propping occur as we bring more data into the project – no doubt this will be a topic we return to!


  1. Peter Robinson

    I am one of the volunteers that have been entering the data for the Railway Work Life and Death project I started after the first run and my first impression was the high number of accidents relating to shunting and the number of Companies that seem to have turned a blind eye to some of the working practices. I personally didn`t see any pole shunting accidents but did notice the number of accidents involving the misuse of the shunting pole. I just wonder in today`s society with Health and Safety whether accidents still happen because of wrong working practices.

  2. Mike Esbester

    Thanks Peter – firstly for all your work on the project, and then for the comment. You are completely right about the high numbers of shunting accidents that appear in the records and that the companies ignored the issues – largely I think as they could get away with it, and it meant they could get the work done quicker, maximising profits. Misusing the shunting pole was clearly an issue, as the companies issued safety warnings (complete with photographs) about some of the common practices. That said, I can understand why the staff did what they did if it was a bit quicker and meant they didn’t get in trouble with their foreman for not doing the work fast enough – a real lose-lose situation.

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