Joining the dots: how our project links accidents, pt 1 – or, the terrible death of a porter

One of the things we wanted the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project to do was to make it easier for you to find out about railway worker accidents. Hopefully you’ll agree that the project database has done this in its own right. But one huge strength is that it also makes it easier to cross-reference between different types of information about worker accidents.

Worker accidents produced a variety of different archival traces – from the state reports we’ve used as the focus of our project, to the companies’ records, trades union materials, compensation records, coroners inquests, newspaper accounts and (occasionally) first-hand accounts … plus no doubt there’s more that we’ve missed. Marrying up the various different types of paperwork isn’t easy, as they’re all formatted differently and – short of a manual search – they’re difficult to cross-reference. Until now, that is!

Although certainly not a comprehensive database of every one of these documents, even the fact of having one set of documents – here, the state Railway Inspectorate reports – detailed is an advantage. It means that as soon as you find a case in any of the other sets of records, it’s possible to check against one other type. Whilst this may seem like a needle in a haystack, there’s always a chance, so periodically we’ll be blogging about some of these cases.

The first is that of Great Northern Railway supernumerary porter Ernest Howarth, killed on 25 September 1912 at Doncaster. The details of the case were explored by Inspector JH Armytage in his inquiry and subsequent report (1912 Quarter 3, Appendix B). Arthur Bangs, an employee of a local butcher brought 9 stones worth of meat to be sent on the 9am train to Askern. Howarth and the butcher’s employee took the two-wheeled hand cart over the level crossing at the south end of the station, crossing 4 lines; by 8.35am they were returning. The electric indicator board at the crossing showed that trains were approaching on two of the lines; one of these was masked by the signal box and so not easily visible. Howarth and the butcher’s employee started to take the cart over the crossing, only to be warned of the approaching train by both the engine’s whistle and ‘a shout from locomotive inspector John H Inman, who was on the crossing’ between two of the lines.

Interestingly, it looks like there was conflicting testimony at the inquiry about what happened next: ‘The evidence of the witnesses varied to some extent as to the subsequent movements of Howarth and Bangs, but there appears to be no doubt that one, if not both of them, became confused.’ Bangs left the cart and ran to safety, whereas Howarth – presumably thinking of the danger to the train – attempted to move the cart clear of the line. This didn’t work: ‘the cart was struck by the engine, and Howarth was knocked down. Some wheels of the train passed over his body, causing fatal injuries.’

The dangers of crossing lines with goods, according to the LMS, c.1924.

The report noted that the Company had issued instructions to the effect that only their employees should use the crossing – though Armytage did note that ‘there is no doubt, however, that considerable risk of injury is incurred when the crossing is used only by the servants of the Company. Owing to the heavy traffic it is not practicable, I am informed, for the crossing to be used only when the indicators show that both lines are clear, and the attention of the Company should be drawn to the desirability of providing some safer method of conveying parcels and luggage from one platform to another.’ This was as close to criticism of the Company as the Inspectors were likely to come, giving us some idea of the pressures of work that forced workers into unsafe situations.

So, we have a report that is quite informative and provides us with a wealth of detail about the local operations at Doncaster station in 1912. This isn’t the only place where this incident featured, however, and it is possible to combine this account with others. The first was rather more sensational: the report in the Derby Daily Telegraph for 26 September 1912, entitled ‘Porter’s Terrible Death. Cut in Halves by a Train.’ It made page 2 of the newspaper, though even that amounted to only 120 words, tucked away in column 7: such cases were, tragically, rather too common to be major news. The report into the ‘shocking accident’ made no mention of Bangs, but claimed Howarth ‘was having some difficulty with the cart’ which meant he failed to notice the approaching train. It went on – rather sensationally – to note that when the train was stopped ‘a horrible sight was revealed. Half of his body was lying in the four-foot [i.e. on the track] and half on the outside of the rail. He was about 28 years of age and single.’ And with that, the newspaper moved on to the next story, such was the insignificance of the life of Ernest Howarth. We should perhaps not be surprised by the tone and graphic detail of the newspaper report, though it does perhaps appear alien to our tastes over 100 years’ later.

Undoubtedly the case appears in other sources, but the only others we are aware of are a Parliamentary debate on 13 February 1914 and its subsequent verbatim report in the weekly newspaper of the National Union of Railwaymen, the Railway Review, dated 20 February 1914. The reason it appears a year and a half after the event is that this was part of the push by the railway trades unions to raise the profile of railway worker accidents and to call for a state investigation. The railwayman MP for Derby, Jimmy Thomas (who later went on to form part of the 1924 Labour government and served under the National Government of the 1930s), highlighted Howarth’s case as part of his attack on the railway companies’ inaction and the Railway Inspectorate’s lack of power to enforce changes. He noted Armytage’s inquiry and the recommendation that the Company should adopt a safer method of working, before stating ‘from that day to this nothing has been done, and probably nothing will be done until someone else is killed, and then we will get the same recommendation, and so far as the railway company is concerned, the same result.’

The case made out by Thomas, and others, was evidently sufficiently forceful, for a Departmental Committee was set up – the lowest form of state enquiry – though it did not report as a result of the First World War. But in this we see the small part that an everyday case like that of Howarth’s might play in a much bigger story. Combining the various sources like this gives us a much more rounded idea of Howarth’s life and death – which would surely be fleshed out further with the other sources that his accident would have produced. The advantage of our project database is that it enables us to make a start on making those connections. We’re keen to hear from you if you have similar cases in which it is possible to link different sources through the database – do get in touch with us, as one hope for the project is that we’ll be able to make these connections and build them into a future bigger database.

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