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‘Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!’

Our project is documenting the many risks incidental to railway working – including at times animal dangers. We’ll be coming back to the more usual of these in a future blog post, including horses, cows, and sheep. But for today, we’re taking a brief look at some of the more exotic animal dangers encountered on the railways over the years.

Our recent guest blog from Alexandra Foulds of the St George’s Archives looked at an 1897 accident caused by a monkey. Last week, the National Railway Museum (one of our project partners) tweeted a 1930s case in which a snake was found in a banana van in Newcastle, fortunately to no lasting ill-effect.

A while ago, project friend David Turner came across a 1903 kangeroo escape at Euston station, which looked quite challenging to sort out.

And transporting wild animals by train must have posed safety as well as logistical challenges. In 1943 a lion escaped on its way through Clapham Junction – definitely not your typical wartime threat! Hopefully none of these animals, from the National Railway Museum’s photo collections (with thanks to Peter Thorpe for locating them), escaped!

Chipperfield Circus elephants being loaded onto a British Railways vehicle at St Botolph’s station, Colchester, 28 September 1961. The elephants were on the first leg of a journey to Rome to appear in the epic film “Cleopatra”.
(1995-7233_LIVST_PM_183a courtesy National Railway Museum)
Circus animals arriving on a train at Harlow Town station, 19 May 1963.
(1995-7233_LIVST_PM_204_D courtesy National Railway Museum.)

But we were also intrigued by a reference from the ‘Piston, Pen & Press’ project (also involving the National Railway Museum – they’re busy!), about a work of fiction which included a fight with a shark in a coal mine. Hard to beat … but then we came across a railway shark case!

Project friend Rob Langham (see his guest post here) alerted us to the autobiography of George Hardy, who worked his way up from the 1850s to be General Manager of the Londonderry Railway in County Durham. Rob knew we’d be interested in connection with an accident it discussed … but at least as intriguing was the shark encounter Hardy related. Driver Smith suffered a from a practical joke in 1858, in which someone

“secured a stuffed shark and put in on the rails where [Smith’s engine] had to come. The driver in question observed an object on the rails, but it was too late to prevent the engine from going over it, and he at once concluded that a man had been killed. At this juncture both driver and fireman did their utmost to give proper alarm to the people of Hendon near where the calamity occurred, amongst whom probably were the perpetrators of the joke. With all due respect in the presence of the dead, the mangled body was carefully examined, which procedure resulted in the fact that no life had been lost and that the driver would be spared the ordeal of attending an inquest or run further risk of losing his employment.”

Who had the stuffed shark just hanging around? And who thought it would be a good idea to do this? Of course, not a very pleasant practical joke, given the unpleasantness of hitting someone on the lines – and the threat to the driver’s job that might have resulted.

James and Jack. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Finally, with thanks to another project friend, Anthony Coulls, who put us on to another intriguing animal case – albeit South African, and one in which the animal was involved after the accident. In the early 1880s James Wide was involved in an accident which cost him both legs below the knees. His employer found him a new role, as a signalman; Wide found himself a baboon, named Jack, who he trained to push his wheelchair and to help operate the signals at Uitenhage. The railway company eventually put Jack on the payroll! Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

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