Overground, underground – two accidents marking London anniversaries this week

A happy new year to our readers! This week saw a couple of London-based anniversaries, so we thought we’d frame our first substantive post of 2018 around them. On the 10th it was the 155th anniversary of the opening of the Metropolitan Railway in London, the world’s first underground railway. And then on the 11th it was the 154th anniversary of the opening of Charing Cross Station.

The first of these is a helpful reminder that underground accidents are included in our database. We thought one way of getting at this might be by taking a trip along the 1863 route, from Farringdon St (now just ‘Farringdon’), through King’s Cross, Gower St (now Euston Square), Portland St (now Great Portland Street), Baker St, Edgware Rd to Bishop’s Road (now Paddington) and looking for the accidents along the way.

1863 Illustrated London News coverage of opening of Metropolitan Railway

However, it would be a relatively short account, as only one accident features. This isn’t a great surprise – across 7 stations, over the 4½ year period covered by the project, it was always likely there would be a relatively small number of accidents, particularly given the relatively limited number of tracks and train movements involved (not much of the goods shunting, for example, that produced a lot of accidents). In addition, we’ve only got the reports for those cases the Railway Inspectors investigated, which was by no means all or even the great majority of accidents across the industry as a whole.

The sole case took place on 19 November 1912, between King’s Cross and Euston Square (Gower St as originally named). C Maybey was employed as a second man in the permanent-way department; just because these lines were underground didn’t stop them from requiring regular maintenance and inspection – and as you might imagine, it only made the difficulties and dangers of the job more pronounced, with the limited space and dark conditions.

Maybey had been greasing check rails on a curve, with his ganger, HA Sheppard acting as look-out. They had finished their work at around 12.30am and were going to Euston Square, Sheppard leading (walking on right-hand side, facing the up trains) and Maybey following a short distance after. However, when Sheppard noticed that a down and an up train had stopped, he re-traced his steps only to find that Maybey had been hit by the down train.

1932 Accident prevention booklet, admonishing workers for walking with their backs to oncoming traffic.

The driver of the down train said that he saw Maybey walking on the sleeper ends on the down side, between the outer rail and the tunnel wall – so at some point, Maybey had crossed the tracks. This meant that Maybey was walking with his back to oncoming traffic – so when the driver of the down train saw him ‘the whistle was sounded and the emergency brake applied, but it was too late to be of any effect.’ There was actually marginally more clearance on the up side, with a good path on either side, so inspector JPS Main could only explain Maybey’s behaviour and ‘his taking such a risk’ was that as he had previously had a rupture ‘he may have found it more easy to walk on the sleepers, which are evenly spaced on that [the down] side.’

Walking with his back to the train meant that the driver could not see the light from the hand-lamp Maybey was carrying, though whether or not an alternative design of lamp (which was available) would have made any difference was hard to tell. Either way, Main concluded that ‘Maybey should not have been on that side at all… there was no actual necessity for him to be foul of the line’. Main was at pains to point out that Maybey was not a new recruit – he had worked in that section of tunnel for over 19 years (1912 Quarter 4, Appendix B) – the implication being, presumably, that he should have known better, or possible that familiarity had bred contempt.

Only one example of an underground accident, it gives some sense of how treacherous it could be working in the narrow, dark tunnels, in amongst moving trains. The later extensions of the Metropolitan Railway feature more in the database, along with the surface railway stations above the underground stations with which they shared their names – notably King’s Cross and Paddington, of course, but also the Great Northern Railway goods station at Farringdon.

1932 Accident prevention booklet image warning of dangers of going on tenders whilst the engine was moving.

On the second of the anniversaries, that of Charing Cross, there’s only one case in our database, and even then it’s only within the broad station area. On the evening of 11 November 1911, a tender engine was being driven out from the station to take on water on the engine line on the bridge. Around 100 yards from the water crane, fireman Donohoe went up on the coals in the tender ‘presumably with the intention of opening the lid of the tank.’ However, in the process he came into contact with a signal project and ‘was thrown off the tender into the four-foot way, sustaining fatal injuries.’ Inspector JH Armytage concluded that Donohoe should have remained on the footplate until the engine was stationary, and therefore he was responsible (1911 Quarter 4, Appendix B) – though as we’ve seen in other cases, we might question how far this practice was commonplace and known about by officials of the South Eastern & Chatham Railway, or even encouraged as it saved time.

Fragmented they may be, but these little glimpses into the depths of London’s transport system give us a little more insight into what it took to keep things running – even where it initially appears even more hidden from view than usual.

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