Portsmouth-London, in accidents

Each case in our database is interesting (and often sad) in its own right. But one of the powerful things the database allows us to do is to make connections – whatever our interest, we can search the data and make the links that interest us. So, it might be by a particular family name, location, railway company, grade of worker, or all sorts of other possibilities. One way of making connections that I’ve found quite powerful has been to plot a journey that I’ve been taking and to see what the database holds. Although the accidents that come up all take place on different days or even years, overall they build a picture of some of the more common dangers faced by railway workers around the time of the First World War.

Today I’m heading to London on the London & South Western Railway (LSWR) route, so – as well as tweeting very brief summaries of the cases (@RWLDproject) as I pass through the locations – I’ve put together this blog post of the accidents at major stations on the journey. I’ve not included any of the Portsmouth accidents, as I’m planning on coming back to these in the future. This means the first port of call is Havant, the junction of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (LBSCR) and the LSWR route, as well as the rather smaller Hayling Island branch. Perhaps surprisingly there are no accidents featured in the database – although it is worth remembering that as the database only details those cases investigated by the Railway Inspectors and certainly not all accidents, there would have been plenty of accidents over the years at Havant.

A c.1932 warning against the same type of crush injury as occurred at Petersfield.

Next along the line is Petersfield, where there is a case in the database. Here on 13 February 1913 goods porter Thomas Smith ended his day with 7 fractured ribs. According to inspector JJ Hornby’s report, Smith and another man were moving 3 wagons by hand inside the goods shed, down a line with a falling gradient. Smith walked alongside the wagons, but applied the brake to the rear wagon too late, when it ‘was near the exit of the shed, with the result that has was caught and injured between the waggon [sic] side and the wall of the shed doorway.’ Hornby decided that Smith was responsible, via ‘a want of care’ (1913 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

Next along the line was Haslemere, but again, this doesn’t feature in the database. So that brings us to Guildford, and another surprise in that it only features once in the database. On 13 September 1913 fireman William Collick was coming to the end of his 11-hour shift. He looked over the side of his loco to see if the tender wheels were skidding (which raises interesting questions about the state of repair of the engine and the condition of the track – things beyond the control of Collick and his driver). Unfortunately for Collick, at that moment, a carriage cleaner opened a door of the carriage they were passing, hitting Collick and injuring his head. Inspector Hornby noted that the carriage cleaner should have checked before opening the door, but also that the practice of sweeping coaches out at that point was dangerous, as there is not sufficient space to admit of the doors being opened in safety.’ He therefore recommended that the LSWR prohibit the practice ‘without delay’ (1913 Quarter 3, Appendix C) – though whether or not it did so is unknown.

A similar case, featured in the LSWR’s ‘Safety First’ booklet of 1915.

The next case occurred at Woking, on 5 July 1912. Porter T Blackmore had moved a load of parcels across 3 running lines; returning back from the down platform to the up, he paused to allow a goods train to pass through. Unfortunately he chose to pause on one of the other lines, and didn’t notice a ‘light engine’ (a loco running on its own, without pulling anything) approaching. The engine knocked him down, injuring though not killing him. The case was investigated by JPS Main, who noted that ‘want of care on the part of the injured man’ (a classic formulation of words that occurs again and again in the reports) was the cause. At the same time, he did also note that parcels, milk cans, postal hampers and passenger luggage all had to cross the lines, on which trains ran ‘at a very high rate of speed. … The risk … is considerable at all times, but it is naturally much greater after dark. The transfer work is continuous throughout 20 hours of the 24.’ Whilst there was a subway, a variety of reasons meant it couldn’t be used for making the transfers, including the fact that it was a public route. So, there is a very real sense that workers were put at risk in order to keep the public safe. Main ‘asked [the Company] to consider the matter’ of installing a lift or proper subway (1912 Quarter 3, Appendix B). So here we get – from something that might seem (to the uninitiated!) as unpromising as an accident report – a real sense of the working life of a station and the dangers to which workers were routinely exposed.

A similar case from a later accident prevention booklet.

At Wimbledon we were (unfortunately) spoilt for choice, with no fewer than 8 cases. We ended up choosing one that actually featured right next to the Guildford case (noted above) in the accident reports: that of shunter Herbert Instrell, injured on 1 September 1913. As Instrell was attempting to couple a rake of 10 wagons being shunted to 5 stationary ones, the hook of his coupling pole slipped, pitching his left hand between the buffers and crushing his thumb and 2 fingers. Inspector Hornby concluded that ‘Instrell was aware of the instructions which forbid him to attempt to couple before the buffers have touched, and to a violation of these instructions on his part the accident must be attributed’ (1913 Quarter 3 Appendix C). Why Instrell might have violated the instructions – whether through custom, pressure to get work done quickly, or some other motive – appears not to have formed part of the remit of the investigation.

A warning against a typical cause of crush injuries when shunting, 1915.

On to Clapham Junction next, now famed for being the busiest station (in terms of railway movements) in Europe. It features 4 times in our database, one of which being signalman David Webb. Sadly this one was a fatality; it is also a useful reminder that signalmen (and later women) weren’t isolated from the dangers of the railway in their signal boxes. Webb booked on duty at Clapham Junction station at 8.50pm on 27 June 1914, walking along the line to reach his signal box at New Wandsworth. However, he was walking on the edge of the sleepers of the outer line and although facing oncoming traffic, it did not prevent him from being hit and killed by a train. (We don’t know what the driver of that train experienced, but the report mentions that he saw Webb coming – though of course by that point was too close to do anything to prevent the accident.) Inspector Main noted that ‘the route which the unfortunate man was taking is exceedingly dangerous, and although Webb may not have exercised the care demanded by the circumstances, it is principally to the former fact rather than the latter that the accident must be attributed.’ The alternative route, Main noted, would also have exposed Webb to ‘considerable risk.’ Unusually there was a positive end to the report – the Company concerned (LBSCR) proposed to construct a new route, away from the lines for this box and another nearby (1914 Quarter 2, Appendix B). Whether or not this took place, given the events of the following day in Sarajevo and the subsequent First World War, is unknown.

A similar case, as featured in a 1924 accident prevention booklet.

The journey ends at London Waterloo, where on 21 February 1912 assistant signal linesman E Girling was working with several others to clean and oil signalling apparatus. Although they had a look-out man, when the man in charge decided to split the group into two (presumably to get the work done on time), he judged that the other group’s place of work was more dangerous and so allocated the look-out man to that spot. This left Girling’s group unprotected. As a result they failed to spot a light engine approaching, obscured by another passing train; Girling was oiling point connections and was hit by the engine, injuring both feet. Girling admitted to Inspector Main that he knew the look-out would not have been able to see everything fully and so should have kept clear of the line. At the same time, the man in charge was held response for splitting the team up, contrary to the Company’s instruction and with ‘no reason’ (1912 Quarter 1, Appendix B).

Warning against a related signal & telegraph danger, c.1938.

In the course of this journey – around an hour and a half – we’ve passed 6 accident spots featuring in our database, including a range of grades of employee. Interestingly whereas the majority of cases investigated by the Inspectors (in our period and beyond) concluded that employees were at fault, here we have a rather more mixed picture, with the part of the relevant company being noted in 3 of the 6 cases. Clearly I’ve chosen examples that raise some questions about railway work, so they’re not necessarily fully representative of the majority of cases. They do, however, give us an impression of the variety of factors that might come into play where worker accidents were concerned.

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