In today’s post, project volunteer and by-now regular blogger Philip James has a look at a number of accidents reported in a single issue of The Times newspaper in 1906. It helps us put railway staff issues, including accidents, into a wider perspective. He also draws some interesting connections with discussions in 2021 about the future of rail and other transport – so, looking backwards and forwards! Our thanks as ever to Philip for his contributions and his work on the project.
My earlier posts have mostly drawn on material arising from the accident reports I have seen while working on the Railway Work, Life & Death project. This time, I have been fortunate to have an unexpected external source to draw on which gives some context to the environment and everyday risks people faced during the period when many of the workplace accidents we have seen were happening.
My cousin and her husband were doing some research and came across an entry in The Times from Wednesday 7 November 1906 concerning a family tragedy. By chance the adjacent news items had a railway theme and they passed them to me. My thanks to Pam and Paul Watson for their assistance in making this piece possible. I am also grateful to Mike Esbester for his advice and observations in its preparation.
News Stories in The Times
I have reproduced the news items using the format, grammar and spelling of the original in so far as is reasonably possible.
This is not an accident report but it is illustrative of the terms and conditions of employment of the day and a contrast to what most people take for granted today.
These are the days before the old age pension was introduced and a time when most people did not have a paid holiday.
It does not say what role the men’s union may have played or even if they had one but the reference to a deputation implies some form of organisation and their reluctance to accept the company proposal, as well as the possibility of pursuing their aims by some other means.
Mr and Mrs Spracklin eventually recovered and had more children becoming maternal grandparents to two of my cousins among others. They have other living descendants including at least one great great grandson.
Their recovery took time so a relative had to deal with the funerals for the children. The accident remains in the memory of their descendants to this day.
The Earl of Warwick was situated at 214 Whitechapel Road. This pub has now been demolished.
Gas was a common means of lighting properties at the time and was probably an improvement on oil or candles, which produced less illumination and were probably more dangerous due to the fire risk. Town gas was distributed at lower pressure than modern day natural gas, so much so that it was known for a gas pipe in the ground to corrode away and just the surrounding clay to be sufficient to contain the gas. This might explain why the temporary repair was able to work for a while.
Railway carriages historically used oil or gas for illumination purposes and this came at a risk if the vehicles were involved in accidents. Several accidents, while not caused by gas, were made much worse as it escaped and ignited: St Bedes and in particular Quintinshill, both 1915, come to mind.
In the latter accident, five trains were involved, one of them a troop train. Some accounts suggest officers had to shoot men trapped in the burning wreckage to prevent them suffering a worse fate. The fire was so intense that little wreckage remained; still, the line was able to reopen sooner than might have been expected for such a disaster. At St Bedes, some passengers who survived the initial collision were killed by the gas-fueled fire that broke out, their plight witnessed by those attempting rescue.
While attempting to reproduce the spelling and grammar used in the original newspaper article, I have taken the liberty of dividing this item into paragraphs for ease of readability. News script is generally arranged in narrow columns for ease of reading quickly and I have mimicked this all be it with unequal width columns.
The accident would have been in the final days of steam operation hence the reference to engine and no mention of conductor rails although conversion to electric operation would have been underway. The underground has used electric locomotives to haul passenger trains although at this location, multiple unit stock would have been the norm once electric trains were introduced.
The station was opened as Paddington (Bishop’s Road) by the Metropolitan Railway on 10 January 1863 as the western terminus of the world’s first underground railway.
Bishop’s Road Station would be on what is now the Hammersmith and City Line, as opposed to Praed Street which serves the District Line, the routes converging further east at Praed Street Junction. The Circle line now serves both subsurface stations but for most of its history only the one in Praed Street. The article does not say on which track the accident occurred or where the train was heading.
The station is located on the north-west corner of Paddington Station alongside Paddington Basin and the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal. Little Venice and the western end of the Regent’s canal are nearby. The underground station is effectively part of the main line station. It would originally have had dual gauge track with broad gauge vehicles loaned by the Great Western Railway used initially but narrow gauge taking over later and the broad-gauge element of the track removed by the time of this incident.
These days platforms 15 and 16 are used by the underground although in the past platforms 13 and 14 may also have been used. In recent times, platforms 12 and 13 at Paddington have been combined to create a single long platform rather than two short ones so the identity 13 has been lost.
The news item seems to focus heavily on the possibility of attempted suicide, a phenomenon sadly with us today. Perhaps it was necessary to thoroughly explore that possibility in order to dismiss it. That said, the article is unavoidably incomplete in that it covers the resumption of the inquest and we can only surmise what was said in the earlier part.
In summary, these accounts portray a world in which life in general was riskier, more people might be in ill health and their conditions of employment were more basic. It is not surprising that working conditions on the railways were more risk tolerant than would be acceptable now.
The experience with gas is a warning for those developing new technologies though not necessarily a reason for not pursuing them. It does highlight the need for realism about where such technology might be suitable and the extent to which it is scalable. A short train on a country branch line is one thing. A long express or commuter train running at speed through tunnels and built up areas presents a different set of risks.
For other accounts of these accidents, see the following:
Rails to Disaster, More British Steam Train Accidents 1906-1957 by Malcolm Gerard and J A B Hamilton, Book Club Associates London, 1984, page 25, ISBN 0 04385103 7. [St Bedes and references to Quintinshill.]
Red for Danger by L T C Rolt, David and Charles, 1984, pages 207 and 213, ISBN 0 71538362 0. [Quintinshill and St Bedes.]
Railway Detectives – 150 Years of the Railway Inspectorate by Stanley Hall, Ian Allan 1990, Pages 81 and 83, ISBN 0 7110 1929 0. [Quintinshill and St Bedes.]