Reading 1914: passengers, workers, family

Our project has focused on accidents to railway workers, rather than passengers, as numerically far more workers were killed or injured on the railways and they remain understudied. When we started out, in 2016, we were using just one set of records – the Board of Trade reports into worker accidents. We took the decision not to include within this the reports into passenger train crashes, as they were relatively well-known and largely available via the Railways Archive website.

Warner Gothard postcard of the crash.
Courtesy Mark Flynn: http://www.warnergothard.com/

However, that’s meant that a few workers are missing from our records: those who were killed or injured in passenger train crashes. Three such workers were involved in the subject of today’s post, the Reading crash of 1914: driver Peter Young was killed, and firemen Wheeler and Derman were injured. Perhaps surprisingly, no passengers were killed or seriously injured – but as the accident involved 2 passenger trains coming together, it received a full and thorough investigation from the Board of Trade inspectors. They produced a 25 page report: a far cry from the typical half a page or page that worker accidents usually warranted.

On 17 June 1914, at just after 11am, an express train from Worcester was running through Reading at around 50mph. Its engine hit the loco of an excursion train from Taunton. The excursion engine was thrown over, but as it uncoupled from the rest of the train in doing so it left the passenger carriages standing. Driver Churn was slightly injured but the report notes that ‘the fireman [Derman] was thrown off the engine and suffered severe injuries.’

The express train loco was derailed, remaining upright for around 150 yards before turning on its side (and also uncoupling from the rest of the train). Driver Young ‘received injuries which shortly proved fatal’ and fireman Wheeler was severely injured. Six passengers received minor injuries.

East end of Reading station, c.1912.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

Lieutenant Colonel PG Von Donop, Chief Inspecting Officer, took the investigation, with copious testimony from witnesses, including from the firemen whilst they were in hospital. Von Donop determined that the crew of the excursion train, which had been waiting at the platform, started off in error, into the path of the oncoming express train from Worcester. The signals were set at danger, and the signalmen were praised as having ‘been keeping a very sharp look-out, and the promptitude with which they acted undoubtedly prevented the collision from having far more serious results.’

Derman reported that he had seen a green flag being waved from the platform, which he took to be the guard giving the signal to depart. Neither Derman nor Churn checked the platform signals as well, and instead started off. A signalman on the ground spotted the error and got the message to the crew, who applied the brakes. However, by this point they were foul of the path of the express train, which duly hit them, even though it was slowing down in anticipation of the impact.

The guard of the excursion train ‘asserts positively that he himself gave no signal for the train to start’, though the station master did see him ‘make some movement with his flag’ 2 minutes before the accident, and stopped him from making any further signal. Another witness did see a flag being waved, shortly before the train started.

Von Donop concluded that Derman acted in good faith, and having seen what he might reasonably presume to be the ‘right away’ ‘he was justified in taking as the starting signal from the guard.’ However, driver Churn (on the excursion train) was not justified in starting the train without first checking that the signals themselves were in a position to set the train off. Von Donop noted that Churn should have crossed the footplate to confirm the signals were set and not taken Derman’s word about the guard’s flag: ‘Churn himself admits that there was nothing but the loss of that time [2 or 3 seconds, according to the report] to have prevented his doing so.’ This, Von Donop concluded, was the main cause of the accident. However, Derman bore some of the remainder of the responsibility, for not having checked the signals were set.

As the accident appeared in the Berkshire Chronicle 19 June 1914, pp. 9, 11. The Chronicle has been digitised for 1914-20 and made freely available through Reading Borough Libraries: https://www.berkshirestories.org.uk/archive/berkshire-chronicle-1914-1920
Courtesy Reading Borough Libraries

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Comparing how the crash was treated in the press with other cases in which similar numbers of workers were killed or seriously injured, it appears that this 1914 accident received wider coverage, including mention in the national press. No doubt this was a product of the fact that it involved a passenger train: not only were passengers involved (even if only 6 minor injuries) but it left a publicly visible and dramatic pile of wreckage. This said, the coverage still appears to have been relatively minimal: we would speculate that had there been more extensive passenger casualties then the press coverage would have been greater. It certainly seems to flag up the difference in how workers were treated in relation to accidents.

Fireman Alec Derman, from the Berkshire Chronicle for 19 June 1914.
Courtesy Reading Borough Libraries.

This isn’t the end of the story, however. Following the initial run of publicity surrounding our first data release, we were contacted by Bob Harland, the great nephew of one of workers involved in the crash: Alexander Derman – or, as they knew of him, Alec Durman. Discussing the accident with Bob led him to dig deeper into the family past, including asking his brother, to try to recall what they could about the case, which had passed into their family folklore. Bob wrote:

‘I did not meet Alec. My grandmother saw little of her family and did not say much to us. There was an article in the local newspaper about 40 years ago and this prompted some discussion. My brother might have a copy. Granny said that Alec was seriously injured and in hospital for a while. He recovered and continued to live in Reading until his death, probably in the late 1960s, early 1970s.

It is always difficult to know why members of one generation do not talk about what, to a younger generation, are major events.

In this case, it could simply be the passage of time and other events that over-shadowed the crash on 17th June 1914. My grandmother would have been 13 years old when it happened and she was the youngest of six children. One of her brothers, Mont, had joined the army as a regular soldier several years earlier and by the Autumn of 1914 was almost certainly in France with the British Expeditionary Force and later he was badly gassed. As a big railway junction and a major commercial centre, Reading was heavily affected by both World Wars. There were the barracks in Reading as well as other nearby locations such as REME at Arborfield and what is now the Slough Trading Estate which then was an ammunition dump.

Difficult as it might seem to us now, the shock and injury resulting from a railway accident might have paled in people’s imagination and memory to what was happening elsewhere at the time and in the 4-5 years that followed. Serious as Alec’s injuries were, he recovered and returned to work. I think he was a fireman or driver for the rest of his career and would have been in a reserved occupation that exempted him from conscription in both world wars. He retired and lived in Reading, his home town. My grandmother’s family were not long-lived: both her parents died in the 1920s and she was the only one of six children to reach old-age. She was the only one alive when I started to take an interest in family history circa 1970.

With hindsight, I am guessing there was no wish to dwell on events of a long time ago which could recall other memories that could be painful.’

In the discussion that I had with Bob, particularly in preparation for this post, we were intrigued by the difference in names: Durman (as Bob had it)/ Derman (as the official paperwork had it). Such a difference isn’t that unusual – changes notably occur when there are questions about literacy or someone else is writing the name down (for example, in pre-1921 census returns when an enumerator scribed the relevant details). As Bob noted, ‘all my life I have believed that my grandmother’s surname was spelt “Durman” but my brother & sister questioned this. I have just checked on the registration of birth and marriage and can confirm it is spelt “Derman”.’ It looks like this might have been a more recent misunderstanding, no doubt a product of the similar sounds for the different spellings.

So, if this blog post hasn’t done anything else, it has at least helped a bit with one aspect of Bob’s family history – and reminded us of the need to go back to the sources. We’re also glad to have been able to pass a copy of the official accident report to Bob and his family, along with the page of the Berkshire Chronicle that featured the accident and included a photo of Alec.

Although perhaps less revealing about the accident and the direct impact it had on Alec and his family, Bob’s account is interesting in other ways. It demonstrates the indirect effects that workplace accidents might have, but also how these impacts are relative to other events. It also speaks volumes to the challenges in family and academic history when approaching sensitive or traumatic events. Bob recalled that as a family they did discuss the accident following a retrospective article in the local newspaper, probably in the 1970s or 80s, but other than that it doesn’t seem to have featured much in open conversation. These silences demonstrate the difficulties posed by accidents, certainly for those who remembered them, and no doubt would only be magnified if it discussing with survivors of the events. As historians of such events we have to tread lightly, as we have a duty and a responsibility not to cause further harm.

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