Herbert George North.
Stephen Albert Francis.
On 26 September 1921, these six track workers died in a single incident near Stapleton Road station in Bristol, on the Great Western Railway (GWR). Another man – Charles Hobbs, Arthur’s uncle – was injured. As we reach the centenary of the accident, we wanted to remember the men involved, and look at the wider impacts of the tragedy.
The case was unusually severe in having so many staff casualties: rather than the usual ones or twos affected by an accident, it involved a relatively large group. As the official Ministry of Transport (MoT) report into the accident noted, ‘This is one of the worst accidents to permanent-way men which has occurred for many years.’
Across the week in the lead-up to the centenary, we’re going to be marking the accident. We’ve recorded a 20-minute podcast, available here, and we’ll be blogging about the case. Today we’re starting with the accident, before moving on over the coming days to consider the men involved and what we’ve been able to learn about them. And of course, we’re keen to learn more, so do please contact us if you have more information.
It’s a particularly sad case, given the numbers involved, but it highlights the dangers of working in amongst moving trains – something still with us to this day. Earlier this year Tyler Byrne was killed near Surbiton, as he worked on the tracks. Track work is and was dangerous. We’ve blogged about some of the dangers and individuals hurt at work that our project has uncovered (here).
We were aware of the Stapleton Road accident before the project began. However, it will also be appearing in two datasets soon to be made available through the project. The first of these, from which today’s blog is largely drawn, is the official state accident investigation – the MoT report from Inspector JPS Main. This will feature in our next data release, in early October, covering 1921-1939. The second is the GWR’s internal accident investigation, to be included in the future.
So what happened at Stapleton Road?
On the morning of 26 September 1921, the 8 man ‘slip gang’ (a gang of men who might work at whatever location was required) started work at 7.30. They walked to the site of work, and at 7.35am were making sure the ballast was level and correct on a section of line that had just been relaid north-west of Stapleton Road station.
It was an awkward site, between the lines which ran to the Severn Tunnel and South Wales and the curved line which carried the route towards Clifton and Bristol city centre. As well as being on a curve, the Clifton line rose from a cutting up to an embankment at the point at which the two routes met. It was roughly in this area that the men were working. To protect the men, a speed restriction was in place – trains were to travel at no more than 15mph, giving crews time to spot the gang and the men time to get clear of the tracks.
Sadly in this case the men weren’t seen, and they didn’t see the approaching train. The only uninjured man, Thomas Cousins (variously given as Cozens) ‘fortunately happened to straighten himself, when he observed the engine of the train close upon Edmonds. He was able himself to spring clear, but he had no time to warn any of the others, who were struck or run over by the engine’. As we know, 5 died at the scene, with Stephen Francis later dying of his injuries.
So why did the accident happen?
The morning in question was misty, which might have had an impact on the engine crew’s ability to see the gang/ for the gang to see approaching trains. More of a problem, however, was the particular set of events. As the 7.10am Avonmouth to Bristol passenger train travelled up the cutting from Clifton towards Stapleton Road, a goods train was moving on the line to South Wales. The MoT report appreciated that ‘there might be some difficulty in [the passenger train crew’s] distinguishing the outlines of the men’s figures against the shifting background of a passing South Wales goods train.’
Although travelling at 15mph, for a number of reasons, driver Eli Watson did not see the gang – possibly he was distracted by other demands of his duty. Had he seen them, and he would have been able to stop his train before it reached the gang. Watson didn’t expect to find the gang at work at that time – he was under the impression that the gang didn’t clock on until 7.30 and therefore couldn’t have walked to location for 7.35am; in fact they had clocked on at 7.00am for their 7.30am site time. Inspector JPS Main’s MoT report noted that when Watson reached the site of the accident ‘he felt he had run over something, and applied the brake. Without looking to see what it was he afterwards blew the brake off and proceeded into Stapleton Road quite unaware of the fact that anyone had been knocked down.’
Why didn’t the men see the train until it was too late? One of the key problems – beyond being expected to work in amongst moving trains – was the lack of reliable systems and protocols to warn of approaching trains. No hi-vis then, or audible warning systems triggered remotely as a train moved towards a gang. At best you might have a ‘look out’: a person whose job it was to keep watch for trains (more on that, here).
Amongst the Stapleton Road men Stephen Francis was a qualified look-out man, too. But the gang didn’t have a look-out. Instead they were all working on the track; the MoT report talked generally of permanent-way dangers and said ‘too much reliance is placed by the men upon hearing the approach of a train on the line upon which they are engaged’ (emphasis in original).
In this case, with the noise of the passing South Wales train and the scraping of shovels on the ballast, the men didn’t hear the approaching train. Without a look-out to keep watch, the train was able to get right upon the men before they were aware. So why was there no look-out?
At that time look-outs weren’t automatically allocated to men working on the track, in amongst moving trains. Discretion was left with the ganger (the man in charge of the permanent-way gang) to judge the need. In this case Edmonds had not thought it necessary – the MoT report found that ‘for this inattention, ganger Edmonds, who, I understand, was generally a careful man, must be held mainly responsible. Seemingly, entire reliance was being placed upon hearing the approach of trains – a common practice amongst platelayers.’ (Emphasis in original.)
Perhaps even more tragically, the report observed that 2 of the gang had asked Edmonds to appoint a look-out when they started work on that section around 2 weeks’ earlier: ‘Edmonds, however, made no reply, and the work proceeded without one; Edmonds himself apparently taking up this duty.’ So why wouldn’t Edmonds have appointed a dedicated look-out, and used Francis who was qualified?
This points to structural issues in the industry, which the MoT report didn’t dig into. If you took a man away from the gang to act as look-out and not do the work, you lose 1/8th of your team. But the foreman, inspector and Company wouldn’t make allowance for this in the time expected for the task: the work still needed to be done, to the same level of quality. There was therefore strong incentive not to appoint a look-out from within the gang. Could they have acquired an additional man? Possibly – though the Company (in common with the rest of the industry) would not have viewed this favourably and might refuse.
The MoT report did record that in 1920 63 men were killed and 74 injured by being struck by trains whilst working on the tracks. Inquiries were held into 61 of those cases, and of those, in 21 cases it was determined a look-out should have been used. This was clearly a structural issue, but one which the companies and the Railway Inspectorate were unable or unwilling to address.
The National Union of Railwaymen’s position was, effectively, that track workers should have a look-out appointed automatically if they were working amongst moving trains. Needless to say, the cost implications made the companies unwilling in the extreme to do this. The MoT report into the Stapleton Road accident referred obliquely to this, but concluded that the discretion to appoint a look-out should stay with the men doing the work. That said, it did note that ‘slip gangs’ (as ‘flying squads’ who might go anywhere and therefore wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with local conditions) were a problem. It also neatly put the emphasis on the workers, ‘provided that his judgement is sound, and he appreciates the fact that he is not required to take any risks and has staff at his disposal’ – a lot of provisos.
JPS Main concluded that ‘I can find no evidence that any pressure has been brought to bear upon gangers to discourage them from making use of look-out men. There is, however, all the difference between passive encouragement and positive encouragement’ (1921 Quarter 3, Appendix B). He made several recommendations for improvements – which we shall return to, in tomorrow’s blog, which looks at the aftermath of the accident.
One final note. As if the 1921 accident wasn’t tragic enough, this wasn’t the first accident at this site, from the same cause. At least three other accidents had occurred in the area since 1914. One of those, in 1916, killed one man and injured two others – including Stephen Francis, who was to be killed in the 1921 accident. In the 1916 accident the state inquiry found that a look-out should have been appointed, too. Sadly, it seems that lessons were not being learned.