Steam vs horse power

What place did the horse have in the steam railway? Perhaps surprisingly, a big one. Horses were essential for shunting wagons in yards and for moving goods to and from railheads. This was particularly the case in the pre-internal combustion engine era – though they lasted long after the introduction of the motor vehicle too, with the last railway horse not retiring until 1967 (just missing out on seeing the end of regular steam working the following year). Whilst the decline of the railway horse might have been marked after the companies started adopting motor vehicles, in our project’s era the horse was king – in 1913, for example, the railway companies owned over 27,000 horses.

Some of the common dangers of railway horse work, as seen in the Caledonian Railway’s 1921 safety booklet.

Inevitably this meant a set of risks for workers involved in handling horses; horse-related accidents certainly feature in our database, and accident prevention booklets included advice on safe handling. However, one eventuality that was not catered for was the accident which befell Walter Fry on 16 April 1911.

Fry was employed as a horse shunter at Tisbury, on the London & South Western Railway main line between London Waterloo and Exeter. On the day in question he was in charge of 2 horses, which he used to move a milk van next to 2 other vehicles in one of the sidings. Having made the move, he took the horses to the front of the rake of 3, in readiness to move them across the lines after a passenger train had passed. However, Fry spotted that the milk van was rolling backwards but ‘to bring it to rest by the application of the brake, he left the horses unattended.’

The horses seized their opportunity and made a break for freedom. Unfortunately that route took them across the main line – at the point at which the passenger train was passing. ‘When Fry observed this he rushed forward to the animal’s head, and, while getting it clear, by some means which he cannot explain, his right arm was caught by the corner of the last vehicle of the passing train.’ Inspector JJ Hornby noted that whilst Fry was to blame for leaving the horses unattended, it was also impossible for him to carry out his work in accordance with all the rules and get everything done. As a result he added a note to his report into the case, to the effect that ‘it is to be hoped that for safety the Company will arrange for assistance being given to the horse shunter while he is performing shunting operations in future’ (1911 Quarter 2, Appendix C). As in other cases where such wishes were expressed, we don’t know if the Company listened and followed the advice, or whether questions of cost ruled the day and the work continued much as before – though it would be fascinating to find out.

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