The Accident at Willington Dene Viaduct

In the final part of this run of blog posts, NRM volunteer Philip James puts into context one of the cases he found when transcribing the most recent run of data. It’s another example of how the project takes us into unexpected places – this time, falls from height. As ever, our thanks to Philip for his post!

 

Following up on my previous case from the files, my next is a non-fatal accident. It is interesting because it illustrates the challenging working environment on some parts of the railway and suggests working conditions that one would not expect to be tolerated now. In this case a man survived a seventy-foot fall while working from a seven-inch-wide plank.

North-Eastern Railway.
Date of Accident – 7th June, 1905.
Place at which Accident happened – Willington Dene Viaduct.
Name of Person injured – William Coxon.
Age of Person injured – 27 years.
Capacity in which employed – Bridge Painter.
Number of booked working hours per day – 11.
How long on duty at time of Accident – 8 hours 15 minutes.
Nature of Injury – Chest bone and four ribs broken and left shoulder injured.

Description of Accident – Coxon and 34 other men were and had been for some time engaged in painting the girders and under portion of the deck of the Willington Dene Viaduct, which is formed of seven arches. There were seven sets of staging erected, and as Coxon was engaged at the deck in the third stage nearest Newcastle, he was upon the highest stage.

While at work, when standing upon a plank seven inches wide, he slipped, and fell first a distance of 35 feet on to the roof of a building, and thence a distance of another 35 feet to the ground, with the result stated above.

The bridge painters are constantly working under similar conditions to what Coxon was in this case, and as there has been only one slight accident to these men in the past fourteen years it would appear that reasonable precautions are taken for their safety and I think the mishap may be attributed to misadventure.

Investigating Officer – J. J. Hornby.

 

Perspective

It is surprising that Coxon survived as either leg of the fall could have been fatal. It is also surprising that there had not been more accidents with men working under these conditions although the report does not say what safety precautions were taken and this was probably an era when society was more risk tolerant.

Historically, the area around the viaduct appeared to be industrial and it was probably a building of that sort that broke the first part of Coxon’s fall. The area today has changed and there are no signs of buildings near or below the arches. The third arch from the western or Newcastle end spans open ground.

 

Photographs

Today, the Tyne and Wear Metro passes over the viaduct and a main road below it using the third arch from the eastern end. It is difficult to find a photographic vantage point to see all seven arches, particularly so when constrained to using Google Maps to whom I must credit Pictures 1-4.

Courtesy Google Maps

I have settled for Picture 1 from the north side capturing the six western most arches and Picture 2 from the south capturing the three eastern most.

Courtesy Google Maps

Picture 3 shows the five western arches with the one where Coxon fell in the centre and Picture 4 is a close up of the third arch from the west.

Courtesy Wikipedia

Picture 5 courtesy of Wikipedia gives a flavour of the industrial buildings that once existed. The Wikipedia account also describes the construction in timber and later rebuilding in iron.

 

A Long Way to Fall

Seventy feet is not a record height for surviving a fall as the following links indicate. In summary, Nicholas Alkermade, the rear gunner of an RAF Lancaster Bomber bailed out at 18,000 feet without a parachute. He survived by landing in pine trees covered in heavy snow and managed to convince the Gestapo he was not a spy.

Vesna Vulović, a Serbian flight attendant survived a fall of 10,160 metres (33,330 feet; 6.31 miles) when her aircraft was destroyed by a terrorist bomb. This is the current record for surviving such a descent.

Alan Magee of the United States Army Air Force fell 20,000 feet from a B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ bomber. His fall was broken by the glass roof of Saint-Nazaire station.

There are other instances of people surviving long falls but it is not recommended that anyone tries to set their own record just for the sake of doing so.

 

Recollection

In 1986, I attended several training courses in Devizes, a town that sadly no longer has a railway and apart from the tunnel near the castle, few signs that one ever existed even a mere twenty years after closure. For the enthusiast, there are always clues to the past such as embankments, cuttings and bridges. I even spotted what appeared to be a piece of inverted ‘U’ shaped rail of the sort once used for broad gauge track now in use as a fence post.

The locals had not forgotten the railway and an elderly lady gave me this account of one event. A well-known feature of the single-track branch near the town was the ‘fish bridge’ crossing the road to Bath, so named on account of the shape of the girders. Years before a painter had had an accident and the paint spilt had stained the bridge abutment. The paint marks survived until the road was widened and the abutments removed. This illustrates that even an apparently mundane job like painting comes with risks.

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