The ‘excusable mistake’ that injured three

In many of the cases found in our database the Railway Inspectorate report provides an attribution of responsibility for the accident. Around a quarter of these mention things like a ‘lack of care’, and individuals’ ‘own want of reasonable care’ (even in one case their ‘stupid want of care’). What is less common is finding a case in which an error was made but was put down as an ‘excusable mistake’ – particularly when that mistake injured three people.

On 27 September 1912 at 6.30pm, casual dock labourers J Darcy, T Sill and A Wood were working at Middlesbrough Dock on the North Eastern Railway. At this time, the dock area in Middlesbrough was a complicated mix of lines and sidings, with plenty of movements taking place each hour – and plenty of opportunity for injury or worse.

Middlesbrough Dock in 1949.
Courtesy Britain from Above.

As part of a shunt, a loco was attached to 5 wagons, standing on one of the lines at No. 6 quay. The shunter who had attached the wagons went to find out what to do next, and the assistant shunter went to check traffic elsewhere, leaving the engine driver to wait for the next move. After a few minutes ‘the driver saw the white light of a hand-lamp being swayed from side to side, and, thinking this was a signal from one of the shunters, he started the engine and waggons [sic].’ However, it was not a signal to the driver – and his train then struck the other wagons still in the siding, including the one in which Darcy, Sill and Wood were working: ‘the impact caused them to fall out of the vehicle, and they dropped to the ground. Darcy and Sill were injured by the fall, and Wood had his arm crushed by a waggon wheel.’

The investigation, carried out by Inspector Charles Campbell, found that neither of the shunters had signalled to the driver to move the train back. It was presumed that the driver had seen a light ‘carried by some person who happened to move it in such a way that it was accepted in good faith as a signal. The accident may, therefore, be attributed to an excusable mistake on the part of the driver.’ This sentence, clearing the driver of responsibility, is quite interesting – it appears unusual (though we’d want to check all the other reports in our database for similar qualifiers). Was it designed to protect the driver from retribution by the railway company? Or perhaps to ease any guilt felt by the (unnamed) driver?

1913 layout of Middlesbrough Dock.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

Campbell went on to make a recommendation for future practice. He was concerned that wagon checkers ‘are constantly moving among the wagons’ whilst holding white lights – presumably the same colour as those used by the shunters – making it ‘sometimes very difficult for a driver to determine with any degree of certainty which is the shunter’s lamp.’ So, even though the movements on dock lines at night ‘are carried out in a slow and cautious manner’, Campbell suggested shunters be given lamps with a green light and to ignore any signals given with a white light (1912 Quarter 3, Appendix C). It would be interesting to know if this local solution was enacted.

This case raises a wider point about the conditions under which freight work was carried out. In the 1890s the trades unions had complained about poor lighting, with the result that after 1900 requirements were changed to include better lighting. Accidents still continued from this cause, of course, as change was slow at best. This case highlights how in large yards (those more likely to be lit by lamps – gas lamps at this time) coverage by lamps was likely to be partial at best, and the fall of light could easily be obscured by wagons. Hand lamps were essential, to see what was being done and to use as a signal to engine crews and others. The hazards of work at different times of the day – and night – and the potential solutions (notably not including ceasing night-time work) are another thing we may learn from the cases revealed in our database.

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