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Two accidents too many – multiple cases 1

Most people in our database feature only once. But there is a select group of individuals – 15 of them – that feature twice, as they had two accidents: not a select group you’d wish to join, of course.

One of these people was labourer Joseph Brown of the Great Eastern Railway. Not only does he feature twice, but the two accidents were only 3 weeks apart – and both times he was hit by trains! Some might say he was unlucky; others might say he was fortunate in that he survived both times, as track workers hit by trains were often killed.

His first case occurred on 25 February 1912, whilst working with 7 other men near Liverpool Street Station in London. In a wonderful detail, the report, written by Inspector JH Armytage, notes that between 8 and 9am the gang ‘were having breakfast in No. 6 arch under the North London Line’ – no canteens or dedicated facilities on offer here! Just before quarter to 9, Brown was found lying unconscious on the lines by the number 4 arch having ‘sustained a severe cut on his head, and some bruises on his body.’ Although Brown could not recall what had happened, according to Armytage ‘there can be little doubt that he was struck by the engine of the 8.40am passenger train from Liverpool Street to Chingford’. Whilst he concluded that the case was due to misadventure, ‘the attention of the Company might be drawn to the fact that the close proximity of these arches to the running lines renders them unsuitable for use as messrooms or similar purposes.’ Clearly it was to be left up to the Company to decide what, if any, action to take about this – one suspects that nothing was done, and such facilities (or lack thereof) was simply regarded as the lot of a permanentway man.

Brown was presumably not off work for long, as he had returned in time enough to have another accident on 18 March 1912. This time he was working with 5 others, at Bethnal Green; curiously, here he was described as a platelayer, rather than a labourer as previously. Why the change? Such incidental detail – if considered – isn’t clear, though it’s likely simply to be a terminological issue and the actual work undertaken was the same.

In a somewhat complicated situation, the gang of men were working in a position that left them in danger from 3 sets of tracks. They had a look-out man to give warning of the approach of trains. At around 9.30am he warned the men that trains were coming on 2 of the lines, with signals set for another train soon on the third. The report notes that ‘Brown apparently failed to hear or understand the warning … as he continued working’. The noise of one of the passing trains obscured the noise of the other, which hit him ‘sustaining a bruise on his right buttock’. Although not stated, given this was planned work (as in the other case), we might imagine that the passing trains were moving at lower speed than usual, hence the injuries rather than fatalities.

Armytage noted that ‘the evidence given at my inquiry was not very satisfactory’ – such comments are seen from time to time in the reports, though only rarely (and not in this case) are they elaborated upon. It would be interesting to know what Armytage found unsatisfactory about the testimony. In the end he concluded that the look-out man must bear responsibility ‘as he failed to satisfy himself that Brown had understood the warning’ (1912 Quarter 1, Appendix B).

Curiously, although he investigated both cases, Armytage didn’t make any comment about the fact that Brown had been hit twice in quick succession. Why not? In other cases inspectors did make comment about previous accidents at the same location – though here the location differed between the cases. Perhaps Armytage felt that as the two causes were different there wasn’t anything to be gained by linking the cases explicitly: they could have happened to any one of the workers present on either occasion, and it was just bad luck that both times it happened to be Brown who was involved. As the summaries of the cases featured after each other in the Appendix, perhaps it was felt that their proximity was enough for people to make a connection. Regardless, Brown’s cases are salutary reminders to us that some work on the railways at this time was very dangerous, and simply by being present you were potentially at risk. The two cases also demonstrate another value of our database, in that it allows us to connect incidents that are either explicitly related, or that are similar in nature – without this tool it is often very difficult to make such links and we might miss important connections.

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