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Volunteers’ Week 4: One NRM volunteer’s experiences

In our fourth Volunteers’ Week blog post, National Railway Museum volunteer Philip James outlines some of what working on the project involves, and one case from our ongoing interwar extension which caught his eye. We’re indebted to Philip, who has been with us since the start and is now working on the third set of project data, as we are to all our volunteers for the hard work they’re putting in to make these records accessible to everyone. It’s important to us to feature their voices and experiences here, so we’re glad to feature Philip’s guest post.

(The previous Volunteers’ Week post can be found here.)



I am a retired civil servant and for most of my career have been an Information Technology specialist; in the latter stages I focused more on project management. I have a long standing interest in railways and have authored several articles in Underground News and Railfuture magazines although none recently. At times my work gave me the opportunity to travel and see parts of the rail network although I am most familiar with the London area where I live. I became an NRM volunteer as I like to feel that I am doing something useful that might not otherwise be done.

My first assignment was the Alan Jackson Index Card Project. This was followed by the Railway Work, Life & Death Project’s first run of data and the subsequent Great Eastern Railway Benevolence extension. All of these involve analysing manuscript records, some of them handwritten, and putting the results in an Excel spreadsheet. Some people might find this tedious and the mention of a spreadsheet can strike fear in others. I am a mathematician and have spent much of my life analysing data, looking for patterns and picking out the key components so this is not a problem for me.

Technology used

The NRM provided the material to analyse in the form of PDF files. They split the source material into batches and sent them out.

The problem with analysing a PDF document and entering the results in a spreadsheet is that you are continually switching between the two, usually several times during the formation of each record. I overcame this problem by using a dual headed workstation, i.e. a computer with two monitors attached and the screen display split between them. This requires a computer with an appropriate graphics card. This sort of configuration can sometimes be seen in TV programmes about the stock exchange, railway signalling centres and the like. A second computer could be an alternative way of achieving this configuration. One of my monitors is a 24 inch wide screen, helpful for large spreadsheets or project plans. In general, I had the spreadsheet on the 24 inch monitor and the PDF document on the other.


Project experience and issues

Time Recording

One of the requirements of the NRM was for volunteers to record the time spent on their work. This is needed to estimate the time needed to complete a project and may be of help when estimating the effort involved in similar projects.

The best way to provide an accurate record is to record the time for each chunk of work. I recorded the time spent in minutes on each record in an additional spreadsheet column and used the facilities present in Excel to do the required arithmetic. I created an additional worksheet to hold summary information about the progress of the work and thus was able to estimate the residual time needed for each batch of work.


The problem with most handwritten documents is legibility. Writing can be small, indistinct or include features specific to the writer. Entries may also be terse or abbreviated. This was a particular problem for the Jackson Project where the material was created for the author’s personal use and he may not have anticipated its digitisation and sharing. It is essential to accurately transcribe the records otherwise errors will be introduced, some of which may not be immediately apparent.

PDF files enable you to zoom in on details. This is time consuming and may simply enlarge a blur but sometimes it helps. Where reports or articles have been written by the same person, the contents of one item that could be understood may help to decipher another that was less clear. Sometimes an internet search on the item in question enables the subject to be better understood and unclear entries resolved. If all of this fails, then entering a comment on the lack of clarity will at least warn future users that the records may be deficient in some way. Typewritten documents are invariably easier to read but can include abbreviations or unfamiliar terminology so some effort may be needed here to ensure accuracy.

Format of Reports

When you analyse large volumes of material, you soon become aware of an underlying format of some sort regarding information included and the way it is laid out. In the Railway Work, Life & Death Project, the accident reports are typescript documents rather than forms but there seems to be a high degree of similarity in their layout suggesting that the investigating officers were working from a template or check list. Historically, accident reports have a reputation for their thoroughness and the work of the Railway Inspectorate was greatly respected so I imagine they had an agreed format.

There were occasions where information such as the time of an accident was not included and it is not clear if this was an accidental or deliberate omission. An entry such as unknown or not available would have ruled out the former. I also observed that where the victim was not a railway employee, then some information such as hours on duty were not present. An investigation into a railway accident has to stop somewhere but sometimes events outside the railway domain might be relevant. In recent times we might recall the accident at Great Heck where a road accident caused a railway disaster.

It was also evident that inspecting officers could give detailed technical descriptions of equipment or operations where the incident merited it. In this respect, some reports could be much longer than others but for good reason. Fortunately it was not necessary to replicate all the detail of the accident in the Excel entry.

Use of Language

Sometimes I encountered words and phrases that didn’t make sense in their context. The narrative may be clear but the meaning was not. This can be due to words and  phrases that have a distinct meaning in a railway context or in the more specific context of the item being analysed. An internet search was usually sufficient to clarify matters and an explanatory comment may be desirable to assist future users of the archive.

I kept a log of unclear terms and candidate definitions using an additional worksheet. There is no substitute for years of background reading to familiarise one with terminology and railway locations or working practise but there is always more to learn.

Different companies and investigating officers may have occasionally used different terminology. I did not encounter any cases where differences in terminology used by railway workers appeared to have a causal effect for any of the incidents reported although there were cases where people did things without informing others so clearly timely and effective communication is important.


Interesting Case

Having looked at hundreds of accident reports, none seems to be of unusual significance but some observations come to mind. The working practises accepted a hundred years ago would not always be acceptable now on health and safety grounds. Frequently the victims of an accident are held responsible when a modern assessment would focus on the lack of supporting processes and procedures to guard against human error and occasional mistakes.

An analysis of the types of accident may indicate where the main danger areas lie. Shunting and working on the track seem to feature a lot. It is surprising that more accidents did not take place and I suspect there were many near misses that didn’t get reported as nobody was hurt. Some of the incidents resulted in minor, almost trivial, injuries but their reporting may have had value in that they exposed unsafe ways of working that could easily have had more serious consequences.

The Accident at Goodmayes

Obviously accidents resulting in a fatality or even multiple fatalities strike a chord. One of these occurred on 11 December 1923 at Goodmayes, a couple of miles from where I live; one of the victims died while trying to warn his colleagues of the approach of a train. I sometimes pass the station in question and no doubt this will come to mind. I have summarised the accident below.

Goodmayes Station

Goodmayes is a station to the east of London on the line from Liverpool Street to Shenfield. It opened in 1901 in response to the development of the area. The nearby station at Seven-Kings opened in 1899 and prior to this the area between Ilford and Chadwell Heath was known as the Klondike on account of its un-surfaced roads being a dust bowl in the summer and a swamp in the winter.

It is served by local trains calling at all or most stations to Shenfield and before long will become part of the north eastern branch of Crossrail line 1, the Elizabeth Line. Semi-fast and express trains pass through the station going to such places as Southend Victoria, Chelmsford, Colchester, Clacton and Norwich. They and freight trains normally use the main lines on the south side of the formation while stopping services normally use the local lines on the north side. This part of the line was quadrupled in 1902 and since the mid 1930s the four tracking from Liverpool Street has reached Shenfield.

Following the post war electrification, initially to Shenfield, the local lines were renamed the electric lines. In time the up and down electric (formally local) lines will become the westbound and eastbound Crossrail lines although I am not sure if or when Network Rail will formally rename them. All four lines are served by platforms although those serving the main lines are only used when engineering work causes the electric lines to be closed.

At the time of the accident, there were extensive goods sidings on both sides of the formation. These have now been replaced by flats, shops and other commercial premises but some clues to their existence remain and a new freight siding on the south of the alignment will be created in connection with Crossrail work to replace a siding being removed at Manor Park. Crossrail upgrade work is taking place at this and other stations on the line.

The Accident

The accident occurred at 10:00 on 11 December 1923 and was investigated by JPS Main. The line was then part of the London and North Eastern Railway following the recent grouping. Four men were working on the up local line at the London end of the station close to the platform ramp. That is the end where the station building and over bridge are located. They stood clear of an approaching up (London bound) train but failed to notice the approach of a train on the down local line. It may have been obscured by smoke from the departing up train.

Goodmayes station area, c.1919.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps

Walter Wiffen and William Cubbitt were struck and killed; Joseph Wright and TJ Brazier were injured. William Cubbitt had originally stood clear of the line but in attempting to warn others of the approach of the second train lost his own life.

This is the only report I have seen where a person has been recorded as killed while attempting to save others. Sadly it is one of several where track workers have stood clear of one train only to be struck by another on an adjacent line. Even today people are liable to be caught out by a second train although we usually associate this with level crossing accidents and impatient motorists.


The photographs below are by the author except where stated.

Picture 1 is the frontage of the station building from the road with Crossrail work taking place. The former local lines were directly below the photographer. The accident may have been below this point although the accident report does not say it was below the bridge.


Picture 2 is the western side of the over bridge with the local lines nearest the camera. If the accident was in the open, then it would have been close to here.


Picture 3 shows the station looking east with the main lines nearest to the camera. The new siding will be directly below the photographer using the alignment of a former freight line.


Picture 4 shows the main lines in the foreground and station building directly above the local lines. Work is taking place to lengthen the up main platform and add a passenger lift. The arches suggest track workers could have stood clear of the local line while being under the station building. The station building at Goodmayes is of similar appearance to others on this part of the line and like others is located above the running lines.


Picture 5 shows the line looking west. The former local lines also curve slightly which may have obscured the view from track level.


Picture 6 by Ben Brooksbank was taken from the Internet and predates Crossrail work. It clearly shows the platforms do not extend under the station building.


Picture 7 by an unknown photographer was taken from the Internet and predates Crossrail work. It gives an idea of the view looking west along the local lines.


Goodmayes and the War

The death of two track workers in 1923 is to be regretted but these are not the only deaths to occur at this location. One morning in the early part of WW2, several German aircraft, probably fighter bombers, attacked the railway. Having crossed the sea, they followed the railway from Southend shooting up the stations and trains and in the process killed several (I am told seven) people at Goodmayes.

The raiders did an anti-clockwise about turn before reaching Ilford Station and returned to the continent. Another victim of the raid was a tram driver who was burnt to death. His tram was passing an oil shop in Ilford High Road which runs parallel and close to the railway between Seven-Kings and Ilford stations. A work colleague of my father suffered minor injuries from broken glass. He was preparing to go to work when one of the raiders dropped a bomb near his house in Ilford.


Philip James


Read the next Volunteers’ Week blog post here.


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