Who was at work on the railways?

The purpose of our project was to look at accidents involving railway workers, as seen through the reports produced by the Railway Inspectorate of the Board of Trade between 1911 and 1915. The brief was simple, and we expected to find a lot of railway employees being killed and injured. This we did, but it wasn’t all. Some of the reports touched upon some of the other people harmed by railway working – people who weren’t employed directly by the railways, but for one reason or another had cause to be on railway property.

We shouldn’t be surprised to find that the database includes non-employees: the railway system was at this time huge, and many people had legitimate reason to be in places that exposed them to danger. (In keeping with the convention at the time, trespassers and suicides were dealt with elsewhere by the Inspectorate.) So, we have ‘persons on business’, like coal or timber merchants, who might have been sending or receiving goods; or carters, moving goods from the railhead to their final destination; or contractors, at work on the railways but not employed directly by a railway company. Occasionally there are cases where a right of way across a line was being used, for example by a farmer, and the road vehicle was struck – including the youngest case in our database, of 10 year old Richard Carter, injured at Thornbury in Gloucestershire. Altogether in the database there are 149 people identified as not being employed directly by one of the railway companies.

One of these cases occurred on 24 March 1911 at Shireoaks in Nottinghamshire. At the time Shireoaks was home to a colliery producing hundreds of thousands of tons of coal a year. As well as a canal connection, in order to move the coal a rail link was made, formed of sidings owned by the Shireoaks Colliery Company, connected to the sidings owned by the Great Central Railway. This meant that the Colliery Company’s sidings were worked by ‘their’ men – but, as non-Great Central employees, they also worked wagons out into the exchange sidings, so onto Great Central property. Under these circumstances coal trimmer Sidney Edeson was killed.

Image of railway worker precariously riding on a wagon

A similar issue, as seen by the LMS in 1924.

Edeson was one of a number of Colliery men working stock from their sidings onto Great Central lines. Edeson was riding on a wagon being shunted, which, when it bumped up against other wagons, threw him from his perch: ‘one wheel of the next wagon passed over his body, causing fatal injuries.’ As Inspector JH Armytage noted, ‘the coal trimmers are expected to ride on the waggons [sic] … and to trim the loads as soon as possible.’ Presumably the expectation was that of the Colliery company; Armytage went on to suggest that ‘arrangements should be made which will prevent the waggons being moved while the trimmers are on them’ (1911 Quarter 1, Appendix B). However, it is unclear as to whether his recommendation would have had any force: given the railway companies, whom the inspectors were investigating, were not compelled to follow recommendations, a third-party like the Shireoaks Colliery Company presumably had even less reason to abide by the suggestion (especially if it slowed output). Indeed, had the accident occurred on the Colliery’s property it is doubtful that the case would have been reported to the Railway Inspectors; possibly, if reportable, it would have gone to the Mines Inspectorate.

At this time there were thousands of private connections like these into the railway system that was, in the pre-motor car era, a major means of shifting freight around the UK. This might only have been one example, but it wasn’t atypical. Simply seeing railway accidents as the preserve of those employed directly by the companies is therefore limited and we would do well to keep an open mind about who might have been killed or injured in the course of railway working.

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