Wilson & Whyman, Middlesbrough

If you were glancing through our database of railway worker accidents in haste, you might be forgiven for spotting two similar looking names and thinking they were related: F Wilson and B Whyman, the first a fireman and the latter a driver. Both were injured at Middlesbrough on the North Eastern Railway within 30 minutes of each other, on 2 February 1911.

However, it appears that they were unrelated, both in terms of a family connection and in terms of their accidents. The first accident happened to fireman F Wilson, about two-thirds of the way through his shift. He was taking a tank engine to take on water – driving it, as although ‘only’ a fireman, one important means of learning the art of driving was by taking charge of the engine for duties such as this, very much learning on the job. Halting the loco near another also standing on that siding, Wilson left it in backward gear and dismounted in order to inspect the head lights: ‘just as he was stepping out of the four-foot way behind the bunker his engine moved nearer to the other engine, and he was caught between the buffers.’ Fortunately it produced a crush injury to his body, and not a fatality as was often the case under such circumstances. Inspector Charles Campbell noted that Wilson was responsible as he should ‘have put the engine out of gear and assured himself that the brake was firmly applied’ (1911 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

The next accident occurred around 25 minutes later, when driver B Whyman had finished his shift and started to walk back to the shed with his fireman. As Inspector Campbell noted ‘in stepping over some signal wires … Whyman inadvertently failed to raise one of his feet sufficiently high, with the result that he tripped and fell’, injuring his knee (1911 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

Interestingly there had been a further two accidents at Middlesbrough in the days before Whyman and Wilson were injured, all of which were investigated by Charles Campbell. Presumably this was the logic of the inspectors work – they would maximise the time investigating and minimise the time spent travelling if they dealt with a series of cases in any one location. Sadly the standard layout of these reports doesn’t include details of when the investigation took place; my suspicion is they all took place on the same or consecutive days.

This gives rise to interesting questions about how the inspectors decided which accidents to investigate, out of the tens of thousands they faced in any given year: was it on the basis of administrative convenience or cost, rather than on grounds of seriousness or typicality? It is easy to be critical from today’s perspective, but this would be a disservice to the time and monetary pressures under which the inspectors were operating. What is more useful for us to do is to try to understand and appreciate the factors that might have constrained the inspectors to act in particular ways – potentially against their own desires.

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