117 under 18s

In the past we’ve featured cases from our database involving railway employees who were what we’d now understand as children: R Kennedy, for example, who sprained his wrist and ankle in 1914 aged 14, or James Beck, killed at work in 1914, aged just 15.

1911-15 data, ages of those involved in accidents

Obviously, legal, social and cultural standards change: at the start of the 20th century, working at age 14 or 15 was the norm. In an industry like the railways, for many this meant exposure to danger. In the database there are 117 accidents to under 18 year olds, with around 20% of the total being deaths:


Age Number of cases … of which, fatalities
14 11 4
15 26 11
16 39 4
17 41 5


Those involved occupied a range of roles, but many of them put boys or young men – those cases in our database involving under 17s are all male – in some of the most risky situations on the railways. Most commonly this meant working in and around moving trains: 41 of the 117 cases involved shunting, 28 whilst staff were about the track and a further 18 individuals were caught between vehicles. These cases came from the likes of axle-box greasers, number takers, brakesmen, capstan lads, junior goods porters, lamplads or signal-box lads, and engine cleaners and firemen.

Given the dangers of some of the more obviously railway roles (locomotive work, track work, signalling roles), why might children have looked to the railways for employment? Sometimes it was in the family, and the father or some other male relative (typically) might have secured a role for a dependent. Crucially, at the start of the 20th century railway work was still seen as secure and respectable – the ‘job for life’ (albeit, as we have seen, a life which might be cut short very early on).

Clearly those involved were deemed old enough to be responsible for their own safety – at least in many cases. Yet this raises a number of questions about how accurate this idea was. Did new staff, but particularly younger employees, know what they were doing? Were their duties restricted in any way, by age or by experience? How, if at all, were they trained? (Learning on the job, essentially, for most roles – though not all; the ‘labour aristocracy’ of the loco crews were good at providing technical training via Mutual Improvement Classes.)

And of course there’s the question of agency: who exactly deemed young workers responsible for their own safety? No doubt there were some advantages for all involved – the relative freedom from direct supervision in many roles was no doubt appreciated, for example. But for the companies in particular, and to a lesser extent the state, holding all workers, including those aged under 18, responsible for their actions and for protecting themselves was useful. It meant that the burden of safety was passed to the staff who were expected to work in dangerous environments: this meant the companies didn’t have to pay for expensive changes to practices, staffing levels or equipment, and the state didn’t have to increase intervention in the private sector.

The dangers of horse shunting as outlined in the Caledonian Railway’s 1921 accident prevention booklet.

One case where this responsibility was called into doubt was that of James McGreevy, ‘only a little over 14’ at the time of his accident at Sandhills, in Liverpool, on the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway (LYR). McGreevy wasn’t actually employed by the railway company, but was another of the cases (about which we’ve blogged in the past) in which non-company employees were exposed to danger because their work took them onto railway property. McGreevy was a chain horse lad employed by J Nall & Co, carting agents to the LYR; just before noon on 25 May 1912 ‘a waggon of slack had to be horsed from the Railway Company’s Derby Road Sidings, across the highway into Messrs. Baxendell’s Mill.’

Baxendell Mill – in this 1906 map ‘Bee Mill’, to the right of the word ‘tramway’ in the centre of the map. The sidings can clearly be seen on the other side of the road.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps

There were 2 sidings here, both running over the steep gradient (1 in 37) up to the road. One siding was used for empty wagons, and the other, which McGreevy was working, took the full wagons. It was this ‘loaded’ siding which was set ‘on a somewhat severe curve’; the ‘heavy pull out of the yard’ meant that 4 horses were used to pull wagons up the gradient. McGreevy was in charge of the rear 2 horses, and whilst running alongside, he slipped on a pair of points. His left foot was caught and ‘held fast, and in endeavouring to free it he fell, and both wheels of the waggon passed over his legs.’ Curiously, the report, written by Inspector JPS Main, doesn’t indicate what happened to McGreevy, but it sounds like an amputation would have been necessary – with implications for his ability to continue as a horse lad.

Main concluded the accident was due to misadventure. At the same time, he made recommendations to alter the infrastructure (chamfering the edges of the sleepers, to avoid the possibility of a slip in the future) and the working practices. On this latter point he noted that ‘it would be a distinct advantage if arrangements were made to use the empty stock siding for loaded waggons’ and vice versa, as this would mean ‘the pull from the former siding would be considerably easier and consequently less dangerous. At present, I understand that horse chains are broken twice a week in hauling out waggons.’ Quite why the LYR, which presumably had a vested interest in keeping things moving efficiently and not paying out for new sets of horse chains, didn’t think of this is unclear – and we don’t know if they adopted the practice.

So far, so typical (sadly). But what of the age? Main commented on this, too. In his concluding paragraph he stated ‘although I am assured that he was a particularly capable lad with horses, the practice of employing a youth of such an age as practically a principal in a horse-shunting movement, which is distinctly risky under existing conditions, is open to question’ (1912 Quarter 2, Appendix B). This was a rather veiled comment, stopping short of recommending it be changed, if clearly implying the issue should be looked at. Even if Main had recommended changes, as we’ve noted before, this would only have been a recommendation, and the Company was under no obligation to consider or adopt it.

This final paragraph of the report nicely brings into focus questions of competency, training, and expectations of age, seniority and experience. It also returns us to the question of definitions of age and life stages, and how they change over time. McGreevy wasn’t a child (in the understanding of the time) but a ‘youth’, presumably capable of assessing risk – to a degree.


Turning back to the more general issues raised by the appearance of under 18s in our database, at this time the school leaving age was 13, but in our database the youngest casualties we find employed on or around the railways are 14. So, what happened in that intervening year between leaving school and starting on the railways? Presumably some other form of employment, no doubt one which might provide them with the references necessary to secure a job on the railways.

So far we’ve focused on boys and young men employed by the railway companies or who in the course of their employment had reason to be on railway property. But many other young people had access to railway spaces, and they had accidents too. So, in Helena Wojtczak’s recent guest post, children living near the line (because of their parent’s employment on the railways) were also sometimes exposed to danger. Similarly, Kenneth G Williamson’s guest post looked at the fatal accident to his Great Uncle, a child visiting his station master grandfather. Finally, the youngest case in our database involved 10-year old Richard Carter, injured in 1913 when the dray he was riding on as a passenger was hit by a train. Clearly a great many children and young people might be exposed to railway dangers in a number of ways. Life might be nasty, brutish and short on and around the railways.

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4 Responses to 117 under 18s

  1. Helena Wojtczak May 20, 2019 at 10:54 am #

    I found one the other day in which the boy was just 13. I sent it to you, probably too late for this article.

  2. Peter Robinson May 25, 2019 at 6:12 pm #

    I have entered the fatal accident of a 12 year old lad

    I have the honour to report for the information of the Minister of Transport,
    in accordance with the Order of the 9th July, 1936, the result of my Inquiry into
    the circumstances attending the fatal accident which occurred on the 22nd June,
    1936, to E. B . Harding, at Swanwick on the Southern Railway.
    Harding who was 1 2 years of age was employed as a temporary
    lad packer
    and his duties consisted in loading· baskets of strawberries into railway vans
    specially equipped with trays . Lads are preferable for this work, owing to the
    confined space in the vans. The number of them engaged varies according
    to requirements from day to day and the maximum employed at any one time
    at Swanwick during the 1936 season was 20. The same number of temporary
    checkers are also employed and as far as possible each lad works with tlhe same
    checker throughout the season.
    Harding had been thus engaged for nine days during this season and had
    performed similar work for 15 days in 1935

    • Mike Esbester May 28, 2019 at 12:50 pm #

      Fascinating! Swanwick is local to Mike, so this is doubly interesting – and great that this is something we’ll be bringing into the project via the extension you’ve been working on – thanks for giving us this sneak preview. It raises all sorts of questions about children working, schooling and so on – it would be good to know more about this case and these practices.


  1. Finding staff, preventing accidents - Railway Work, Life & Death - May 18, 2020

    […] is comprised of many thousands of people, but through it we can learn more about 14 year old James McGreevy, or Julia Cashen, or any of the others […]

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