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14, learning the craft – the hard way

From time to time we’ve commented on the young age of some of the people encountered in our database – for example, the case of 16-year old James Beck. Given the school leaving age was 13 at this time, it’s unsurprising – if sad – that Beck’s case wasn’t the youngest we have encountered. There are nine 14-year olds in the database: R Kennedy was one of these.

Brockley Whins station, c.1914. ‘S.B.’ marks the signal box.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps

On 18 February 1914 Kennedy was at work at Brockley Whins station, in what is now South Tyneside, on the North Eastern Railway. He was employed as a learner signal-lad, according to the accident investigation, undertaken by Inspector Charles Campbell. At 3.50pm, having been on duty since 9am, he was making his way from the signal box to the platform on the opposite side of the running tracks.

Before crossing the lines he had noticed 4 signal wires he would need to go over ‘and intended to keep clear of them.’ However, he caught his foot under one of them as stepped onto the line, and as a result ‘he fell across the four-foot way’ (i.e. the track). He sprained his write and his ankle, and Campbell concluded that the accident was due to ‘want of care’ – a staple explanation in these reports.

Campbell had the grace to record that ‘as the wires cross a path they should be covered or otherwise guarded’ (1914 Quarter 1, Appendix C). However, he makes no reference to the 1902 Prevention of Accidents Rules, which called for such coverings. Other reports did, on occasion, call attention to these Rules, and Campbell would have been well aware of them.

In addition, the way the report is phrased suggests – although it isn’t clear – that there wasn’t a boarded walking route from the signal box to the station. This seems surprising from today’s perspective, and even from that of 1914 it might have been anticipated that a ‘safe walking route’ would be provided.

Ultimately, Kennedy was lucky, in that there wasn’t a train involved when he fell, as had there been the results would likely have been a lot worse. Trusting 14-year olds to exercise discretion and caution in the way expected here now seems unreasonable, but at the time was unremarkable.


  1. Duncan L

    At that time in February it might have been twighlight in the north east.. So maybe not surprising that someone might trip over the wires …

    • Mike Esbester

      Yes, absolutely – that sounds plausible. As was sometimes the case, the question was why the wires were in the way and people were expected to work around them? No doubt cost and ‘it’s always been that way’ came into play!

  2. Pingback:Distracted in the dark - Railway Work, Life & Death

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