A flyaway telegraph message

There are many cases in our database in which we see similar circumstances – and often similar outcomes: track workers hit by trains, shunters crushed between wagons, slips, trips and falls, porters injured whilst moving goods, and so on. There are, of course, a great many cases which are truly unique – one of which occurred on 28 May 1914 and led to the death of fireman Reginald Ladlow.

Caledonian Railway 1921 accident prevention booklet.

Along with his driver, J Pepper, he was working a goods train from Staniforth to Sandal, on the Great Central Railway. Anticipating a wait at Barnby Dun, ‘Pepper decided to write out a telegraph message for relief.’ Although incidental to this case, the detail that the driver decided to write out the message speaks volumes about the question of literacy – refuting (if it were still needed) the idea that workers, and particularly railway workers, were fundamentally illiterate.

Unfortunately, there was no need to stop at Barnby Dun; still wanting to pass on his message, Pepper slowed the train and gave Ladlow the message ‘to throw to the signalman when passing.’ The wind took the paper, however, and blew it to the back of the tender. Undeterred, Pepper decided to send the message from the next stopping point ‘but almost immediately Ladlow left the footplate unnoticed by Pepper to get the message form’. When he turned around, Pepper saw Ladlow lying on the coal ‘having apparently come into contact with an over-bridge’, dying shortly afterwards.

Inspector Amos Ford found this a straightforward case: his verdict was that it was due to ‘Ladlow unnecessarily exposing himself to danger, contrary to the Company’s rules and special instructions’ (1914 Quarter 2, Appendix C). Nothing was said about Pepper’s run in to the next station, or if he continued his turn – single-handed? Unlikely. Where did the spare fireman come from? Or was the service terminated? Equally unlikely. And certainly nothing was said about the trauma of such a close involvement with the death of a colleague and workmate, or having to continue to drive (and fire) with his body close to hand. As is so often the case, these reports tell us much about life and death on the railways – but also provoke more questions.


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