A question of trust

How far could workers control their own fates? In the 19th century and well into the 20th it was believed by many – certainly the railway companies’ managers – that workers were ultimately responsible for the vast majority of the accidents that befell them, as they made choices and acted ‘carelessly.’ What was rarely taken into account was structural factors which constrained staff. Sometimes the actions they took were forced by the circumstances around them, under which they worked.

One such case occurred on 14 December 1911, and led to the death of driver George Williamson of the Caledonian Railway. He was in charge of engine 822, on the 8.38pm goods from Aberdeen to Edinburgh. Just after Craigo Station, Williamson went on to the tender to check on water levels, but he hit an overbridge and was killed.

Caledonian Railway 1921 accident prevention booklet.

The tender was fitted with a water gauge – a ‘monarch patent dial gauge’ – which was visible from the footplate. However, at the inquiry, the fireman, John Lauder, said that after the gauge’s face-glass was renewed  on 14 October 1911 it no longer registered accurately, and both of the crew felt they couldn’t rely upon it – thus explaining why Williamson believed it necessary to go onto the tender to check the water levels by looking into the tank. Inspector Charles Campbell pulled no punches here: ‘If the gauge was not working properly it was Williamson’s duty to report the matter to the Company. He did not do so.’ When examined after the accident the Company officials found that it was working correctly.

Campbell noted that even if Williamson did think it necessary to go on the tender, ‘there was no reason why he should have gone on to the tender while the engine was in motion. He should have waited until the train arrived at Dubton Junction, some three miles ahead’. In doing so, he acted against a special instruction warning loco crews about going on top of the tender of moving engines. Campbell recorded ‘the necessity of strict obedience to the instruction is evidently not appreciated by drivers and firemen in general. If accidents of the above class are to be reduced the order must be rigidly enforced, and with this object in view the Company should be asked to devote serious attention to the matter.’ Campbell added a coda to his report, that the Monarch Patent gauges were being replaced on the Company’s engines, though ‘not because of any defect in the dial gauge but in the ordinary course of transition’ (1911 Quarter 4, Appendix C).

Campbell observed that given this was an issue of trust in the equipment, even if it was working the point was the crew felt they couldn’t rely upon it and so tried to work around the problem – an admirable aim, in many respects, and something seen frequently in these accident reports. Often it was the dedication of the workers to their jobs which meant they exposed themselves to danger, in order to get the work done.

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