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A Railway Accident at Strensall: The Case of George Hey

In another one of those fortuitous encounters – in this case, virtually, on Twitter – we ended up in contact with the author of today’s guest blog post, Sally-Anne Shearn. We were invited in to hear a railway-related talk at the Family History Society of Cheshire (with thanks to Margaret Roberts); Sally-Anne made a comment in the discussion afterwards about asylum and medical records and railway staff, and one thing led to another …

We’re really grateful to Sally-Anne for putting this blog post together – a great demonstration of how looking widely, including beyond the railway industry records, can help us to a better understanding of what happened after accidents.


As a major railway hub from the 1840s and the present home of the National Railway Museum, the city of York is no stranger to interesting railway history.  The Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York holds many records that show the impact of the railways on the city, from the churches and chapels founded to serve the growing population of railway workers, to the schools that taught their children, and the hospitals that treated them.  A chance reference in the catalogue of the archive of York Medical Society highlights the risks involved in their work and the value of medical archives as a source of information for railway related injuries in the nineteenth century.

York County Hospital Wine and Spirits Book entry for June 1861.
Courtesy of Borthwick Institute for Archives.

On 9 June 1861 a note was made in the Wine and Spirits Book of York County Hospital that 8 bottles of port had been ordered due to the ‘Railway accident’.  It is unclear how the book came to be part of the archive of York Medical Society (YMS) and not York County Hospital; it’s possible that it was included in the acquisition of the hospital’s library collection by the YMS in 1890.  Fortunately, both archives, along with the archives of all the hospitals in York, are held at the Borthwick as part of its extensive health collection.  The Wine and Spirits Book recorded quantities of port, sherry, brandy, and gin ordered for the use of patients and medical departments – but occasionally an event is noted instead. On 20 September 1861 20 bottles of brandy were ordered as a result of the ‘Lendal Bridge accident’, when the original bridge over the River Ouse collapsed, killing five men.

Using the chance reference in the Wine and Spirits Book as a guide, we checked the patient records for York County Hospital.  The hospital was founded in 1740 as a ‘voluntary’ or charitable hospital, its creation made possible by a bequest made by Lady Elizabeth Hastings who had been involved in the foundation of another voluntary hospital at Bath.  Under this model York County Hospital used subscriptions by wealthy citizens to fund the free treatment of the so-called deserving poor of York.  It is interesting to note that of all the hospital’s annual subscribers, the most generous by far was the North Eastern Railway Company.  The hospital’s 1861 Annual Report records the NER as giving £52 10 shillings, more than double that of the next most generous subscriber.  Given that the company had its headquarters in York, as well as a major railway works and an important station, this is perhaps not surprising.  By the end of the 19th century York had more than 5000 railway employees, pay was often low and the work dangerous.  In such circumstances a well-funded city hospital was an obvious benefit.

Unfortunately no patient case notes survive for York County Hospital prior to 1908 but we were able to use a surviving patient admission register for hospital in-patients between 1858 and 1866 to track the likely victim and from there, to find newspaper reports of the accident.  The combination of medical records, newspapers, parish and civil records tell the story of the accident that befell George Hey on 8 June 1861.

In 1861 George Hey was employed as an Under-Goods Guard for the North Eastern Railway Company, one of the more dangerous grades of railway work.  According to the 1861 Census, taken just a few months before his accident, George was 19 years old and living in Queen Street, close to York Railway Station and works, with his 26 year old brother Joshua, a railway engine fitter, his sister in law Mary, and his young niece and nephew.

Map of Strensall station, site of the accident to George Hey.
1891 map of Strensall station.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

On Saturday 8th June the York Press and the Yorkshire Gazette newspapers report that George was riding on the buffer of one of the wagons of a goods train at Strensall Station with the intention of coupling his wagon to another, when he fell, landing with his left arm across the rail.  Unfortunately one of the wagons continued moving slowly forwards, running over his arm and crushing it.  Strensall Station was on the York to Scarborough line and George was taken immediately to York County Hospital, the main medical and surgical hospital in the area.  The hospital admission book records his entry as an in-patient who was admitted with a crushed arm and foot abscess.  He was operated on that same day by William Della Husband, the hospital’s surgeon who had followed his father, another William Husband, in the role in 1854.

York County Hospital In-patients Admission Register showing admission of George Hey, 8 June 1861. George appears about half-way down the page.
Courtesy of Borthwick Institute for Archives.

The admission book records that his left arm was amputated by Mr Husband four hours after the accident took place.  The port may have been used on the day of the operation or as an aid to George’s recovery afterwards.  At this time alcohol was used for a number of medical purposes; it was a useful stimulant as well as a sedative and was often used to fortify a patient during their recovery, lower fever and even act as nourishment.  In 1866 E.C. Skey, the casualty surgeon at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, wrote about the great benefits of port wine as a ‘combined tonic and stimulating treatment’ in the recovery of surgical patients, calling it ‘indispensable’ to a patient’s diet.  He cited the example of a Jersey surgeon who followed his example by giving his surgical patients a pint of port wine each day for two days following their operation and had operated on 25 patients in a row using this method without losing a single one.  York County Hospital spent £49 10 shillings in 1861 on ‘wine and spirits’ and the surviving wine and spirits book records the very regular distribution of these supplies to patients.

York County Hospital Annual Report for 1861.
Courtesy of Borthwick Institute for Archives

The 1861 Annual Report shows that George was the only patient to have his arm amputated that year.  According to a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 2001, analysing amputations at the London Hospital in the 1850s, this was the most common treatment for severe limb injury and carried a high risk of death not only from the operation itself but more commonly from postoperative sepsis.  It appears that York County Hospital was fortunate in its staff.  Of the 16 patients who had limbs or fingers amputated in 1861, all of them are recorded as having recovered, including George who was finally released on the 24th July.

We don’t know for certain what happened to George after this date.  One intriguing possibility is that he continued to work for the North Eastern Railway Company as a clerk.  A ‘George Hay’ of the right age and place of birth appears in the 1871 census for Hull with this occupation, and the same man appears again as a ‘railway clerk’ in 1881 and 1901, living in the Hull area.  As a goods guard George would have needed to be literate in order to handle the invoices of goods carried and so it is not impossible that he might have turned to clerical work after the loss of his arm.  If this is the right George Hey he also married and raised a family.  It would be interesting to know if after suffering such a traumatic accident at a young age, George was able to forge a new and less dangerous career for himself with the railways.


Sally-Anne Shearn is the Collections Information Archivist at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York.

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