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A runaway engine, a dismissed driver & a no show

The lot of the Railway Inspector wasn’t always a happy one. Finding out what happened in an accident was never going to be an easy task: sometimes they were unwitnessed, sometimes those involved were uncooperative for fear of being implicated in rule-breaking, and sometimes they key players were unavailable. In a previous blog we’ve discussed how employees signing up to fight in the First World War meant that they could not provide evidence at state investigations. However, Inspector JH Armytage, arriving at Polmadie, Glasgow, in July 1911 faced a different problem: his key witness had already been dismissed from service. Perhaps unsurprisingly, despite a request to attend the inquiry, the former employee was a no show.

Polmadie sheds, c.1913.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

As a result Armytage had to rely on what must have been an inspector’s well-honed instinct and the fragmentary traces available from other sources. The accident took place on the Caledonian Railway, at its Polmadie loco shed, on 27 May 1911. Hugh Johnston, an engine turner (someone employed to turn locomotives on a turntable or move them around a shed), wanted to move an engine into No. 12 road at the shed. To do that it was necessary to change the direction of 2 pairs of points. Rather than getting a colleague to do it – no doubt in a friendly gesture, intended to save fireman John Telfer the bother of getting down from another engine and changing the points – Johnston opened the regulator (the bit of the mechanism that applies steam from the boiler to the valves and will start an engine moving). He then ‘alighted from engine No. 411 and turned the points in advance of the engine.’

The predictable happened: ‘The speed of the engine, however, increased, and Johnston failed to get on to the footplate in time to bring the engine to a stand outside the shed.’ As a result the loco ran on, into the shed, far too fast – ‘at a considerable speed’ – where it hit another engine, No. 772. Although the brakes were on and the wheels were scotched, No. 772 was forced 10 yards down the line, where it hit another loco, No. 49. This engine was undergoing some maintenance, meaning that it was partially lifted by a crane. Unfortunately fitter James McAllen and labourer John Burnie were at work on it at the time. The shunt from the other engines meant that the end of No. 49 that was suspended from the crane swung round, catching McAllen and crushing him between the engine and a trestle, breaking his neck. Another part of the engine fell on Burnie’s left leg, though only inflicting a severe bruise.

Although it had no bearing on this case, McAllen and Burnie had been at work for over 13 hours at the time of the accident – it is unclear whether this included time for meals or if this was just time at work. Armytage noted that in addition to the casualties, the 3 engines involved were all seriously damaged. He had no hesitation in placing responsibility entirely with Johnston, who had in the 6 weeks between accident and state investigation been dismissed by the Caledonian (1911 Quarter 2, Appendix B).

What this dismissal hints at is the other accident investigation processes that took place. The state inspectors had to select which cases to inquire into (as they could not investigate them all, there being far too many for the staff of the Inspectorate). How they did that is, sadly, unknown, but what is clear is that it took time: time for a report of an accident to reach the inspectors from the companies, and then time to decide which to investigate, before the trouble of finding a suitable date to go and conduct the investigation. In the meantime the railway companies – who were meticulous record keepers and seem to have investigated staff accidents as a matter of course – undertook its own investigation, including imposing whatever penalty it deemed appropriate: in this case, dismissal for Johnston. Some of the other railway company investigation records are coming into the project, via our extension with The National Archives of the UK, though sadly not for the Caledonian Railway. We do have our eyes on the Scottish companies’ records, though, held at National Records Scotland: a future project extension!

It would also be interesting to see if we can link this with any of the Union records coming into the project via the extension currently underway at the Modern Records Centre: the casualties might have been union members, or Johnston might have requested help defending the case if he was a member. These sorts of links are just some of the really exciting possibilities coming out of the ongoing project work!

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