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An accident at Highbury & Is

This week we have another guest post from Philip James, part of the NRM team and our most prolific blog contributor – read his other posts here. Philip starts by giving us a bit of insight into both the project work and a potential direction for the future, before exploring one of the accident cases he found whilst working on the project. One of the nice things about Philip’s post is that it goes beyond the accident, and puts the location in its wider context. As always, our thanks to Philip for the post and for his hard work on the project.



I prepared this post during the pause following completion of phase three of the project. Mike Esbester has kindly promulgated some statistics about the project and the following headline figures may be of interest.

Phase 1 – 1911-15, 3,911 accidents.
Phase 2 – 1921-39, 8,890 accidents.
Phase 3 – 1901-10, 8,050 accidents.
Total – 20,851 accident records.

I don’t know how much time volunteers as a whole have spent on this work but from my records, I estimate each accident record took about nine minutes to complete. This figure is an average with many entries taking only four or five minutes while some took up to thirty.

Sometimes it took time to work out which county the location was in at the time of the accident. In other cases, there was some obscure terminology or detail that needed investigation. I will leave it to others to estimate how long their share of the data entry has taken but such metrics are likely to be useful for planning future work.


Project Data

At this stage, the accidents are divided into phases but in future the project may wish to group them by other means and present the data in a meaningful way. I won’t go into detail about this but did some research concerning tools that could be used to help. There are tools that can be used to tidy up the data (data cleansing) and ways of showing data on maps using the tier drop map pins you find in Google Maps.

In practise, data cleansing is likely to require the attention of people with knowledge of the project and there is no quick or easy way of doing it. Excel has features that can help. Other tools may have similar features but all will require people with project knowledge.

Mapping accidents is possible but will require the addition of geographic coordinates for each location. It is also a technique that needs to be used selectively. A map of the UK and Ireland with 20,000 or more map pins might be difficult to comprehend but used to show the clustering of a subset of that data, it could be useful.

There may be other information about historic workplace accidents that the project would like to capture and this has also had my attention. One of the problems will be establishing the credibility and accuracy of such information as accounts can be altered over time, often accidentally but sometimes deliberately. I expect historians are familiar with such problems but we need to take care before adding them to out pool of accident data.


Interesting Case

A few months ago, I came across an accident on the North London Line at Highbury, the present-day Highbury and Islington Station. This is interesting from the perspective of the accident itself but also because there is much to be said about the surrounding area from a predominantly railway perspective.

Highbury & Islington Station
Islington and Highbury Station, North London Railway; from The Illustrated London News, 19 April 1873 courtesy of the Harringay online website. An impressive building, it was damaged by a V1 flying bomb in June 1944 and demolished in the 1960s to facilitate construction of the Victoria Line.

The name of the location is curious. At the time of the accident, the official name of the station was Highbury and Islington. From its opening in 1850 until 1864 it was called Islington. It was then called Islington or Highbury until 1872. The Great Northern and City Railway station that opened in 1904, the year after our accident, was known as Highbury [1] until 1922 but that is not where the accident occurred. Perhaps the inspector wanted to abbreviate his report and considered Highbury was sufficient. To save words, I shall do likewise.

Courtesy of District Dave’s Forum shows the building from another angle. Note the arch inscribed Highbury Station. The original entrance to the Northern City Line, a separate and smaller building, survives but is no longer used by the public.


Accident at Highbury

North London Railway
Date of Accident – 25th April, 1903.
Place at which Accident happened – Highbury.
Name of Person killed – Jabez Smith.
Age of Person killed – 44.
Capacity in which employed – Platelayer.
Number of booked working hours per diem[1] – 11 hours and 30 minutes.
How long on duty at time of Accident – 6 hours and 30 minutes.

Description of Accident – Although classed as a platelayer, Smith seldom worked with a gang. He was usually employed in cleaning points, screwing up bolts, or replacing fish plates.

At about 12:30 pm. he was engaged in changing a pair of broken fish plates in the No. 2 down line about 60 Yards west of Highbury Station, when failing to notice an approaching train until it was close to him, he was knocked down and killed.

Cause of Accident – Owing to certain fixed signals at danger the engine of the train in question had been running without steam. This, together with the noise from trains passing on the adjoining lines may have prevented Smith hearing its approach, but there was nothing to obscure its view for a distance of at least a quarter of a mile, so that I feel Smith may not have exercised all the care he might have done. At the same time, I am strongly of (the) opinion that it was an unwise arrangement for a man to be engaged alone at, such work where, as at Highbury, trains are constantly passing.

In consequence of this accident the arrangement referred to has been discontinued and in future two men are to be employed.

Investigating Officer – A. Ford.

A view of the station by an unknown photographer, looking east from the Liverpool Road overbridge west of the station. The number two lines are straight, consistent with the inspector’s view that an oncoming train could be seen for some distance. The accident location would have been close to the red buffer stop. The number one lines, now known as the North London Lines use overhead electrification while the former number two lines, are now part of the East London Line and retain third rail electrification. Most trains of class 378 that run on these lines are dual voltage.
By an unknown photographer, this image shows a class 501 electric multiple unit en route from Broad Street to Richmond. They were in service from 1957 to 1985. Similar trains from Broad Street to Watford Junction would also pass this way. The bars across the windows were to stop passengers leaning out, a potential problem when going through the relatively narrow Hampstead Heath Tunnel. The straight alignment is apparent. The austere and run-down nature of the railway at this time is evident.


Highbury and its Railways

Surface Lines

The East and West India Docks and Birmingham Junction Railway opened in 1850. It connected what is now the West Coast Main Line with the docks near Poplar and passed through locations including Camden, Highbury, Dalston, Hackney and Bow. The name was changed to North London Railway in 1853. This line and its branches have been the subject of several books so I will summarise the main points.

Initially double track, the section between Camden and Dalston (Western Junction) was quadrupled in the 1870s. The northern pair of tracks becoming the number one lines and the southern pair the number two lines. The latter were generally used by trains heading to or from Broad Street which opened in 1868.

The line from Broad Street to Dalston (Western Junction) initially had three tracks but was later widened to four, the junction at Dalston being triangular with trains able to run from Broad Street to Poplar. Apart from loops and sidings, the rest of the system remained double track.

The North London Railway had its depot at Bow, close to the site of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) Station at Bow Church. The station at Bow[2] was across the road from the DLR station.[3] There were also junctions to the nearby District Line and to the line to Fenchurch Street at Gas Factory Junction. These links have subsequently been lifted and the depot site redeveloped. The route north from Bow to Victoria Park has closed and largely vanished but the route south is now part of the DLR.

Courtesy of Disused Stations is Victoria Park circa 1911. This was previously called Victoria Park and Hackney Wick. Until 1866 the station was sited further west and that is where the blood stains were found in carriage number 69. The tracks to the left run east towards Stratford and the present-day Hackney Wick station serves them. Only one track had a platform. The railway to the right, now dismantled heads south to Bow and Poplar. The route west to Dalston and Highbury is behind the camera.
Courtesy of the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society, this diagramme shows the layout of the docks and sidings near Poplar. Several companies have sidings here. The NLL sidings are at Harrow Lane although it has others to the east. These days, the DLR passes through on the alignment of the Blackwall Railway. It also uses the NLL alignment at the top of picture. The DLR All Saints station is on the site of the former NLL Poplar station just north of Poplar High Street.

Unrelated to this accident, I came across another involving shunting on the North London Railway at Poplar in 1910.[4] This was probably in the Harrow Lane sidings that are now the site or the DLR Poplar depot. There have been a number of accidents on the railway over the years and many are listed here.

In later years, the line became less busy, the number one lines were taken out of use and later singled and Broad Street Station and Goods Yard closed and the site redeveloped. In the 1970s there were proposals to turn the North London Line (NLL) into a road. These focused on the declining passenger services and took no account of the importance of the line as a link between other routes, particularly for freight.

The eastern part of the line and docks suffered from damage by bombing during World War 2 and passenger services from Broad Street to Poplar were suspended, never to resume. The reorganisation of NLL services in the 1980s following the closure of Broad Street Station created a frequent service from Richmond to North Woolwich via Highbury, Dalston (Kingsland), Hackney and Stratford. Subsequently, the hugely successful London Overground has expanded these services and reinstated the line south from Dalston as an extension of the East London Line which now runs to Highbury. The eastern curve at Dalston between the former east and south junctions was not reinstated although passive provision for this has been made.

The singling of the number one lines in the 1980s, now seen as a mistake, has been reversed. The former number one lines, now designated the north London lines are used by trains between Camden and Stratford while the former number two lines have become the east London lines. West of Highbury, the line is double track but with loops for freight trains and the possibility of re-quadrupling remains.

From shows the layout at Highbury above and below ground. In particular it shows the southbound lines using the original Northern City Line station tunnels while the northbound lines use new build tunnels.

Tube Lines

Highbury is also on the route of the London Underground Victoria Line opened in 1968 and the Great Northern and City Railway also known as the Northern City Line opened in 1904. Both are tube railways below ground and the latter was built with large diameter tunnels to take surface size trains. A dispute with the Great Northern Railway prevented it running through trains onto that company’s network although since 1976, through trains have run.

Prior to the introduction of through services to Moorgate using electric traction, some trains from the Great Northern Line ran to Broad Street using diesel traction, operating via the Canonbury Curve Tunnel that connects the Great Northern and NLL. These movements might have been visible from the platforms at Highbury although the trains would not have passed through the station. After they ceased, the track through the curve was singled to improve clearances for freight trains.

Prior to 1976, the Northern City Line has been owned by the then independent Metropolitan Railway and for many years was an isolated branch of the Northern Line. This situation arising from the post war abandonment of the uncompleted sections of the 1935 to 1940 New Works Programme and the closure of the line through Crouch End and Stroud Green that has now become the Parkland Walk. Its Moorgate terminus, platform 9, was also the scene of a crash when a train failed to stop when approaching the dead-end tunnel. The book by Sally Holloway [5] is an excellent account of this unfortunate event.

The Victoria Line is significant as it was the first completely new line to be built since the building boom prior to the first World War when three new lines[5] were built by the company run by American financier Charles Tyson Yerkes. Such are the costs of construction that the American investors who funded these got little financial return on their investment.

Describing the line as completely new is slightly disingenuous as three of the station tunnels, one of them at Highbury and two at Finsbury Park, had previously been used by other lines. The Victoria Line has cross platform interchanges with other lines at five stations and in some cases, this involved rerouting tracks below ground. The former Northern City platforms at Finsbury Park became the southbound platforms for the Victoria and Piccadilly Lines.


Track Layout


The direction of railway lines are generally referred to as up or down, with the up direction usually towards the principal town, often London. This convention is thought to originate with mail coaches that ran from London to Portsmouth during the Napoleonic Wars.

In some locations, for example London Underground lines the terms up and down are not intuitively obvious so the directions are shown as Northbound, Southbound, Eastbound or Westbound, these being more meaningful in the context of a particular line. Other conventions may be used elsewhere, particularly abroad.

When the Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, built its London extension to Marylebone, it adopted Manchester as the up direction. The company also changed its name to the Great Central Railway.

Trains travelling over a route composed of several formerly separate lines may find the up and down directions change as they pass from one line to another although announcements to passengers are likely to omit this potentially confusing inconsistency. Triangular junctions such as the one that existed at Dalston would inevitably lead to a change from up to down when passing over one of the sides of the triangle. In some locations, a bidirectional line may be described as ‘up and down’ but there will still be distinct up and down directions of travel over it.



Correct identification of the up and down lines is important to understanding an accident location. The books by J E Conor [2] [3] suggest that the up direction was from Primrose Hill to Broad Street. This would be consistent with having a London terminus in the up direction. The inspector’s account places the accident location west of the station on the down number two line (on the south side of the alignment) and says there was nothing to obscure the view of an approaching train for a quarter of a mile or so.

Photos taken by the author on 25/3/2012. Looking west towards and under the Liverpool Road overbridge, they show the accident location near the red buffer stop and the recent extension to platform one. It is apparent that the view to the west is also relatively straight and an oncoming train from this direction could be seen. The former number two lines now finish at Highbury although one continues past the station to facilitate rolling stock movements onto the extended East London Line.

If the down direction was towards Primrose Hill, then Jabez Smith would have had to look back east through the station to see the approaching train. This might be possible but the view to the west might be more consistent with an unobscured view. The railway is straight in both directions although one might expect station buildings to be an impediment to viewing an approaching train.

The 1998 edition of Quail maps [4] shows the up direction towards Camden. This map shows the partial singling of the number one lines and predates the reinstatement of quadrupling east of Highbury. It also shows all lines approaching Camden Road Station as up lines and those leaving it as down. The exception being the North London Incline which has Camden in the down direction and Finsbury Park in the up direction.

It is possible for a track remodelling to reverse the up and down designations of lines but the anomaly is curious. Either way, the accident was west of the station and towards the south side of the four-track alignment.

The inspector’s report refers to noise and the frequency of passing trains so it is reasonable to conclude that a man should not have been working alone without some form of protection.



The NNL has been the scene of several crimes. Two in particular come to mind. The murder of Banker Thomas Briggs on 9 July 1864, for which German emigre Franz Muller was convicted and publicly executed, is regarded as the first murder of a passenger on a railway in the United Kingdom. The book by Barry Herbert [6] deals with this in the chapter ‘Death in Carriage No 69’. The internet also has accounts of the crime.

The murder of William Starchfield on 8 January 1914 was never solved although his father was tried and acquitted. He continued to deny guilt until his death two years later. Barry Herbert [6] deals with this in the chapter ‘Little boy lost, little boy dead’. This also features on the internet, for example here and here.

Thomas Briggs

Thomas Briggs lived in the then fashionable suburb of Hackney and was travelling home from his work near Fenchurch Street. The NLL train branched off at Gas Factory Junction along an NLL branch now lifted to pass through the NLL station at Bow and hence regain the extant line just after the now dismantled station at Victoria Park and Hackney Wick[6] before passing through present day Hackney Central on its way to Highbury and Primrose Hill, then known as Chalk Farm.

After the train left Bow, it seems that he was assaulted, robbed and thrown out of the carriage. The blood-stained carriage was discovered at Victoria Park and Hackney Wick.[7] Briggs was discovered unconscious near the line between Bow and Victoria Park and Hackney Wick. He was taken to a nearby pub, the Mitford Castle[8] where he died without regaining consciousness. The pub is close to the Hertford Union Canal which links the Regents Canal at Mile End with the River Lea[9] Navigation. The bridge abutments of the now dismantled NLL railway bridge survive. This part of the NLL and a station built soon after at Old Ford no longer exist.

Muller came under suspicion, was pursued to America, arrested and brought back to face trial. He pleaded not guilty but was convicted and hanged. There are some doubts regarding his guilt and it is alleged he confessed to the priest prior to his execution. That said many convicted people of the time were reported as having confessed as this might be what people wanted to hear and the dead can’t contradict such accounts.

Guilty or not, the legacy Franz Muller leaves is one of movement away from separate compartments to corridors and open saloons. Some carriages subsequently had windows between compartments known as ‘Muller lights.’


William Starchfield

The body of William Starchfield was found under the seat of a train going from Chalk Farm[10] to Broad Street. He had been strangled. The body was discovered at Mildmay Park Station[11] between Canonbury and Dalston by an errand boy returning to work.

His father, John Starchfield, sold newspapers in Tottenham Court Road, London. In September 1912 he chased and caught Stephen Titus, a mad Armenian tailor who had just shot the assistant manageress of the Horseshoe Hotel, Esther May Towers. During the struggle he was shot in the stomach but held on to Stephen Titus until the police arrived and arrest him.

At Titus’s trial the judge warmly praised Starchfield and awarded him £50 as some compensation for his injuries which would cause him discomfort for years to come and ultimately cause his premature death. The Carnegie Heroes Fund later awarded him £1 a week.

While he was rightly applauded for his conduct in the Titus case, other aspects of his private life were less satisfactory resulting in the breakup of his marriage and clearly giving the police reason to suspect his involvement in his son’s death. In the event the identification evidence used was deemed to be unsatisfactory and the trial judge directed the jury to acquit him. He was cheered as he left the Old Bailey.


Local Features

At street level, it may not be apparent but Islington is actually on a hill and in some narratives, it is referred to as Islington Hill. In times past this would be obvious but as the area was built up, less so. Even so, there are some locations where this is still evident from street level. In the English Civil War, the high ground was of strategic importance and troops were stationed there.


The New River

Being on high ground has potential benefits. In 1613, the New River, a man-made waterway was built to carry fresh water from Hertfordshire to London. It followed a circuitous route in order to achieve a gradual downhill flow from its source to Islington and eventually terminated at New River Head from where water was distributed through pipes and conduits to the city nearby.

In times past, pipes were made from bored out elm logs and much water would be lost in transit but sufficient would reach its destination to make the exercise worthwhile. Typically, water would flow through the pipes for a few hours each day enabling people to fill tanks in their homes and thus avoid the need to keep the cistern fully charged at all times.

In more recent times, much of the New River has been put into pipes below ground enabling its route to be shortened and the redundant ground released for development. The river is now less than half its original length but still flows between the same source and Islington and there are many places where it can be seen above ground. A vast underground reservoir now lies on high ground at Islington.

In 1940, a bomb caused the pipe carrying the river to collapse and flood the basement of Dame Alice Owens School, then sited near the Angel. The majority of the approximately 150 people taking shelter there were killed. This has a personal resonance as relatives of mine lived in the area and some attended Owens although not at the time of the bombing.


Regents Canal

At one time canals were the main way of transporting goods around the country and the Grand Union Canal running from Birmingham to London was prominent among them. It reached the Thames at Brentford and among others, had branches going west to Slough and east to Paddington where it finishes alongside the present-day site of Paddington Station having passed through a basin known as Little Venice just to the north.

In 1816 another canal was completed from Little Venice to the River Thames at Limehouse Basin. This was the Regents Canal and it passed through Camden, Kings Cross, Islington, Haggerston and Mile End on its way. In general, it coped with the undulating terrain by means of locks but Islington Hill was too high so a tunnel under the hill, about half a mile in length was required.

Early railway schemes proposed converting the canal to a railway. The canal survived these plans and today is a tourist attraction and a feature of the London landscape. The Cumberland basin near London Zoo was less fortunate having been mostly filled in but other basins such as that in City Road have survived.

This map shows the canal and associated waterways.

Philip James



  1. The London Underground, A Diagrammatic History by Douglas Rose. Second Edition. ISBN 0 9507101 2 1.
  2. Broad Street to Primrose Hill, A Photographic Journey by J E Connor, Connor and Butler, 1996. ISBN 0 947699 23 6.
  3. Broad Street to Poplar, A Photographic Journey by J E.Connor, Connor and Butler, 1995. ISBN 0 947699 21 X.
  4. Railway Track Diagrams, Volume 2 England: East by John Yonge, Gerald Jacobs and the Quail Map Company, 1998. ISBN 1 898319 29 4.
  5. Moorgate, Anatomy of a Railway Disaster by Sally Holloway. David and Charles, 1988. ISBN 0 7153 8913 0.
  6. All Stations to Murder, True tales of crime on the railway by Barry Herbert. Silver Link Publishing Ltd, 1994. ISBN 1 85794 025 3.


[1] Per diem – for each day (used in financial contexts).

[2] The Underground and Great Eastern Railways also had stations nearby called Bow Road. The former survives but the latter closed long ago.

[3] Bow Church.

[4] 1910 Q2 C, 12/5/1910, North London Railway, Poplar, Inspector J J Hornby.

[5] Baker Street and Waterloo Railway. Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway. Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway.

[6] Renamed Victoria Park in 1859, closed in 1943 and demolished in 1957.

[7] The modern-day Hackney Wick Station is on another line further east.

[8] Later renamed Top o’ the Morning. The building still exists but has another use.

[9] Spelling is Lee or Lea.

[10] Later renamed Primrose Hill.

[11] Closed in 1934 and subsequently demolished.

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