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Beer, rail and accidents

4 August is International Beer Day! Never ones to pass up a beer-related opportunity, we had a look through the project database to see what it might hold – and found a fair bit.

Some of that was rather incidental to railway work, of course. There were plenty of railway staff hurt at work with ‘beer’ in their names: Beer, Beere, Godbeer, Goodbeer, Eggbeer, Bradbeer and Shillabeer.

There were of course more operational cases, a few of which we’ll highlight here. They ranged from locations where we might expect a beer connection – like Burton-on-Trent – to stations where beer was being delivered, like Deptford, Ely, Renton, London St Pancras and Newcastle. All of these speak to issues about the supply chain in the brewing industry, something David Turner has researched.

Ordnance Survey map from 1901 showing Burton-on-Trent. Lower right quadrant full of breweries and their railways.
1901 Ordnance Survey map of Burton-on-Trent, showing the importance of the brewing industry, and the role of the railways within that industry.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

One major point of origin for beer, Burton-on-Trent, produced accidents involved in getting the beer out to the rest of the country. On 20 August 1906, Great Northern Railway goods porter Joseph Aram, 34, was inside a wagon when it was moved. A beer barrel slipped and hit him, bruising and spraining his right ankle. In the subsequent Railway Inspectorate investigation, Inspector JJ Hornby determined that Joseph should have been keeping a ‘good lookout’ for his safety and the accident resulted from his failure to do so. At the same time, he also recommended that staff shouldn’t work in wagons if they were to be moved or that warning of movements had to be given – things rather outside Joseph’s control on this occasion (1906 Quarter 3, Appendix C).

Large brick built warehouse against a blue sky. Painted part-way along in white on a black background are the words 'Midland Railway grain warehouse.' Taken recently, so now a carpark to front.
One of the remaining Midland Railway grain warehouses at Burton-on-Trent. Part of the complex of buildings and flows that linked breweries and railway.
Ashley Dace / Midland Railway Grain Warehouse No 2 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Similarly, on 9 August 1911, at 9.20pm, Midland Railway shunter Jesse James was involved in moving beer out from Burton-on-Trent. He was travelling in the last of a rake of 11 wagons as they were shunted. When they were stopped, they rebounded – an issue caused by the way that wagons were coupled together relatively loosely. As a result, three hogsheads (wooden containers, each somewhat larger than a barrel) of beer fell in the wagon that Jesse was in. One of them caught his left leg and fell onto his foot, injuring his leg, ankle and foot. Inspector JJ Hornby, who again investigated the accident for the state, determined that the wagon Jesse was riding in wasn’t suitable for the purpose. He recommended that, if shunters must ride in the rear wagon, then a more appropriate vehicle should be provided (1911 Quarter 3, Appendix C).

1930s warning image showing a railwayman being crushed by goods falling out of a wagon that has been moved without warning whilst he was working in or near it.
Posed 1930s accident prevention image, showing what might happen in circumstances similar to those at Ely!

Unloading beer at the destination station also posed risks. Some of these were the same dangers as unloading any goods. At Ely station on 12 October 1900, Great Eastern Railway foreman goods porter James Merry was unloading beer from a wagon. Two other wagons were shunted into the one he was working in, causing him to fall – along with a cask, which landed on him, injuring both legs. In the investigation, James’ colleague, shunter Walter Meadows, was held responsible for undertaking the shunt. Inspector JJ Hornby recommended that shunting not be undertaken on that line, or that the rules were more strictly applied (1900 Quarter 4, Appendix B).

All of those involved in moving beer will have understood the physicality of moving it – beer, in quantity, is heavy stuff. (And I say this as someone who has, in a past life, been part of a two-man team tasked with moving a very big, half-full, cask out of an extremely awkward cellar. Needless to say, I was under, pushing.) The weight needing shifting at Renton, Dunbartonshire, on 15 April 1909, meant Dumbarton and Balloch Joint Railway porter Donald McGregor used a hand crane to unload a barrel of beer. However, the spindle carrying the crane handles fell onto his left knee, cutting and bruising it. Inspector JH Arymtage investigated, and found that the responsibility was down to the lack of clarity about which of the two railway companies operating at Renton actually examined the crane to ensure it was safe to use. He recommended that either Donald’s employer take responsibility, or the North British Railway (1909 Quarter 2, Appendix B).

Posed staff safety photographs warning of the dangers of cranes. The first shows a man about to be thrown off a hand-cranked crane as it gets out of control due to the weight descending too rapidly and without braking. The second shows the man on the ground, having been thrown off by the crane.
Posed 1930s staff safety photograph warning of some of the dangers of loading and unloading goods by hand crane.

Some of the injuries we see in the project database were perhaps more immediately ‘caused’ by beer. Appearing in our recent trade union data release, North Eastern Railway (NER) porter T Smith, 57, was hurt on 1 June 1910. Whilst unloading beer his hand was crushed, sufficient that he was off work until 29 August 1910. As he was a member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) Union Blaydon branch, the Union ensured he was compensated by the NER to the tune of 10/3 per week (around £55 at today’s prices; Union Non-Fatal Compensation sheet).

We might expect porters and shunters to be involved in moving beer and other freight, and so exposed to risk. But this also extended to other roles, too. Passenger guard WJ Jenkins, 50, of the South Eastern and Chatham Railway was unloading barrels of beer on 16 June 1910 – another crushed hand resulted. Again, as a member of the ASRS, this time in its Deptford branch, he was supported to claim compensation for the period he was off work – until 15 August 1910, receiving 15/9 per week (c.£85 at today’s prices; Union Non-Fatal Compensation sheet).

Sometimes the beer was rather less directly implicated – more an incidental part in an accident. It also wasn’t always railway employees who were hurt – plenty of people had reason to be on or about railway property, particularly in connection with collecting goods traffic for onward delivery. One case we’ve discussed in an earlier post, about Christmas traffic, was that of S Moseby and J McGee. They were traders, loading their motor lorry from a wagon in the ‘infirmary yard’ of the Forth Goods Station in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Shunter Charles Ridley went to move some wagons into the yard. To do so they would have to pass the other side of the lorry, into the siding on the other side of the cartage road. Ridley thought they would pass the lorry safely, and warned Moseby and McGee he was going to make the move. Several minutes passed before Ridley and his driver were able to move the wagons. The second and third wagons knocked some cases of beer overhanging the lorry, pushing the lorry foul of the fourth wagon: ‘the train was brought to a stand in consequence of the lorry becoming wedged across the cartage space […] Moseby and McGee, who were not present at my Inquiry, were fortunate to escape with bruises’ noted Inspector J Birch in his report. David Turner’s research has shown that one brewery stored 13,000 barrels of beer in the beer stores under the Forth goods depot area, with 40 wagons of beer ariving daily.

Ordnance Survey map of the western approaches to Newcastle Central station, showing the Forth Goods Yard - a complex of lines nestled between and under the two main lines into the passenger station.
Newcastle Forth Goods station in 1914. The Infirmary Yard is seen to the north of the covered space of the goods station. Newcastle Central station is just off the map to the north.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

In relation to this accident, Birch noted that ‘in consequence of heavy Christmas traffic, the sidings were congested’ and the lorry had had to go further than usual to reach the wagon it needed. Ridley’s train was also nearly three hours late and it was felt he was ‘doubtless anxious to allow the men to continue loading their traffic’. Ridley’s decision to move the train into the siding whilst the men were unloading on to the lorry with only six inches clearance meant ‘he incurred a grave risk and cannot escape responsibility for the consequences.’ Birch noted that the challenges of the site itself – lines on a curve, behind high boundary walls on either side of the public road, which the line being used crossed on the level and the assistant shunter performing another important task. All this meant that once the move was started, it couldn’t easily be stopped. Birch suggested another man be appointed to relay messages, and that the LNER should consider this (1938 Quarter 4, Appendix C). So, a case perhaps not caused directly by beer, but which reveals more about the movement of beer by rail and road.

Coloured plan of the St Pancras station, yard and environs.
Insurance Plan of London Vol. XII showing the layout of the St Pancras Goods Station where beer was stored. Note the Bass, Ratcliffe & Gretton Ale Stores to the left of the Regents Canal with direct rail access.
Copyright © The British Library Board Maps/145.b.22.(.12)

Our final case is another non-railway employee: Annie Ingrey, 49, employed at London St Pancras station by RP Colley and Co, beer bottlers. Why a beer bottler at St Pancras? As David Turner’s research has shown, there was a strong link between beer and St Pancras station and area, as many brewers and distributors were based here. It was an important railhead, and underneath the main passenger station existed extensive cellars, which wagons reached via a lift. At 16.30 on 30 April 1923 Annie was returning from the toilet to the cellars where she worked – meaning she had to pass through the goods yard. Whilst trying to get past a lorry, she ended up too close to a siding and was knocked down and killed by wagons. Inspector A Ford, investigating the accident, believed Annie had showed a ‘want of care,’ though noted that around 80 women had to cross the yard to get to the toilet. No doubt this was a case in which the facilities originally installed had been designed for men, with those for women added as an after-thought, likely without particular regard for convenience or safety. Ford’s recommendation was that ‘inexpensive alterations be made at the warehouse to avoid female staff having to pass through the goods yard’ (1923 Quarter 2, Appendix C). Presumably this cost would have been borne by the London Midland and Scottish Railway, as the station owners – but the risk here was being borne by employees of multiple other organisations. Sadly we don’t know if those changes were made.

Black and white photograph showing a man rolling a barrel from a metal-bodied open wagon, in an undercroft supported by cast iron columns and dimly lit.
Storage of beer in the undercroft cellars at St Pancras. The photograph was taken in November 1958 and shows working foreman Alf Lawrence unloading and moving barrels from a rail wagon into storage between the cast iron columns.
Courtesy National Railway Museum.

Looking at our database thematically, like this week’s focus on beer-related accidents, allows us to take a range of cases and see what they tell us. Importantly, they help populate our understanding of railway work, work in railway environments, and issues of safety and accidents. Finding out more about the people involved is always important, particularly when we see the range of people injured or killed on the railways before 1939.

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