Bowes Railway – Work, life & death

So far our project has focused on what we’d understand as ‘mainline’ railways. That’s been a product of the sources available to us. It means private and industrial railways don’t feature in our dataset – yet as this guest post from Robert Kitching of the Bowes Railway shows, accidents weren’t restricted to mainline companies. We’re therefore delighted to feature this post, which takes us into new territory. Previously we didn’t know much about the Bowes Railway, which has preserved some of the unique heritage of the north-east’s coal railways – it’s now on our ‘must visit’ list once lockdown is lifted. Here we see something of the ways in which the lines were worked – and some of the dangers they posed.


A brief history

Railways developed in the north east mainly for the movement of coal from the mines to staiths on the major rivers. Huntington Beaumonts opened the region’s first waggonway to Blyth in 1605. From 1621 onwards, a network of waggonways developed. Serving the rivers Tyne and Wear, they linked collieries to river, allowing the coal to be transported by sea – mainly to London. These early waggonways employed wooden rails and were complex systems using horses and gravity to move coal in chaldron waggons. These lines evolved, employing iron rails and becoming the developing ground for many early steam locomotives. Two chaldron waggons are shown in the photo below; no details about this accident in 1904 survive, but it is likely the waggons slipped the rope and ran ‘amain’.

1904 accident

Courtesy Bowes Railway archive.

Into this environment of development and prosperity, the Grand Allies, a group of influential coal owners, began in 1824 the sinking of Springwell colliery on the high ground between the rivers Tyne and Wear. To link this new colliery to staiths on the Tyne required a new railway. Most of the older waggonways in the area had been removed or only accessed the shallow water ports at Fatfield on the Wear or at Dunston on the Tyne. Colliery engineer George Stephenson was engaged to design a new railway, linking Springwell and the older Mount Moor colliery to the river. The line he designed featured a stationary engine pulling waggons up two rope hauled inclines, a third incline worked by gravity (known as self-acting) and a two-mile section worked by two steam locos, Robert Stephenson & co works numbers 5 & 6 – Billy & Bull. Billy is pictured below.

Courtesy Bowes Railway archive.

The railway was extended to Kibblesworth colliery at the request of its own George Southern, adding a further three stationary engines and inclines. Further extensions saw another six collieries added, bring the line up to a total length of 15 miles. From the 1920s some of the older pits were worked out and were closed, such as Springwell, Andrews House and Mount Moor. The railway continued until it was nationalised on Vesting day 1947, becoming part of the National Coal Board.   By this point the main collieries were Burnopfield, Marley Hill and Kibblesworth, with two loco sheds, ten locomotives and six rope hauled inclines in use from 4.00am till 11pm six days a week. It was said that the railway was so efficient that the first train each day paid the wages of all the men employed on the line!

Map of some of the area covered by the coal waggonways.

Some of the network of coal waggonways in the area, c.1896.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

However closures continued; the main line was cut back to Kibblesworth and the line served this pit until it too turned to road transport in 1974 (it closed in 1976). A good section of the line is now preserved, with Marley Hill shed now home to the Tanfield Railway and Springwell bankfoot shed home to a bus preservation group. However in 1976 a scheme was established to save the Victorian Springwell workshops (the last of their type), an original locomotive (number 22) and two of the rope-hauled inclines. The preserved inclines are now unique, and are protected to the same level as Stonehenge. This is now the Bowes Railway.

Courtesy Bowes Railway archive.


Working life & death on the railway

Moving now to focus on the men who ran the railway and the accidents is difficult, as the railway’s staff book and accident book are presumed lost. However local newspapers and the luckily recorded memories of those workers do provide an insight. Bowes was a dangerous place with rope-hauled inclines, level crossings, locomotives and no signalling system. One of the more unusual jobs on the railway was that of the ‘set riders.’ These men were employed to ride the sets of waggons as they moved up and down the inclines.

Courtesy Bowes Railway archive.

Their role involved ensuring the rope didn’t foul any obstructions, ensuring firelamps were lit (iron baskets filled with hot coals were used till 1974), ensuring the waggons weren’t derailed and to uncouple the rope at the top and bottom of the inclines. Set riders were required to travel in all weathers, purchase their own uniforms and coats, but their job involved jumping off the set if an incident occurred and pulling a wire to sound a rapper at the top of the incline. This was done at speeds of up to 30mph. The last set rider was retired in 1970. No accidents involving set riders have been found, however anecdotal evidence suggested many were injured and were found jobs on the railway such as crossing keepers.

Most accidents which were reported on the railway occurred to trespassers. Despite the company installing notices, fences and employing crossing keepers, a culture of trespass and jumping onto moving trains seems to have existed.

The Shields Gazette of 20 May 1884 records that 14 year old Elizabeth Coulthard was run down and killed by a loco and waggons, as she was collecting spilt coal from the track. She lost both legs but succumbed to her injuries. Accidental death was recorded.

On 7 May 1886 the Jarrow Express recorded the inquest into the death of William Cooper. The 12-year old and five other boys met at the cricket pitch and climbed over the fence. They climbed onto the rear of the waggons, where they joined a man named Ryan already trespassing on the train. The boys then ran along the waggons, jumping between the buffers. Cooper was last seen on the third waggon when witnesses saw the waggons rise as they passed over Cooper. Accidental death was recorded and no blame was attributed to the company.

On 4 December 1896, Charles Armstrong was riding the waggons from his work at Palmers blast furnace to his home in Jarrow. He slipped and fell between the buffers. His head was crushed and he died instantly. Death recorded as accidental; Charles was 16 years of age.

A number of company employees were also recorded as injured in the local press.

The earliest found was Nathaniel Hume, who was injured on 30 December 1887 and died three days later. A train of empties was been taken from Jarrow staith to a siding at Luke’s Lane, consisting of 20 empty chaldron waggons. To access the siding these had to be pushed, in this case by locomotive number 10. On the footplate was George Snowball the driver, and waggon guard John Walton (who was hitching a lift to return home), whilst the fireman Nathaniel Hume was riding on the lead waggon, to warn of dangers ahead and attend to the points. He carried a red hand lamp; the time being 1.45 am and the night was clear providing a good light. Snowball records that as the train came to a sudden halt, he closed off the steam and he and Walton walked the length of the train. He found seven trucks had derailed; Hume was lying on his back with his lower half crushed by a derailed waggon. Under the third derailed waggon lay a dead horse and the smashed remains of a cart. Stood alongside the cart was local coalman named Peter Collins. Hume was lifted onto the loco and taken to Jarrow for medical attention. Collins was arrested and admitted to taking his horse and cart onto the line to collect spilt coal. He was found guilty of Manslaughter at South Shields Petty sessions. Number 10, the loco used that day, is pictured below.

Courtesy Bowes Railway archive.

A second railwayman’s death was that of John Atkinson, a colliery sorter (shunter). On 21 August 1901 while he was hand shunting a waggon, a loco and waggon were stood on the adjacent line. These were fouling the points, so John asked the driver William Crisp to set back. This he did; on returning to the side of the cab, Crisp saw Atkinson crushed between the two waggons. The death was recorded as accidental.

To end this brief look at the Bowes railway and the men that ran it, we focus on one of the drivers, John Burkett. His letters – as yet unpublished – were examined by C Mountford in his book. One 1932 story shows the resourcefulness of railwaymen in the face of often antique equipment.

“I went light engine to Jarrow and picked up 24 empties. We had filled her with Sawdust and horse dung so she was tight for a while [to stop the boiler leaking], and when we had got sufficient steam we went off with all the noise imaginable. We soon reached 20mph and were doing well till suddenly the steam dropped. On examination we had lost the smoke box door completely. I went back and picked up the remains, for I could carry it alone easily. We pulled down a wall and with stones, sods and earth we built a stone smoke box door. Off again, and we had nearly finished our journey when the sods and earth dried and took fire. The whole of the front was aflame and heated red. I arrived at the shed to the aghast gaze of many onlookers; but after building a brick door with lime we completed our days work while our door got patched up.”

Number 9 was built by Ralph Coulthard & co in 1848, and rebuilt by Robert Stephenson in 1860. She was scrapped in February 1935.
Courtesy Bowes Railway archive.

Courtesy Bowes Railway archive.


Further reading and viewing

C Mountford – The Bowes Railway

C Mountford – Private Railways of County Durham

L Turnbull – Railways before George Stephenson

Amber Films – Bowes line documentary 1974


Biography – Robert Kitching

I am a volunteer at the Bowes and North Tyneside steam railways. A train driver by trade, I have combined my enjoyment of railways with my love of history. This allowed me to gain a BA (Hons) from Stirling University, specialising in early industrial railways in the North East.

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2 Responses to Bowes Railway – Work, life & death

  1. Bob brown March 29, 2021 at 6:41 pm #

    My gr grandad cuthbert brown..born corbridge 1800.. died on the railways at Tyne dock.. he wasa brakesman/ banksman ? Got thrown off ..was ran over by same train ..lost his leg ..died in grain warehouse at Tyne dock where he was taken…he was 50/51..

    • Mike Esbester March 29, 2021 at 11:37 pm #

      Bob, thanks for sharing this – that really ties in with Robert’s blog post and highlights the long lasting risks of working in this way. A particularly sad way that your Graat Grandad ended dying, in the warehouse at the dock.

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