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Christmas pressures

The pressures of railway work come up in myriad ways in our project database. Perhaps most commonly they appear in relation to time and trying to get work done. Sometimes those pressures are seasonal – and in that light, the challenges of Christmas working make an appearance.

Posed black and white staff safety photo, showing a railwayman being crushed between a goods wagon and the door of a goods shed.
Warning of the dangers of passing between vehicles and the entrances to goods sheds, from the LNWR’s 1918 accident prevention booklet.


On 22 December 1910, goods porter Sidney South, 22, was at work at Deepfields station in Staffordshire, on the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). At the time of his accident, at 22.10, he had been on duty for over 13 hours. His shift would normally have been 12 hours, but ‘his exceptional hours of duty […] were due to a pressure of Christmas traffic.’ He was working with a horse shunter to move two wagons towards the goods shed. The first of the wagons ‘appeared to be running in the shed too quickly’, and not wanting it to hit those wagons inside the shed (potentially injuring those at work on or around them), South tried to apply the wagon brake. Unfortunately he was caught between the side of the wagon and the door post of the shed. His right arm was fractured.

The investigation, conducted by Inspector John Hornby, concluded that ‘with reasonable care’ South should have been able to apply the brake in safety. It was clearly identified that the accident resulted from a failing on the part of South (1910 Quarter 4, Appendix C). Whether or not South’s long hours had an impact on his accident wasn’t mentioned, other than the comment about the pressure of Christmas traffic. Was this an implicit mention of a causative factor, documented in such a way as not to antagonise the LNWR?

That the Christmas hurry did not abate over the years is demonstrated in a report from 1938. Intriguingly, the accident occurred – according to the report: on 21 October. This is rather earlier than we might expect, but it explicitly mentioned the Christmas traffic. Was this a misprint in the report, that should have read 21 December? From its relation to the reports around it (which were arranged chronologically, for the London and North Eastern Railway Company’s accidents) it appears not. So presumably this was the build-up to Christmas, in place months before the day itself.

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, on the other side of the mainline tracks running through and above the goods stations and sidings. Newcastle Central station is just off the map to the north.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.


The incident took place in the ‘infirmary yard’ of the Forth Goods Station in Newcastle-on-Tyne. S Moseby and J McGee were traders, loading their motor lorry from a wagon at the far end of one of the cartage spaces provided between sidings. Shunter Charles Ridley want 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.

Birch then 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).

As many of us settle down to enjoy Christmas, it’s worth considering the workers who have in the past, and today, kept goods and people moving, and the challenges that came along with this – including to life and limb.

With best wishes to all for the festive and new year period, our blog will take a short break and return in 2023. Please feel free to read over our previous blog posts in the meantime – there’s a wealth of material and cases for you to explore.


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