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Crossing the lines

In this week’s blog post, guest author Daisy Turnbull looks at some of the challenges involved in crossing railway lines in the past. As she demonstrates using cases from our project database, a variety of factors might be involved, for the public and workers. Many of these remain evident to this day, helping demonstrate the value in looking back. Daisy’s previous post, looking at ‘misadventure’, is available here. Our thanks as ever to Daisy for her work!


As part of Rail Safety Week 2023 we looked at accounts accidents involving crossing the railway in Britain and Ireland between 1889 and 1920. They came from our trade union accident data. Crossing the railway remains potentially dangerous for both the public and those working on the railway. Many of the posters and awareness messages shared by the modern industry illustrate this. We looked at a handful of historical cases that show modern hazards at crossings are not so far distant to those faced over 100 years ago.

For example, the more common use of private motor cars during the first decade of the 20th century brought a new challenge to the railway – how to signal at level crossings. By the end of 1910 there were over 100,000 motor cars on British roads and with imports of the cheaper Ford models this number was increasing. The need for clear and universal signalling, like we have today at road-rail level crossings, was made tragedy apparent by an incident in 1908 at the Manchester Road public crossing in Cheshire.

Text file outlining details of the accident at Manchester Road crossing.
Details from the trade union record for the accident at Manchester Road crossing.


Details of case number #5727-2387 from Union Inquest data retrieved from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants winter quarterly report of 1908 record the tragic death of an unnamed woman whose chauffeur had mistaken the meaning of signals. Thinking it was clear to pass, the car ‘dashed into the train’ with catastrophic effect. Further research using newspaper archives provides more information, including images of the car’s remains.

Photograph of mangled remains of a car.
Image of the car after the accident.


The name of the fatality is also found in local newspaper reports: Mrs Anne Le Neve-Foster of Wilmslow. She must have been of some status to be a passenger in such a vehicle at that time. The fatal accident on 5 November 1908 was caused by a routine operation of the rail with a goods train of salt, probably from the Baron Quay mine nearby, being brought along the dedicated line. However, this was not a regular accident but likely one of the earliest fatal accidents involving a motor vehicle and a train.

What the RWLD project has brought to this story however, is the side of the union and that case was brought to inquest to decipher if any responsibility was to be found with the railway staff. All were exonerated but the event must have had a significant impact on them also. Comments in newspapers claim that the accident was not formally investigated as a Railway Accident. It is not yet understood if measures were formally in place to deal with this type of accident, nor what impact it had on safety measures.

However, it was not only motorcars that caused accidents at level crossings but also livestock. The 1907 accident at Airglooney Crossing, Tatum, near Galway in Ireland, provides an example of this. A rogue cow, wandering from the herd being driven across the line, resulted in the farmer Mr Naughton and his son attempting a daring rescue. However, an ill-timed passing goods train saw the rescue end in tragedy.

Text file detailing the accident at the Airglooney crossing.
Details from the trade union record of the Airglooney crossing accident.


This case was also brought to union inquest with the train guard Mr J Mullins, driver Mr J Lynch and fireman ‘Neil’ from the Athenry, Limerick and Ennis branches of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) represented. It is unclear if any responsibility was allocated to them, but with a relatively detailed description of events and a verdict of ‘accidental death’ it is unlikely. However, it raises the question again of how accidents like these affected the railway staff and if better safety measures, such as the construction of underpasses, were introduced at rural crossings because of such events.

The most common demographic to be injured from crossing railway lines was those working on the railways. Cases such as Mr F Tomlinson’s (no.1141/8030) in the union fatal compensation accounts are typical of this. At the age of 30 he was working as a shunter for North Eastern Railway when he was ‘knocked down when crossing lines after signing off duty’ on the 3rd of August 1912. This did not prevent his family from gaining compensation, with the union ensuring they received £196.6.3, the equivalent to about £18,400 today.

Others such as Mr C Higginbottom are also recorded in union claims for compensation following their death having been ‘knocked down crossing [the] line’. In this case Higginbottom was ‘returning to train from signal box’ at Ardwick, Lancashire on 22 August 1900. He was working as a brakesman for the London and North Western Railway. His family received compensation after his death through his membership of the Longsight branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. Compensation totalled £265.4.9 (approximately £26,800 today).

Weather conditions could also create major risks for those crossing the line. Mr J Walker’s accident at Batley in Yorkshire on the 15 December 1903, serves as a grave reminder of this. His official role was as a platelayer on the London and North Western Railway. However on the fateful day he was ‘acting as a fog signalman to an up distant and a down distant at Batley when he was knocked down and killed while crossing from one signal to the other’ to change them. His death, like the previous two others, was recorded in claims for compensation. He was one of 1000s in our recently added union data who were hurt whilst working on the railway over 100 years ago and whose union membership supported their families after their passing.


Daisy Turnbull

I was a Research Assistant on the Railway Work, Life & Death project and am currently finishing a PhD at the University of Portsmouth, looking at shipwrecking in Britain and Sweden.

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