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Death in the dark: Nottingham’s hidden history

Building a railway line was always a challenge – but at least in the early railway era, when Britain was relatively less urbanised, it was often possible to gain access to lucrative city spaces, traffic and revenue. As the 19th century went on, that became more and more problematic as city centre land was built upon and became more expensive to buy. Driving a new railway line into an already built up city like Nottingham of the 1890s therefore posed some immense logistical and financial challenges. Yet at the end of the 19th century, when the railway’s dominance of long-distance inland transport seemed to be secure, the railway companies were prepared to do it. One unintended consequence of this could be dangerous working environments for the staff. Here we see another demonstration of the importance of appreciating the local history context of a location – here including urban history – and how it helps us understand working practices and accidents on the railways.

Via some complicated negotiations, the Great Central Railway and Great Northern Railway built a new station in Nottingham: Nottingham Victoria. It opened in 1900, but had involved costs running into the tens of millions in today’s prices. The companies had needed to buy around 13 acres of prime real estate and demolish around 1,300 homes as well as pubs and at least one church. They dug down, excavating a huge cutting for the station. This meant they could run the rails in to the site underground, thus avoiding the expenses of buying clear surface-level paths in and out of the site. As a result the approach route from the north came through the 1,189 yard-long Mansfield Road tunnel.

Running trains underground in the steam era was not a simple task. If at all possible ventilation shafts would be provided, to clear steam and smoke from the tunnels. However, in this case the tunnel passed under land that was already well-developed, including Mansfield Road itself. As a result, putting ventilation in place evidently proved to be tricky – and that had an impact on workplace accidents. Mansfield Road tunnel was clearly known for suffering from a steamy and smoky environment – something which between 1911 and 1915 appears in no fewer than four accidents in our database.

The accident location
Mansfield Road tunnel (indicated by red lines) & Nottingham Victoria station, c.1913. The tunnel continued for some distance further.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

The first of these was on 7 January 1911. Platelayer William Smith was one of a gang of 20 Great Central Railway employees working in the tunnel; his task was to keep the naptha lamps fuelled, replenishing them as necessary from a fuel dump inside the tunnel. At 7.40am he was crossing the tracks to get to the fuel store when he heard a train approaching. Inspector JH Armytage notes that the tunnel ‘was full of steam and smoke’ and, standing between the two lines, Smith couldn’t be sure which line the train was on. He ‘hesitated to step to either side of the tunnel, and finally decided to remain’ where he was – but was hit by part of the train and knocked down. Fortunately he only bruised his hip. As Armytage noted ‘I do not consider that Smith is free from blame in the matter’ but put this down to his lack of experience of tunnel working. Smith had only been working in the tunnels for 5 days. Armytage thought the ganger, Robert Lockwood, ‘should have appointed a more experienced man to look after the lamps.’

The next accident that was investigated – again by Armytage – took place on 31 January 1911. Platelayer Samuel Richards was part of a gang of 16 men working in the tunnel, which was again ‘full of steam and smoke’, sufficient that work had temporarily been suspended. Richards was standing in the tunnel, but too close to one of the lines, and accidentally left his back exposed to oncoming traffic. He was hit and his right arm broken. Although Armytage put it down to misadventure, he did note that ‘the frequent presence of steam and smoke in this tunnel causes the maintenance of the permanent way to be exceptionally difficult and dangerous, and the Company should consider the possibility of providing more efficient ventilation’ (1911 Quarter B).

Did they do this? Well, we can’t say for certain. But sadly Mansfield Road tunnel continues to appear in our database after 1911, so it looks like the inspector’s recommendations were not followed. Over three years’ later, Mansfield Road returned, with a further two accidents that were investigated, and which took place within 7 days of each other.

The first occurred on the morning of 7 September 1914, and injured relayer Arthur Taylor. Taylor was sent, with a co-worker, into the tunnel to trim and light lamps, before the rest of the gang entered the tunnel. At about quarter past 8, Taylor was walking beside the track near the south end of the tunnel ‘with a lighted lamp in his right hand and another lamp on a standard over his left shoulder.’ An engine passed on the other line, meaning the tunnel was ‘full of steam and smoke’. As a result Taylor failed to notice an engine approaching on the line closest to him ‘and some portion of the engine struck the lamp standard on his shoulder.’ He was thrown into one of the refuge spaces provided in the tunnel to ensure men could get clear of trains, but only suffered a severe bruise on his left side.

Posted accident prevention image.
1936 accident prevention image, showing a similar cause of accident.

Inspector Armytage was investigating again, and he was critical. Although Taylor came in for some blame, Armytage was ‘inclined to attribute the accident mainly to the dangerous conditions under which he [Taylor] was working.’ Usually the lamps inside the tunnel would have been maintained by the tunnel length gang (that is, a team who spent their time maintaining the tunnel track for day-to-day repairs etc). In Armytage’s view the tunnel length gang had familiarity with the dangers of tunnel working – and with this tunnel in particular – and their ‘experience naturally enables them to walk about the tunnel with less risk of accident’. As a result Armytage thought John Reed, the district permanent way inspector (i.e. the Great Central Railway official in charge of permanent way staff for the operational area that included Nottingham and its tunnels), was ‘to blame for not having arranged for some of the tunnel lengthmen to perform this duty instead of Taylor and Gardner [his colleague].’

Armytage referred back to Smith’s accident as having happened ‘under somewhat similar circumstances’. He concluded with the wish that ‘it is to be hoped that the Company will take steps to prevent a similar occurrence in future.’ One positive suggestion for a change in practice was that as much as possible of the trimming and refilling of lamps should take place outside the tunnel. To do this, and to avoid extra work (and therefore extra cost, something the railway companies hated), Armytage suggested that as they left the tunnel at the end of the day, the men brought the lamps out with them.

However, it wasn’t long before Armytage was back in Nottingham. One week later platelayer John Cooper was killed whilst undertaking relaying operations in Mansfield Road tunnel – presumably the continuation of the relaying work that had seen Taylor injured. Like Taylor, Cooper didn’t usually work in a tunnel. His gang, and several others, were all brought in to help with the track relaying. All went well on the day of the relaying work, Sunday 13th – apart from the fact that at the end of work, at 8.45pm, these gangs left their tools in and around the tunnel. As a result at 7.15am the following day, 14 September, ‘eight platelayers from outside gangs came to Nottingham to fetch tools which had been left both inside and outside the tunnel’. Cooper and Thomas Braithwaite, another platelayer, entered the tunnel to find tools belonging to their gang.

Nearly 3 hours later, they were still inside the tunnel, walking at the edge of one of the tracks. Cooper led, carrying a lamp, but as in the other 3 cases, ‘the tunnel was full of steam and smoke.’ One train passed on the line opposite, but another on the line closest to them caught them unawares – no doubt obscured by the steam and smoke from the previous train. Braithwaite got clear but ‘subsequently found that Cooper had been struck by the passenger train and had sustained fatal injuries.’

Once again Armytage noted the ‘dangerous practice of allowing men with very little experience of tunnel working to walk about the tunnel’, attributing the accident to this cause. He also noted the timing of work: ‘the fact that Cooper had been working up to such a late hour in the tunnel on the previous day should also be taken into account.’ The tunnel he described as ‘exceptionally dangerous’ as a result of its tendency to fill with smoke.

The other accidents at this location were also noted: the three that he investigated and another case that wasn’t investigated by the state but also took place in 1911. Of concern was the question of experience: ‘in every case the injured men have been employed in connection with relaying operations and have not been members of the regular tunnel length gang.’ In the two cases Armytage investigated ‘the attention of the Company was drawn to the desirability of improving the ventilation of the tunnel … though I am informed that the problem is a somewhat difficult one, in view of the nature of the property above the tunnel.’

Of the accident that wasn’t investigated, the injured man was once again inexperienced in tunnel working ‘and it is much to be regretted that the responsible officers of the Company apparently failed to appreciate the importance of this point.’

These were relatively strong words, so far as the inspectorate reports were concerned. Armytage went on to make further suggestions for changes in practice – firstly that tools be left outside the tunnel when work was finished for the day. Secondly, about hours of work – that the Company should make all efforts to prevent ‘unduly long hours being worked by relaying gangs in the tunnel’ and if long hours were unavoidable due to unforeseen circumstances then sufficient rest be allowed before the men resumed duty (1914 Quarter 3, Appendix B).

Whether or not these recommendations were followed is as-yet unknown, though no further accidents appear in our current run of data (to mid-1915). It will be interesting to see if further cases occur at this location in our coming inter-war data. It is easy to believe that they would, given the seemingly intractable nature of ventilation in Mansfield Road tunnel. In this case, we can see how urban history, local history and railway history come together, creating a specific set of circumstances which led to a number of accidents in one location over a 3 year period (and possibly longer). The accidents also reiterate some long running challenges surrounding work on the railways, namely the trade offs between cost and staff safety.

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