Death on the Railway in Victorian Peterborough

This week’s guest post links nicely to last week’s, with its focus on Peterborough. Peterborough offers a great window onto death in the past, thanks to the survival of coroner’s inquest records – currently being used in her innovative and very exciting PhD study by this week’s author, Sophie Michell. This blog post comes from that research – it’s a small part of what Sophie is working on, all of which helps us better understand how death was experienced by those left behind, understood and handled in the 19th century. For us, Sophie’s work is also important because so many of the records she draws upon concerned railway accidents – a reminder, once again, of the dangers of the railway and railway work in the past.

If anyone has a railway accident they would like to blog for the project, please feel free to get in touch – we welcome guest submissions.

Death on the Railway in Victorian Peterborough

The first railway-related death in Peterborough was in January 1846, within weeks of building work commencing on the Syston line. A sixteen-year-old youth, leading a wagon across the part-built line at Walton, tripped on the rails and was run over his cart’s wheel. The next death was six months later: a navvy working on the line at Woodston was crushed between two carts and died during the subsequent leg amputation. A third death, this time in Stamford, happened when another navvy was run over by a horse-drawn wagon on the unfinished line.

Three deaths within a year; a portent of what was to come.

Peterborough was a quiet market town flanked on all sides by fen, until the railway arrived in 1844. There were two stations in the city centre, with a third in operation for a time, and smaller stations at Fletton and Walton. There were extensive yards on both sides of the river Nene, and Millfield – a rural area of North Peterborough – was consumed by railway infrastructure The railways snaked out into the countryside, linking Peterborough with London, Ely, the North and the Midlands. More lines were added in the 1860s to link Peterborough with Wisbech and the seaside beyond.

1885 map of Peterborough. Courtesy: National Library of Scotland Maps

I have catalogued over 1200 inquests, all held by the Liberty of Nassaburgh coroner between 1844 and 1905, covering the entire Soke of Peterborough. The very early data is not quite complete: some years are missing inquests (1848, 1850-1853), so the initial impact of the railway is difficult to assess. However, more than twenty percent of the available inquests were linked to the railway. 

Men, women, children; workers, pedestrians, passengers. Tragic accidents, suicides, even murders. The railway was life, and the railway was death. 

The oldest person to die was eighty-six year old Juliana Ireland, who was hit by a train at Peterborough East station in 1887. The youngest was a toddler named Frederick Harris, the son of the Woodcroft crossing keeper. He got out of his back garden on to the line, aged just sixteen months, in 1857. 

Most people who died on the railway were staff. On a Saturday afternoon in 1865, a boiler exploded inside the railway works at New England. Only a handful of staff were on duty, so ‘only’ three men were killed, blown through the walls of the shed. A plaque in St Paul’s church in New England remembers twenty-one men who died working for the Great Northern Line between 1871 and 1891. However, only seven of them were killed within the city. The two hundred inquests held for railway deaths in the city may be a gross underrepresentation of the true numbers of Peterborough railway workers who died.

Photo of a plaque in St Paul’s church in New England commemorating the men who died working for the Great Northern Line between 1871 and 1891. Courtesy Hazel Perry.

But civilians also died, taking ill-advised shortcuts, playing chicken on level crossings. For the children of New England, born in steam, the railway was their backyard and playground. In 1894, little George Coates had just started at St Paul’s primary school, separated from the engine yards by a fence. He was four years old when he was hit by a goods truck, playing with his friends. He was not alone: most of the younger railway victims were just playing.

Suicide by railway was never particularly common, and this was true in Peterborough. Perhaps this was because the railway within the city was very populous: you were likely to be spotted trespassing on the line. Aside from a brief spate of men shooting themselves in railway carriages, the most common method was to simply get in the way of a train. Edward Humm was a driver, who had been involved in a fatal crash in 1880. Twelve years later, he laid down on the line. Were the two events linked? What was the psychological toll for drivers who hit pedestrians?

The railway was the universal carrier, and sometimes it held grim cargo. In 1896, a murdered newborn baby was found by a cleaner in a railway carriage. This was the third such case – in 1883, a dead baby was posted via railway to a hotel in Peterborough, and in 1869, a dead baby was found hidden in an addressed hamper in the first-class ladies waiting room, apparently prepared for postage. 

Death on the railway could be a catalyst for change. In 1880, Marion Ann Dunn was killed the Crescent level crossing, just outside the station. The crossing gates were centrally locked, but she had managed to circumvent this by holding the gate open. She walked straight into the path of a goods train that she couldn’t see because of another train passing. Her two little children saw her die. After her death, her family campaigned for a bridge, which was opposed. A subway was built as an interim measure, but the current Crescent Bridge was built in 1914.

I have a lot of work to do on this data, to clean it up and get at its secrets. But the overwhelming sense is of the railway as more than a feature of the landscape. The railway is alive, a provider, a structure. It’s exhilarating. It’s dangerous. 

It’s a way in, but for more than 220 people in Victorian Peterborough, it was a way out. 

Sophie Michell (@SophieMHistory)

Sophie Michell is a postgraduate researcher at the Open University, studying the investigation of sudden death in Victorian Peterborough. 

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