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Difficult pasts at heritage locations

In the UK, the heritage railway sector is an important contributor to public engagement with the past. We benefit from widespread public interest in the railway past – though very often it’s a particular vision of that past: the romance of steam, express services, fine dining, sunny seaside holidays … Often the dirtier side of the railway isn’t quite so obvious: the hard work, long hours, less glamourous services like moving goods – and of course, the dangers of railway work.

There are all sorts of challenges in trying to think about these more difficult aspects of the past. People are often visiting heritage railway locations for a fun day out: how much do they want to know about some of the more tricky parts of history? And yet, if we present too simplified or sanitised a view of the past, whether deliberately leaving out challenging stories or focusing only on the ‘good’ bits, aren’t we doing visitors and our railway pasts a disservice?

This is something we’ve been pondering for a while. How receptive might heritage railway organisations be to finding out more about one particular aspect of their pasts: the employees who were injured or killed whilst working on those lines?


Today’s blog post represents some first thoughts on this, formed around a case study of one heritage line – the Severn Valley Railway (SVR). We’ve not yet approached the SVR or any other lines about the possibilities. We’re still working out the best way to make that approach. Hopefully this post will show some of the potential our project offers heritage railway organisations – something we’re keen to work on, if any organisations are interested.

We’ve chosen the SVR as we’re off to travel on it this weekend! It therefore seemed like a logical choice to see what we held in the project database for the SVR. It runs for around 16 miles between Kidderminster in Worcestershire and Bridgnorth in Shropshire. A former Great Western Railway (GWR) line, it’s been preserved since 1967. There are six stations on the line (and two request stops).

Currently within the database we have 22 cases at two SVR locations. It’s likely there will be further locations to come in the future as we add more cases, however. Those cases we already have include horse drivers, porters, shunters, fitters, signalmen, carters, inspectors and locomotive crews. Many of the cases involved accidents at work, but some of the cases (from our recent trade union data release) tell us about railway worker health on the SVR.

Two posed photos showing a railwayman going between stock to couple them, the 'right' way and the 'wrong' way.
Posed staff safety image about coupling stock with gangways.

On 7 January 1931, GWR fireman William Clayton, 32, was injured at Bewdley. At 5pm he was coupling an engine to some carriages. He told his driver, Lloyd, to ‘ease up’ – to bring the loco closer to the carriages. As he was attempting to couple, the engine moved slightly and Clayton’s head was caught between the coupling and the carriage. He was lucky that he was only injured – his head and face were cut. In other cases in the database this led to death. Inspector William Worthy Cooke investigated the accident for the state, concluding that it was ‘clearly attributable to Clayton’s own want of care’, a very typical investigation outcome (1931 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

Ordnance Survey map of Bewdley station area, showing railway running top left to bottom right; fields to top, houses and gardens to bottom.
Bewdley station, 1938.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

Sometimes the detail available at present is relatively limited. We know, for example, from the trade union data about GWR lad porter W Capewell. On 22 August 1917, age 16, he was injured at Kidderminster. We don’t know exactly how, but he developed blood poisoning. In an age before penicillin, this could easily be – and often was – fatal. However, Capewell, survived, resuming work on 22 October. He was paid £1.19.1 in compensation – around £116 today. He remained in railway service, appearing on the 1939 Register as a signalman.

We find more serious SVR cases in the database, too. Foreman porter George Yeoman belonged to the Kidderminster branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) trade union. He died on 27 December 1884, of ‘natural causes.’ As a Union member, he had paid into the Orphan Fund. This meant when he died, the Union paid a weekly contribution to help take care of his son, Lewis George Yeoman, born on 17 February 1876. This would have been paid until Lewis was 14, at which point he was old enough to go out to work. Curiously there appears to be some confusion in the accounts, as Yeoman variously appears as ‘Yeoman’ and ‘Yeomans’, and as having either one or two children. By the time the Union stopped paying the benefit, Yeoman’s family had received £44.12.0 (c.£5,200 today).

Finally, GWR goods guard John Hughes was killed in a shunting accident at Kidderminster. He lived in Wolverhampton, but as was the case with any train crew, his job was mobile. On 14 October 1901 he was working a goods train from Wolverhampton to London. It wasn’t scheduled to stop at Kidderminster, but we know from the accident report, produced by Railway Inspector Amos Ford, that the service ran early. As a result, it had to be shunted at Kidderminster, to make way for a passenger train.

Kidderminster station area, Ordnance Survey map.
Kidderminster station c.1920s. Unfortunately we’ve had to stitch maps from around 4 years apart, between which time alterations were clearly made to the sidings, hence the apparently disconnected track in the lower part of the image!
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

As the train was being moved into the sidings, the brake van ‘left the rails, and apparently whilst Hughes, who until then had remained in his van, was then attempting to get clear, the van turned over, and he was crushed beneath it and killed.’

The investigation showed that just before the move was made, another steam engine passed over the points that Hughes’ train was going to use. This had the effect of forcing the points and ‘so strained as to prevent them properly closing.’ They were fine for the loco of Hughes’ train to pass over, but by the time the brake van had reached them, they were set to direct the train onto the adjacent track – causing the derailment.

Hughes was found responsible for the accident, for not having checked that the points were set correctly. Interesting Ford’s report recommended that the GWR change the point operating mechanism, to ensure that in future the points couldn’t ‘slip’ from one direction to another. This was evidently known to be an issue at this location, as an informal solution to the problem had been devised locally – a wooden chock was used to keep the lever controlling the points in the right position (1901 Quarter 4, Appendix C).

We know from the record of ASRS legal cases (also in our database) that the Union represented Hughes’ interests at the coroner’s inquest. The jury censured Hughes’ fellow servants, but also the GWR. It awarded £271.16.0 under the Workmen’s Compensation Act (around £31,400 now) to Ann Hughes, John’s widow – this was the equivalent of three year’s wages. According to the Worcestershire Chronicle of 19 October 1901, Hughes’ driver ‘narrowly escaped a charge of manslaughter’ on grounds of negligence.


So, what can we make of all of this – and why might heritage railway organisations be interested? The women, men and children who appear in our project complicate the stories of heritage sites, and that might be told by the current operators. The challenge, of course, is reconciling visitors’ desire for a ‘day out’ with the often sad and sometimes distressing stories of accidents. Heritage railways are excellent at engaging people with the physical heritage – but getting to grips with the less tangible cultural heritage aspects is more challenging, especially where it might involve aspects not immediately attractive to the average visitor.

Nevertheless, we think it’s important that heritage (as the current) railways recognise, respect and remember past worker casualties. Interestingly, this has recently been done, by the SVR, last year marking the deaths of 10 navvies killed during the line’s construction. It would be wonderful to see something similar to note staff accidents when the line was operational. The accident reports and other material that our project is making available can deepen our understanding of working life on the railway. The includes technical operational details, as well as insight into practice as it actually took place (as opposed to how it was supposed to take place).

Image of exhibition display panel, showing text and a portrait photograph, discusisng Frank Orchard's fatal accident on the Isle of Wight.
Display about the death of Frank Orchard. At Havenstreet on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway.

The potential to tell the stories of those who worked on the railways is also significant. The accident reports are a starting point for further and more meaningful human connections. All of this helps to personalise the railway and the visitor experience. Clearly handling accidents in a public-facing environment requires particular sensitivity – but it is possible and we shouldn’t shy away from it. It has been done elsewhere – the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, for example, and no doubt other lines, which we’re keen to hear about – so do let us know, please! It’s also being built into the Station Hall development at the National Railway Museum, and we’re delighted that our project has contributed to this – more on that in this blog post!

Not only that, but we can see the potential to engage with local communities, railway families, family history, and local history to the benefit of all, including the relevant heritage railway. What an amazing piece of research and interpretation could be produced collaboratively, finding out more about the people involved, their families, their lives, their connections to the railway! With that in mind, we’re always open to working with heritage railways & other organisations on these stories – just get in touch.


    • Mike Esbester

      Thanks Gordon! I’d like us, as a project, to work more with heritage organisations, to ensure that the project resources are known and used. Ideally this would feed into awareness within each organisation of staff accidents, and the potential to make visitors aware. Not easily done, of course.

      You and I might follow up on the East Grinstead accident in due course, if you’re willing?

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