How did railway employees learn their craft in the late 19th century and on into the 20th? For most grades it was by learning on the job, from more experienced colleagues. That created all sorts of things – not least a sense of craft identity, and an understanding of what was necessary in order to get the job done, keeping trains moving and the foremen and inspectors off your back.
Often this involved taking what could – in the event of an accident – be cast as shortcuts that weren’t endorsed by the management or were even contrary to the rules. Plenty of these cases are found in our database. Staff found it necessary to take these shortcuts to keep to time, so to some degree the system was predicated upon rule-breaking: hence the effectiveness of the unions threat to ‘work to rule.’ This could have the effect of bringing the system to a halt, hence it was a feared weapon.
One case of an accident resulting from instruction between colleagues occurred on 26 November 1912, at Cowlairs station in Glasgow, on the North British Railway. At just past 6am fireman J McCulloch was waiting on board his locomotive at a signal when he spotted another engine approaching behind them. McCulloch realised that the 2 engines were to be coupled, so he left the footplate to remove the tail lamp from his loco. The fireman from the other engine, W Mackay, went between the engines to join them. We might expect that this is where the injury arises, and usually it probably would be.
However, in this case it wasn’t to be. Inspector Charles Campbell notes in his report that ‘whilst instructing Mackay to remove a [coupling from its resting position] McCulloch put out his hand and pointed at the coupling. In doing so he unconsciously put his arm between the buffers’. It was then caught as the engines came together. Fortunately it only resulted in bruising. Campbell put the case down to ‘misadventure’ (1912 Quarter 4, Appendix C), though we might wonder what the lighting was like at this location at this time of the morning in November. The situation might have been rather more complex than the report made out.
Whether this was a case of a junior fireman being instructed by a more experienced colleague, as it appears, or simply two equals working together isn’t entirely clear. Either way, the end result was the same: an accident whilst showing another employee what to do – and inadvertently demonstrating what not to do!