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Drowning on the railway

When we think of railway accidents in the past, we probably immediately conjure images of the (thankfully rare) big passenger train crashes. Our project has always been about going beyond that, to look at the far more numerous accidents – to staff. Even so, most of what appears in our database is concerned with train movements – a relatively high risk environment. In this post, from National Railway Museum project volunteer Michael Davis, our attention is turned elsewhere – to drownings.

As ever, our thanks to Michael for his work on the project and for this post, drawing on his work on the most recent data release – and some from a forthcoming release of cases from the National Union of Railwaymen’s records. Michael’s other post can be read here.

Guest blog posts are always welcome, so please feel free to contact us if you have an idea.


I started with the project in 2018 and since then I have transcribed more 4500 deaths and injuries from the various scanned records and reports, but there are several deaths that have always stood out – the drownings on the railway.

Sadly, for those of us interested in social history, most of the National Union of Railwaymen records are just statements of the facts and any compensation paid, and the entries just state a cause of ‘Drowned’, or ‘Accidently drowned’. Because of this we are often left scratching our heads leaving questions of how and why?

Whilst we normally don’t have all the details, some causes could be guessed at by the proximity to water in fulfilment of their duties; such as a contractor’s servant named Kelly who drowned a Chelsea Basin in December 1914, or Bell, a Receiver at Liverpool in August 1917, and Signalman Clemance at Ipswich in March 1920 as the town has both the River Orwell and Docks. But what about fellow Signalmen Phillips, who drowned in October 1900? He was based in Croydon – 38 miles from the sea! And Fireman Pollard, based at Colwick Junction in Nottinghamshire – 57 miles from any sea, but maybe in this instance the River Trent was involved.

Fortunately, the inquest reports give greater detail. For example, in July 1905 Michael Moore, a Night Watchman based in Limerick was found drowned in a canal. His job was to look after the workmen’s tools on a bridge over the canal which was being repaired at the time. Due to the nature of the repairs, there were gaps in the bridge deck, and it was assumed that he fell through one.

Contemporaneous reports in newspapers, whilst written in a sensational way, have also given a clearer understanding of events. Mike Esbester has found reports in the Western Mail and Northern Daily Mail relating to two deaths at Milford Haven in February 1923. On this occasion, two shunters, Williams and George, who were riding on the footplate of a light engine, drowned when the engine passed an open gate and fell into Pill Creek because the gate that was supposed to be protecting the rail bridge was left open.

But there are a lot of social historians out there and I am forever grateful to the Ryde Social Heritage Group (RSHG) for their impressive research into the most ironic drowning I have come across, that of James Beard in March 1920 at Ryde on the Isle of Wight.

The RSHG have kindly transcribed an extract from the Isle of Wight Observer, which in good journalistic fashion, starts its report on the tragic event: ‘Much excitement was caused about mid-day on Saturday by the discovery of the body of James BEARD, fitter in the employ of the I.W. Joint Railway Co., in about 5 ft of water in the well of the Pumphouse by the tunnel near the Esplanade station.’

Photograph by Daniel Wright, showing two railway lines emerging from an urban tunnel in a brick-lined cutting, passing a squat building on the right.
Ryde Tunnel (west end) & pump house.
Courtesy Daniel Wright.


After leaving Ryde Esplanade station the railway to this day line descends into a tunnel beneath the town before arriving at Ryde St John’s Road. Because the tunnel is adjacent to the beach, and at high tide it is below sea level it has pumps. Mr Beard was maintaining the pumps when he drowned. There were no witnesses to the event. Mr Beard had collected the key for the pump house at 7:35am and his body was found by a labourer who went looking for him when he did not clock off at noon. Beard’s watch had stopped at 8:15am which was assumed to be the time of death.

It appears Beard had, for some unknown reason, fallen 6 feet into the water, which at 8:15am would only have been 3ft 6in in depth. The Coroner’s verdict “Found Drowned, such drowning being probably due to illness or accident.”

Image showing railway tracks at Ryde, Isle of Wight, emerging on an incline in a cutting from a flood.
Ryde Esplanade flooding (Wiki Commons)


So, I have a partial explanation for some drownings. But what about Coop, a Wagon Examiner in September 1917 at Salford, or Ferguson in March 1897 in Middlesborough? I would be grateful, as I am sure Mike would for the project, if any readers could provide further details, or even more examples of drowning on the railway.


Michael Davis

Michael, like many enthusiasts, volunteers on more than one heritage railway (both standard and narrow gauge), and always tries to use a train to get to and from his turns. Happily he has taken early retirement from full-time work which allows him the time to indulge his passion (without destroying his marriage), and it means his body can still climb from the ballast to the guards van, and lift a buck-eye coupling.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback:The new data release – 3 months in - Railway Work, Life & Death

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