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From Egypt to Walthamstow

There are many unexpected stories in our project database. Indeed, that’s one of the many excellent things it brings: it allows us to see how remarkable everyday lives in the past were. But even amongst that, we find people and cases that were simply surprising. The case of Mohammed El Zoheiri was one of those people and accidents that we couldn’t imagine we’d find when we started out on the project.

We’d anticipated some names that originated beyond Britain and Ireland – but thought this would be people whose ancestors had settled here. Mohammed El Zoheiri, it turned, out, was an Egyptian national, in England as part of his education. For a project looking at accidents to British and Irish railway staff, coming across an Egyptian in the records was an eye-opener.

At this point, unfortunately we know relatively little about El Zoheiri. He was born in 1902. By 1929 he was in England as part of his training as an engineering student. Beyond that, so far his life is a blank – though we’d love to know more, so if you have any further information, do please let us know.

What we do know more about is his accident. At some point early in 1929 he joined the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER)’s locomotive running department. By the time of his accident, on 15 August 1929, he had ‘about nine months’ experience, including around six weeks on the footplate. On this day, he was a supernumerary on a turn that left Stratford (in London) at 5.50am, to be put on shed (i.e. the turn finished) at Wood Street, Walthamstow, at about 10am.

At the end of the turn, though, there was a delay in coming on shed, as the line that was needed was blocked. In the delay, El Zoheiri asked to go to the far end of the shed to get a drink of water. Whilst he was off the footplate, the line was cleared, so the driver took the necessary steps to protect any men at work in the area and set off.

The engine was travelling bunker first (backwards, effectively – this limited the vision of the driver and fireman). After the passing the shed entrance ‘the driver, who had momentarily withdrawn himself into the cab owing to the lack of clearance, heard a shout, and glancing over the side saw Zoheiri collapse’. He had been crushed between the shed door and the locomotive side, a space of 3½ inches. El Zoheiri died that evening.

Posed staff safety image from the same era as El Zoheiri’s accident.

Inspector JLM Moore investigated, and suggested that after having got his water, El Zoheiri saw the engine moving ‘and made an attempt to enter the cab before it reached the doorway.’

Moore noted that the risks ‘should have been obvious’. However, El Zoheiri ‘evidently acted on the impulse of the moment without taking thought for his own safety, and the responsibility for the accident much rest with him.’ At the same time, there was no doubt ‘that the very limited clearances at the entrances to this shed constitute a grave source of danger, and the Company are strongly recommended to consider the best means of effectively an improvement’ (1929, Quarter 3, Appendix B).

Was there more going on that met the eye here, with El Zoheiri as an unfortunate casualty of a bigger issue about the cost of improvements and who had the authority to recognise their need and to implement them?

It’s possible. Certainly the press reports of the inquest suggest so. ). At the inquest, one of El Zoheiri’s fellow students ‘suggested that some of the shed doors were not wide enough to permit sufficient space between the new type engines and the doorways’ (The Scotsman, 20 August 1929).

If this was the case, it was part of a wider phenomenon of ‘speeding up’ that became something of an issue around the start of the 20th century. This was the use of bigger, heavier, faster stock to do the work (something previously discussed here. However, the LNER officials at the inquest denied this was the case, noting that ‘the new type of engines were no wider than the older types’ and that space in the cab meant there wasn’t room for Zoheiri as well as the regular crew. The inquest gave a verdict of accidental death, and the driver was cleared of any blame in the matter (The Scotsman, 20 August 1929).

Sadly, that’s as much as we know about El Zoheiri. Presumably his body was returned to Egypt rather than buried in the UK, but it would be good to have that confirmed and to know that his remains were amongst his family.

As to why El Zoheiri was in the UK, here we find the British empire coming into our project. Egypt existed under British control as a protectorate between 1882-1954. By the 1920s, the power structure within Egypt was changing – with the importance of religious, legal and army elites declining. Engineering was on its way to becoming a new powerbase. Its status improved over the 20 or so years following 1900, sufficient that in 1920 it was planned to send 50 or so students to be trained as part of their engineering degree.[1] In 1929 there were around 130 students in England, studying for their degree (The Scotsman, 20 August 1929). Given the imperial connections back to the UK, it should come as no surprise that the Egyptian Ministry of Education was sending students to the metropole.

El Zoheiri’s case is certainly unusual – but it goes to demonstrate the unexpected ways directions which the project is opening up and allowing us to explore. It also shows that what appears a relatively niche topic such as our actually has huge connections – in this case, globally.


[1] For more on Egyptian education, see Donald Reid, ‘Educational and Career Choices of Egyptian students, 1882-1922’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 8, 3 (July 1977), 349-378. Available here.

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