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“Good God! He will be into the coal train!”

Whilst 29 February is a ‘rare’ date, sadly accidents to railway workers on past leap days weren’t rare. As we discussed in our previous blog post, the system kept operating – which meant the accidents kept happening. The accident at Woodhouse East Junction on 29 February 1908 was one of these. It appears in our project database, though is unusually well documented in other sources too.

Composite pictorial postcard produced after the Woodhouse Junction crash of 1908, showing 4 views of the aftermath, and portrait images of the two dead men and one injured man.
Accident postcard produced, sold and bought in large numbers at the time.

Woodhouse East Junction, 1908

On the night of 28 February 1908, Great Central Railway driver John Harrison was taking a fish train from Lincoln to Manchester. As he passed through Woodhouse East Junction, near Sheffield, at around 12.35am, he noticed a coal train on an adjacent line. His fish train proceeded on – but moments later, further on the line, Harrison saw a passenger train on the same line the coal train occupied. He turned to his fireman and said ‘Good God! He will be into the coal train!’

Signalman William Turner was on duty at the Woodhouse East Junction signalbox. When he saw the passenger train approaching ‘he at once realised that the train was […] not going to stop at that signal at all. He immediately went to the window of his [signal] box with a red lamp, and he waved the lamp and shouted as the train passed.’

It was to no avail. The passenger train, being hauled by two engines, ran into the back of the coal train at somewhere between 10 and 30 miles per hour. The engines of the passenger train overturned; ‘the guard’s van [of the coal train] and two front coaches were smashed almost to matchwood’ according to the Coventry Evening Telegraph’s report later on 29 February. The guard of the coal train, Arthur Rowley, and the fireman of the leading engine of the express, Harold Clark, were killed. The driver of the leading engine, Walter Howell, was severely burned.

Ordnance Survey map of the area around Woodhouse Junction. Largely surrounded by fields, but with extensive track.
c.1901 Ordnance Survey map of the area.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.
Ordnance Survey map of the area around Woodhouse Junction. Largely surrounded by fields, but with extensive track. More detailed view.
c.1901 Ordnance Survey map of the area – greater detail. Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

An international crash

The express was a ‘special’ – an additional service, outside the regular timetabled provision. It was also an ‘emigrant special’, containing ‘people of different European nationalities, returning home from the United States’. This traffic speaks to global mobility at this time – and there were lots of people moving on this route. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph of 29 February 1908 noted that ‘something like 5,000 men, women, and children have returned this week by this route alone.’

This particular service, of 12 passenger carriages, contained 200-300 people. One of those carriages was recorded as ‘wrecked. The roof was cut away, and the sides were hurled to the embankment’. Perhaps surprisingly, only one passenger was injured: Adolph Gutowski of Allenstein, Germany, suffered a scalp wound. Treated at the scene, by the time of the first press reports he remained at Woodhouse station ‘in the care of Mr Phillipson, the station-master.’ A subsequent report that afternoon, in the Coventry Evening Telegraph, noted that the injured party (given as ‘a Russian Pole’) was able to continue his journey to Grimsby.

Photographic postcard of the clear up of the Woodhouse Junction crash. Showing a steam crane lifting one of the wrecked engines.
1908 postcard of the crash scene.



Treating the casualties

The first of the worker casualties to be reached was the driver of the special train, Walter Howell. He was moved to Sheffield on a ‘light engine’ (when the only thing moving is the locomotive itself), where he received first aid from foreman parcel porter Charles Brunt. He was then transferred to the Royal Hospital via an ambulance van.

Howell’s fireman, Harold Clark, took longer to free from the wreckage. He had been crushed under his own engine, and it took two hours to release him. According to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph ‘the poor fellow’s cries of agony while the rescuers were endeavouring to release him are said to have been heartrending.’ Clark was conveyed to Sheffield on a subsequent special train that was passing through the station, though he would subsequently die.

Sadly nothing could be done for Arthur Rowley. He was killed outright, though it took some hours to locate his body.


Services resumed – but what happened?

The Great Central Railway (GCR) moved quickly to clear the lines and resume normal services. Rather than a thorough investigation, keeping the Company’s system operating was the priority. In the immediate aftermath, the GCR found another locomotive to move the train’s remaining carriages and the passengers on to Grimsby. Within a few hours ‘steam cranes were in operation clearing the line; the men working by means of huge flare-lights, which gave the snow-covered scene a weird aspect.’ Services were temporarily re-routed through goods sidings to ger past he blockage.


In due course there was an investigation. Unlike other cases which appear in our project database, this one received a full and detailed investigation by state railway inspectors. This was because it involved a passenger train crash, rather than ‘just’ worker accidents. Ironically of course, the main people affected by this passenger crash were the workers. Whereas most worker accidents that were investigated produced a report of perhaps half a page – a page at most, in a typical case – passenger crashes were much more extensive. The report into the Woodhouse East Junction collision, available through the Railways Archive website, amounted to nine pages.

The report length is unusual – but a great advantage, in that it includes transcripts of worker testimony. We can hear what was said at the investigation, and get some sense of the voices of the workers. The problem for the investigating officer, Lieutenant Colonel PG von Donop, was that it was impossible to determine who was telling the truth about what happened. In the end, he had to conclude: ‘the three men [one signalman, two drivers] are, however, are all interested parties’ and there was no evidence to confirm or deny a particular set of events. ‘Under these circumstances the evidence is clearly not sufficient to justify my forming a definite opinion as to […] on whom the responsibility should rest’. Having said that, he felt he was perfectively fine to say that ‘the collision was undoubtedly due to a personal error’.


Arthur Rowley (1881-1908) and his family

Arthur Rowley was born in Barnby Dun, Yorkshire, in approximately 1881. His father, William Rowley, was a platelayer (responsible for maintaining railway tracks), so it was perhaps unsurprising that in due course his son should follow him onto the railway.

Head and shoulders portrait of Arthur Rowley.

He joined the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) trade union in 1896. As a result of this, he appears in our trade union dataset. He joined the Doncaster branch as a porter, age 14, for the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (which became the GCR). By the time of the 1901 Census he was a ticket collector; and at the point of his accident, he was a goods guard. Across his membership of the ASRS, he transferred branches a number of times, presumably as he changed location and/or grade.

We know from marriage records that he married Rose Hannah Peacock in Sheffield on 28 December 1903. Their first child, Reginald, was born around a year later, on 13 December 1904. Their second child, Sydney, was born on 28 January 1908 – tragically, just a month before Arthur’s death.


Union support

At the time of his death in 1908, Arthur was a member of the Attercliffe branch of the ASRS. His dependents received the automatic Union death benefit payment of £5 (equivalent to £620 at 2023 prices) to cover immediate costs. At the inquest into his death, the Union also represented Arthur’s interests – and those of two of his fellow Union members, the signalmen implicated in the case. As this was a relatively public case, the ASRS sent Jimmy Holmes, one of its Organising Secretaries, and a local firm of solicitors to protect its members.

As Arthur had also chosen to pay into the ASRS Orphan Fund (more about that in this blog), it made a weekly payment to help support Sydney and Reginald until they reached the age of 14. Whilst they were both on the fund, they received four shillings per week. As was noted in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, ‘this would suffice for a short time’.

Under the Workmen’s Compensation Act, Arthur’s dependents also received some monetary compensation. From the same piece in the 11 June 1908 issue of the Sheffield Evening Telegraph we learn a bit more about how the Act and compensation worked in practice. The GCR admitted liability, and paid the equivalent of three years’ wages (as the Act dictated): £217.13.6. This would be around £27,000 at 2023 prices.

How the money was allocated was determined in the county court system. For Arthur and Rose’s family , it was decided to invest £50 in the name of each of the children, with the remainder going to Rose. In other cases all of the money might have gone to the widow, to maintain the family having lost its major breadwinner. Rose had (before marrying Arthur) been a school teacher ‘and had some considerable savings of her own’ – sufficient to last for two years. This relative financial security meant she could afford not to receive the whole of the compensation, and instead see some of it left for her sons. Rose also expressed her intention, when her youngest son, Sydney, was old enough that she would return to teaching.


Rose, Reginald and Sydney after Arthur’s death

It doesn’t look like Rose did return to teaching. On the 1911 Census no occupation is listed, and on the 1921 Census she has ‘home duties’ recorded against her name. She returned to her family, with the three Rowleys moving back in with Rose’s parents and extended family in Sheffield. On the 1911 Census Rose’s five siblings were living with their parents. Interestingly, three of them were teachers – this must have been difficult for Rose.

By the 1921 Census Rose’s surname is listed under her maiden name, Peacock. Sydney was still at school, but Reginald, then 16, was listed as ‘Peacock Brothers Tool Makers (out of work)’. Presumably this was a family firm, given the surname, and that four others in the household were all listed as working for Peacock Brothers.

The boys found their own way in life. By the time of the 1939 Register Reginald was married with five children. He was a motor driver and mechanic. Sydney had four children and was a motor driver at a steel works. Both families lived in Sheffield – indeed, next door to each other, at 95 and 93 Stevenson Road.

None of this detail accounts for the challenges they must have faced growing up not knowing their father. Understanding how these losses marked people is incredibly difficult to recover at this distance in time, and given these aspects were relatively rarely captured in the formal archive.


Harold Clark and Walter Howell

Head and shoulders portrait of Harold Clark.


Head and shoulders portrait of Walter Howell.

We know much less about the other two railway staff casualties of the 1908 Woodhouse East Junction crash, Howard Clark and Walter Howell. Indeed, we know virtually nothing at all about Clark. Or rather … we knew virtually nothing – but within 18 hours of the post going live, genealogist Rosie Rowley had found out lots more. It’s an interesting – and sad – family story, and deserves its own blog post in the future.

Howell appears on the 1901 Census, living in Manchester with his wife Emma and their son Walter George, who had just been born. By the time of the 1911 Census, the Howell family had been joined by Emma’s mother, sister and brother. Walter was still working as an engine driver, so the accident doesn’t look to have had too great a lasting impact – at least not physically. Possibly the mental scars ran deeper – but they weren’t revealed, certainly not in the formal documentation that has survived.


Taking one accident, hopefully we’ve shown the richness of the record and what we can recover about the past from a variety of sources. We’ve linked continental migration, working conditions, family life and social and cultural conventions. From what looked like a relatively narrow starting point – our project and its focus on accidents to British and Irish railway workers before 1939 – we’ve been able to trace a huge range of connections and issues. Multiply this up over the other c.48,000 cases detailed in our project database and it becomes possible to see the huge potential for understanding the past that our project brings.

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  1. Pingback:One extra day – lots of extra accidents - Railway Work, Life & Death

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