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Goods guards’ safety burdens

In this blog post we continue our series produced by University of Portsmouth History degree students as part of their course this year. For their second-year ‘Working with the Past’ module the group explored the Project’s dataset, with a view to finding out more about some of the themes that emerged or the individuals they discovered.

In this post, Lauren Lee looks at some of the dangers encountered by goods guards in the course of their duties. Our thanks to Lauren for her post and for exploring the project data!


The Railway Work, Life & Death project (RWLD) has recently made it easier to understand the devastating number of fatal accidents that took place on British railways in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The purpose of this blog post series is to raise awareness of a number of people that worked, and sadly lost their lives, on the British railway system. They come from the RWLD database of nearly 50,000 cases of railway staff accident between c.1889 and 1939.

From the advent of the first modern railway in Britain in 1825, goods guards were responsible for various duties, with specific responsibilities for freight train formation, involved shunting wagons. In what follows, research into a specific case study from the RWLD project’s database will highlight the roles and responsibilities of goods guards – and the dangers they were exposed to.


Railwayman moving goods from a flatbed pulled by a mechanical horse.
LMS railway workers unloading goods, 1936. Courtesy National Railway Museum.

One responsibility goods guards had throughout the early 20th century was shunting. Shunting is an operation to marshal separate railway carriages or wagons into complete trains. This would consist of railway workers (specifically goods guards) both joining and separating carriages or wagons. Different types of shunting movements came with different levels of risk, but accident statistics from the railways at this time show all shunting was a dangerous operation. It might involve goods guards (and other staff, like shunters) climbing between or under carriages to organise the vehicles. Guards tasked with these operations risked being crushed between heavy wagons, or even falling on to the tracks and being run over. 

As shunting was recognised as a highly dangerous operation the Midland Railway Company refitted a guard’s van as an ambulance wagon, stationed permanently at Toton yard in Nottinghamshire. The wagon was placed to give immediate treatment to injured goods guards and shunters in hope that injuries would not lead to fatalities, and to transport casualties to Nottingham, where they could receive hospital treatment. This was an interesting but not sustainable attempt by railway companies across Britain to respond to the harm that occurred because of shunting. 

One interesting goods guard case and how their story relates to railway safety is that of William Jolley. Born in 1868, he worked for the Midland Railway in the latter half of the 19th century. On 18 January 1900, Jolley attended work as usual. At Berkeley station, Gloucestershire, one of his main tasks was to move wagons. He was using ‘tow-roping’ (for more on that, see here) to bring wagons together, but became trapped between the wire rope and one of the wagons. Although Jolley was swiftly transported to a nearby cottage hospital for emergency treatment, he unfortunately passed away the following day of his traumatic injuries. Jolley’s widow received just over £252 under the Workmen’s Compensation Act (around £28,800 at today’s prices). Compensation was an initial attempt to minimise the after effects of railway accidents before finally implementing safety precautions. 

It seems that this compensation might have been variable, too. By way of comparison, Lara Houghton’s blog post in our series looked at carriage cleaner Jane Rowland’s death. Killed in an accident in 1919 on the Great Central Railway, her family received just £10. Rowland’s compensation was less than a 20th of Jolley’s. This represents a long line of gender inequality in safety protection on the railways. Many fatal accidents experienced by women received less recognition compared to men. 


Poster, top portion white with words 'look and warn before shunting' - all in black apart from 'warn' in red. Lower portion of the poster shows a rake of covered wagons being unloaded onto a lorry, with a shunter about to move them and Rule 112 prominently shown.
1960s British Rail safety poster. Courtesy National Railway Museum

Accidents experienced by good guards like Jolley, were so common that from the early twentieth century major railway companies, under pressure from the railway unions, started to make some changes. Things like illustrated booklets and later shunting safety posters were placed around railway sites as warnings to staff to remain cautious when involved in the operation of shunting. The posters were illustrated in bold colours and graphics in the hope that they would catch the eye and be memorable. Although railway companies hoped these posters would be successful in completely avoiding accidents goods guards experienced due to the dangers of shunting, this was not the case, as it appeared that unsafe infrastructure and patterns of work were more significant problems. 

Overall, the dangerous operations goods guards were responsible for, and examples of incidents experienced on Britain’s railways from 1875, highlight that a major cause of fatalities and injuries was pressure of work that led to unsafe operations. Case studies of goods guards such as William Jolley highlight that many incidents which occurred were not the fault of railway workers but rather down to faults in infrastructure, planning of operations and minimal measures put in place to protect safety. With pressure, Britain’s railway companies started to introduce more safety measures. Exploring a case such as William Jolley (who represents the experience of many past goods guards), allows for the lived experience of the workers to be recognised. It becomes possible to see how they were once burdened with much dangerous responsibility. 

The next post in this occasional series is available here.


Lauren Lee

My name is Lauren Lee and I am a second-year History student at the University of Portsmouth. History has fascinated me from a young age, from visiting heritage sites when young to exploring many historical readings now. One day I hope to participate with excellent teams in the heritage sector, who work to protect global cultures of the past but also to encourage a new way of learning and thinking about the history that surrounds us.



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