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Goods guards – the dangers of signallers’ errors

In this blog post we continue our occasional series produced by University of Portsmouth History degree students as part of their course. 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, Bekah Sistig looks at some of the dangers encountered by goods guards in the course of their duties. She makes use of an interesting mapping tool to show some of the stories in a different way. Our thanks to Bekah 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 trade union dataset added to the RWLD database last year.

4 railwaymen stood by a horsebox at a platform, paved floor to the front. Tender of a steam locomotive to the left.
‘Goods guard & railwaymen at Leicester horse dock’ – L1815, courtesy Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland and Railway Archive.

In this blog, you will see two case studies of goods guards who died on the railway while working, and in both cases the accident was caused by signalmen errors. Goods guards were individuals who worked on trains carrying either goods, ballast or minerals. The main objective of the guard was to ensure that their train, and all it carried, managed to reach the destination safely. Signalmen were workers in charge of organising and controlling the position of trains on the system. They were in charge of allowing trains into the section of the lines they controlled. During the time these two accidents occurred, signallers were working in signal boxes, equipped with multiple levers controlling points and signals on the railway tracks. In 1889, the Regulation of Railways Act was passed, making the “block system” mandatory in all railway stations. The system called for there to be a sizable block (or space) left between trains running on the same track. Today, signalling controls and communicates with trains through computer systems, but the duties of the job have remained the same since these case studies occurred.

Charles Harry Bennion

Family tree for Charles Bennion
Charles Bennion’s family tree.

Charles Harry Bennion was a Great Central Railway goods guard stationed at Staveley Town Railway Station, Derbyshire. He was the son of a goods guard, John Bennion, who was stationed at Charles’ previous Union branch, Mexborough.

Tragically, due to what was ruled a “signaller error”, Charles died instantly in a collision involving his goods train and two light engines. The collision occurred at Frodingham, at approximately 08:30am on 17 November 1899. The goods train, from Staveley to Frodingham, was working through a thick fog when it was hit by two ‘light engines’ (i.e. locomotives only, not pulling anything). Charles was buried on 20 November 1899 in St Margaret’s Church in Swinton.

Following Charles’ death, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) Union supported his family through its Orphan Fund. It provided five shillings per week (around £33 now), to support Ethel, Florence and George. The ASRS also helped secure a Fatal Compensation payment of £253.12.11 from the railway company – around £34,000 today.

Charles was only 35 years old when he died, and had just celebrated his son George’s 1st birthday five months prior; Only a month after his passing would have been his wife’s and his 5th year anniversary (26th of December).

Charles’ death was also reported in at least three newspapers, all highlighting the inquest into his death, and one giving great detail.

“At Scunthorpe yesterday an inquest was held as to the death of Charles Harry Bennion, who was killed in a railway collision at Frodingham on November 17th. The jury said deceased came to his death through the negligence of himself and the signalman, Tom Brocklesby, and the latter was committed to the Assizes of manslaughter.” Manchester Evening News, 1st Dec 1899, p. 6

“The Case was watched on behalf of the relatives of the deceased by Mr. Dobson, organising secretary for the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants… Owing to the fog, and Guard Bennion not acting in accordance of rule 55*, he [Brocklesby] forgot he [Bennion] was there. At 8.13 he accepted line clear for two light engines. They passed at 8.20 and a few minutes afterwards the accident occurred.” Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 1st December 1899, p. 9

“The jury found the deceased had come to his death by the negligence of himself and the signalman, Brocklesby, but that the negligence of the deceased was the greater. Brocklesby was committed to take his trial at Lincoln Assizes for manslaughter, and he was admitted to bail.” Leeds Mercury, 1st December 1899, p. 7

In the years following Charles’ death, Elizabeth and her children were registered on the 1901 Census as still living in Staveley. It appears as though Elizabeth had begun taking in lodgers as three were registered as living in the house. In the 1911 Census, Elizabeth was still living with Ethel, Florence and George, and three lodgers, but had relocated to 40 Princess Street in Rotherham. In 1921 she was living in the same house, but now only with George and three lodgers. In 1936, 37 years after her second husband had passed away, Elizabeth Bennion died at age 84.

For an interactive map of significant locations in Charles’ life, as well as further information on these locations, please see here.

* For further information on rule 55, read the “Accident Returns” file here.


John William Redfern

Family tree of John Redfern
John Redfern’s family tree.

John was born in Manchester in 1865, to Thomas and Jane Redfern. He was one of a family of 10. Sadly according to the 1881 England and Wales Census, Jane died when John was between the ages of 10 and 16. John William Redfern became a goods guard, stationed at Bury Knowsley Railway Station on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. He joined the Bury branch of the ASRS in 1890.

In 1890, John married his wife, Catherine (nee Koegh), originally from Wicklow, Ireland. They were married in Bury, and it was 15 years before their one and only child, Mary, was born in 1905. In 1911, Catherine’s sister, Mary, was also registered as living with them in Bury.

Tragically, on 8 March 1912, at 05:35, John was involved in a collision between his goods train and two light engines, leading to him dying of his injuries. As well as the loss of his life, three more people were injured. The cause of the accident was ruled as a “signaller error”, meaning that it was due to incorrect signalling that the trains collided. John was travelling from Royton to Church, when near to Heap Bridge, the collision occurred, causing three wagons of his train to derail and roll down the embankment.

In the report into the incident, it was described that the responsibility of the collision was between one of the two signalmen, S.E. Tattersall or D. Yates. However, due to their conflicting testimonies, it was undetermined who was responsible.

Following John’s death, the ASRS Union supported his family through the Union Orphan Fund, providing three shillings per week to support his daughter, Mary. John’s death was also reported in the Heywood Adviser:

“The guard’s van suffered severely by the force of the collision, and the guard, John William Redfern, of Maudsley-street, received terrible injuries. Information was at once sent to Bury, and Dr. Cook was quickly on the scene of the incident. He tended to Redfern’s injuries and ordered his removal to the Bury Infirmary. He was, however, so severely injured that little could be done for him, and death took place about a quarter-past seven.” Heywood Adviser, 8 March 1912, p. 5

In the years immediately following John’s death, I have been able to uncover what happened to his wife and daughter. However, in the first quarter of 1916, just over three years after John’s death, his wife, Catherine, remarried. She married widower James Downall Crompton, a blacksmith who had been born in Liverpool. She, James, her daughter Mary, and James’ two children, James Leonard, and Mildred Mary, were all registered as living in Preston in the Census. Mary, John’s only child, appears to have become a clerk.

For an interactive map of significant locations in Charles’ life, as well as further information on these locations, see here.


Bekah Sistig

I wrote this blog as a second-year student at the University of Portsmouth, studying an undergraduate course on History with Politics, with a keen interest in the study of genealogy, archives and local history. I am hoping to further my studies in history through a postgraduate qualification. 

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