How do we connect people & place in our database? Most of the time there are the obvious links: the cases our project is concerned with happened to real people, working in particular locations. On many occasions those locations had a material bearing on the circumstances of the accident – limited clearances, poor conditions, the geography of the line and area, and more. Rarely is the link between person and place inscribed in the names involved – but in the case of Arthur Hadfield, injured at Hadfield in Derbyshire, we have an exception.
Initially I thought there was a transcription error – that one of the names had been transposed and duplicated. But having re-checked the original, that wasn’t the case. Arthur Hadfield was genuinely injured at Hadfield. Had he or his family originated from the town, taking the location as his family name? Might he even have lived in the town or area at the time of his accident? Either way, I’m sure the connection between his name and the place wouldn’t have gone unnoticed (if not appreciated).
So what happened? On 13 September 1911, Arthur (as we shall call him, to avoid confusion) was in his role as a goods guard for the Great Central Railway. He was guard for a train between Warsop and Stalybridge, consisting of 57 loaded coal wagons. Approaching Hadfield station from the north-east they were running downhill. As there was a passenger train standing in the line through the station they were supposed to use the signalman made the standard (and indeed only!) decision, namely to route the goods train into a loop and hold it there until the line through the station was available.
The problem was, driver Henry Spencer didn’t manage to stop the train at the signal at end of the loop. As a result, the train hit the buffers at around 10 miles per hour: ‘the buffer stops were carried away and the engine and eight waggons [sic] were derailed and damaged.’ Hadfield jumped from his brake van during the impact, falling down the bank and twisting his right knee.
Inspector JH Armytage noted that the line was ‘on a sharp falling gradient’. From the Woodhead tunnel to Hadfield station, around 5 miles, the line fell on average by 1 in 117 (i.e. for every 117 feet in distance travelled, there was a drop of 1 foot in height). The line on which the goods train was put was 1 in 100, so even steeper. Clearly locale matters, something the Great Central Railway knew, as they had issued instructions specific to the route in order to prevent this sort of accident. Before starting the descent, guards on goods trains were supposed to apply the brakes to a given number of wagons, to ensure it was possible to control a train’s speed. This appears to have been done. So what went wrong on this occasion?
Armytage noted that at least part of the problem lay with the equipment: the engine itself. Part of the braking system on the locomotive tender was defective – a steam joint was ‘leaking badly’, reducing braking power. Driver Spencer had reported this problem the day before at his home base, Langwith Junction shed, but ‘owing to carelessness on the part of the shed foreman [who isn’t named], the engine was allowed to leave the shed on the date of the accident before this defect received attention.’
(We might question whether this comment about the shed foreman’s ‘carelessness’ was fair – we don’t know under what pressures he was working, or whether he had sufficient staff to make repairs overnight, for example. Suffice to say, this form of presumption of carelessness was endemic in the industry at this time, and a deeper investigation into the root causes of the shed foreman’s apparent failure went beyond the state investigation, which only looked at the immediate causes of an accident. Whether the Great Central would have investigated the shed foreman’s actions is sadly unknown.)
The responsibility for the accident was placed firmly at the door of driver Spencer. He discovered the fault hadn’t been fixed before he took the engine out. Armytage’s report came to the conclusion that ‘He should not, in the first instance, have taken his engine out with the tender brake in a defective condition’.
Yet we don’t know what other engines – if any – were available for him to use if he had rejected the engine with which he had been rostered. The pressure to get the job done, whether felt internally by Spencer or actively applied externally by company officials at the shed, might have pushed him into taking the defective loco out. At the same time, as he’d worked that engine the day before, perhaps he felt he could simply make do again – after all, the previous day hadn’t produced any accidents (that we know of).
Having made the decision to take the engine out, Spencer did at least warn Arthur Hadfield it might be an issue and that he was to ‘look well after the brake-van brake’ down the route into Hadfield station. This he did. Spencer also claimed to have told the shunter at Dunford Bridge, the station before Hadfield, to apply additional wagon brakes – though the shunter denied Spencer had said this. He did, however, put more of the brakes on anyway. Unfortunately due to another technical issue – vibration on the journey shaking the brake levers up – some of the wagon brakes appear to have been released as the journey went on.
Some way out of Hadfield, Spencer ‘realised that the train was not properly under his control’ and did everything he could to slow the train down – including putting it into reverse at full speed. However all of that ‘failed to reduce the speed of the train to any great extent’, with the resulting crash.
Armytage had the grace to recognise that wet and greasy rails may have contributed to the problems – but Spencer still remained the chief culprit. As well has refusing to take the engine out, Armytage thought Spencer ‘would have acted more wisely’ if he had reduced the load of his train at Dunford Bridge (1911 Quarter 3, Appendix B). Again, whether splitting the train would have been possible institutionally isn’t addressed: the coal wagons needed to get from A to B, so someone would have had to have moved them. The Company would no doubt have been displeased if this required an extra train or more time. Finally, Spencer was also held up on the grounds that he should have applied the brakes he had available to him at an earlier moment.
In terms of preventing a reoccurrence, the Company was advised to investigate the problem of the wagon brake levers spring off. The solution was not, however, to improve the technology or alter the track to give a smoother ride and therefore prevent the problem. Instead Armytage’s suggestion was to revise procedures about the numbers of wagon brakes to be applied at the top of the incline. Nothing was said about changing practices at the engine shed to ensure safety critical work was carried out. It was fair easier – and well-established by this time – to focus on the immediate staff member(s) involved and their behaviour.
In this fairly complex case, then, we can see how the particular geographic and social and institutional circumstances came together to produce the accident in which Arthur was hurt. It is a valuable reminder of the importance of both people and place in understanding railway staff accidents, and the necessity to explore the local conditions of the accidents.
Thinking more broadly, we’ve had some excellent engagement with family historians, and they’ve really extended the project. They’ve helped us find out more about the people involved in the accidents, and their wider families, which has brought home the personal impacts. However, so far we’ve done less with local historians, meaning there’s great potential. It would be wonderful to know more about how a staff accident, or a number of accidents, fitted into the local environment? Were people aware of it? Or were staff accidents so concealed from view that they had little local impact? What about the impact in and on the communities to which the staff members belonged, as distinct from where the accident took place?
And conversely, looking at staff accidents had enrich local history, too. We can see different working patterns in an area, finding out more about a particular industry, and seeing how a national network had local impacts. It’s a two-way flow, as well. Our project can help piece together how one case at a local level related to the national picture – showing, for example, how common or rare that type of accident was.
So – if you’re a local historian, we’d be very keen to hear from you – about what you think you might get from the project and about how we might make ourselves more useful to local historians. And if you’re so inspired, we’d always welcome guest blog posts, focusing on making those connections between the local and the staff accident. Do get in touch!