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‘His fatal time-saving expedient’

This was the pronouncement from the South Western Star newspaper, on the death of London and South Western Railway (LSWR) gas fitter Ernest Browning.[1] Browning died after an explosion on board the van he and others were working on, on 30 May 1904.

Ordnance Survey map from c.1897; shows dense housing packed around the railway yard.
Ordnance Survey 1897 map of the area.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.


Browning was working on one of two Post Office vans at Clapham Junction, London. At 9.30am, he was using compressed gas to clean the van’s lamps, blowing dirt out of the lamps. However, ‘an explosion occurred through the gas becoming ignited’ when it came into contact with some jets burning in the second Post Office van. The resulting explosion caused ‘considerable damage’ to the vans and the roof of the shed they were in.

Browning was to die; gas fitter Charles Smith and carriage cleaner Edmund Beer, who were nearby, were ‘more or less injured.’ The state accident investigation was carried out by Inspector John Main. His conclusion was that Browning ‘appears to have been entirely responsible for the highly dangerous method of performing the work’. Interestingly, this method ‘was not sanctioned in any way’ and everyone denied any knowledge of Browning’s practices. Main recommended steps be taken ‘to see that a recurrence of such an action does not take place’.[2]

As is so often the way with worker accidents, the Railway Inspectorate report from the time is very brief. However, further detail appears in the South Western Star report of the coroner’s inquest. When the two injured men appeared before the Inquest, their ‘face[s] and hands … bore marks of injury.’ When the Coroner asked gas fitter Smith if it was normal practice to blow gas through the lamps, Smith responded that ‘Deceased said that was the way the lamps were cleaned out at Eastleigh Works.’

This is a really interesting comment, if accurate, about different working practices and safety cultures at different locations within the same railway company. Smith went on to describe how at Clapham Junction they would get the ceiling-mounted lamps down and tip out the residue. Smith’s comment also belies the fact that at least some people did know something about Browning’s dangerous practice that was counter to received practices. The Coroner asked why Smith hadn’t questioned Browning’s practices. Smith responded: ‘It’s a rather hard job for me to persuade a man not to do a certain thing.’

Other gas fitters working the area ‘heard the explosion and … went to the shed.’ Alfred Mitchell ‘rendered first aid to the injured men and helped remove them to hospital.’ Testimony from the receiving doctor noted something unusual about Browning. As well as the physical burns and shock, ‘he did not seem to improve for the first few days; he seemed to be mentally affected.’ That isn’t something that appears very frequently in discussion of its time. Browning died the following day.

The Coroner felt it ‘impossible to imagine that any man could be ignorant of the danger’ of the method of working by Browning. He went on to speculate that if someone else had died as a result of Browning’s actions, ‘he did not think any jury would have a doubt for a moment about sending him for trial for such a gross piece of carelessness.’ In the end he directed the jury to a finding of ‘accidental death.’[3]


[1] South Western Star, 10 June 1904, p.8.

[2] Railway Inspectorate report 1904, Quarter 2, Appendix B.

[3] South Western Star, 10 June 1904, p.8.

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