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How didn’t Grouping affect mainline staff safety? Railway Grouping & accidents pt 3

In our previous post in this series, we looked at accidents in our database from the newly-Grouped companies over the course of 1923. There’s no doubting that the industry re-organisation was radical in 1923. An awful lot changed. Yet we’ve already explored how – sadly – the same types of accidents continued to happen as had occurred before 1923. That’s not altogether surprising, of course, as the work itself remained largely the same even if the company names and corporate identities changed.

However, just focusing on the newly created ‘Big Four’ obscures the companies and places which didn’t experience organisational change. So, in today’s post we’re going to look at the bits which stayed the same – in relation to mainline and more traditional railways.

Whilst the vast majority of railway companies were merged into the Grouped companies before 1 January 1923, some managed to continue. For a few of those the reprieve was temporary – the North Staffordshire Railway and the Caledonian Railway were folded into the new LMS on 1 July 1923. Undoubtedly in that six-month period staff accidents would have carried on – though no accidents were investigated by state officials in that period, and so there aren’t any cases in our database. As we bring more cases into our database, though, we may yet find accidents for these companies in this period.

However, whilst those companies did end up in their ‘Grouped’ organisation, not all railway companies in Britain were grouped. Indeed, many companies remained independent – and appear in our database. The larger of these companies were more likely to have had bigger staffs and therefore a greater chance of both having had accidents and having been investigated by the state inspectors. These included the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway (14 post-1922 cases in the database), the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway (four cases), the Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC, 73 cases), and the Liverpool Overhead Railway (three cases), amongst others.

Ordnance Survey map showing complexity of streets, railways and docks around Birkenhead before World War One.
Composite Ordnance Survey map, showing the complexity of streets, railways and docks around Birkenhead before World War One. The dropped pin indicates the approximate location of George Thompson’s accident.


To take one example, we see 17-year old CLC-employee George Thompson, who was working at Shore Road, Birkenhead, on 10 September 1929. He was a ‘chain lad’ – he would have been responsible for detaching and attaching chains to wagons, so that horses could pull them short distances (instead of needing a locomotive to do it). He was walking in front of a goods van being moved by a shunt horse when he stepped from a wooden covering. His foot became trapped against the rail, and he was hit by the van. This could have been fatal, but fortunately he only had his foot bruised. Inspector William Cooke’s report into the accident noted that after the incident an instruction was issued that shunt horses should not be detached from wagons until the wagon had stopped moving (1929 Quarter 3, Appendix C).

There was one significant regional variation that wasn’t fully covered by Grouping – London. Whilst the overground, mainline railways were Grouped, the underground and some other railways were not. So, in our project database a number of operators continue to appear after 1922: the City and South London Railway (one case), the Central London Railway (four cases), the Metropolitan District Railway (19 cases), and the London Electric Railway (LER, 13 cases). Looking at the LER, we find a rash of cases in Golders Green in the mid-1920s. This demonstrates another of the values of our database – it becomes possible to make connections and ask questions about what was going on. In this instance, was there a significant safety – or safety culture – issue at Golders Green?

Here we see shunter Joseph Hayles injured on 30 October 1924. He was coupling two cars using a pole, but still ended up between the vehicles, where his chest was crushed. Inspector JLM Moore found Hayles had failed to exercise ‘proper care for his own safety’ (1924 Quarter 4, Appendix B). Over the next three years, five further accidents were investigated, including a single incident which injured three men on 27 February 1925. In terms of the types of accidents, they don’t seem to share common characteristics; whether there were issues in terms of safety culture wasn’t something clearly revealed in the reports.

Posed 1920s staff safety photograph, showing a railwayman going between two carriages to couple them and in danger of being crushed.
Posed 1920s staff safety photograph, illustrating similar dangers to the ones encountered by Joseph Hayles.


We see accidents in relation to the underground companies appearing in the database until April 1933 – when they, and other transport organisations, became a part of the London Passenger Transport Board. The LPTB goes on to feature a further 33 times in the database.

Earlier in the post we talked about railway companies in Britain. This was deliberate. The situation in Northern Ireland was quite distinct, not least as there was an international border crossed by railway lines. Grouping was never going to be a simple operation anywhere, but particularly not on the island of Ireland. Whilst it made sense (in the context of industry reorganisation) to merge contiguous lines/ companies, that logic didn’t apply to the routes and companies in what became Northern Ireland.

It isn’t quite accurate to say that the railway Grouping didn’t affect Northern Ireland. British pre-Grouping railway companies like the Midland Railway had interests in Irish and Northern Irish railways. These interests effectively transferred to their successor company – the LMS, and LMS branding did appear in Northern Ireland, albeit in a relatively limited fashion. But the large-scale name changes and rebranding seen in Britain wasn’t experienced in Northern Ireland. By and large, the existing companies continued, like the Great Northern Railway of Ireland and the Belfast and County Down Railway, both of which feature in our database.

This means that on 18 November 1924, we see milesmen (track workers) RA Taylor and WB Taylor of the Belfast and County Down Railway involved in an accident at Belfast. They were ensuring the level of the ballast (the stone chippings) under the sleepers (the wooden cross-pieces the rails sit upon) was correct. They moved out of the way of an approaching train, but were distracted and didn’t see a train moving out of a siding. This train knocked them down, though at relatively low speed – this type of incident frequently led to fatalities, but in this case both men were ‘somewhat severely injured.’ The investigation, by Inspector JLM Moore, found that the men should have moved clear of all lines, and that the crew of the train that hit them should have kept a better lookout (1924 Quarter 4, Appendix B). Were the men related? It’s impossible to say for sure, but it’s certainly a possibility.

Northern Ireland is relatively poorly served, in terms of accident reports. Only six cases appear. This will not be because the railways were exceptionally safe for staff. The accidents will have happened – but they weren’t investigated: why not? Was it the distance from London? Indeed, after 1925, no further accidents in Northern Ireland appear in our database. This means the railway inspectors didn’t investigate any further staff accidents here. Why not? Was there some sort of local arrangement in place, sharing responsibilities with whichever state organisation investigated railway staff accidents in Ireland? This seems unlikely, however. It would be excellent to understand this more.

All told, then, we can see a number of ways in which thinking about Grouping in 1923 doesn’t tell us the full story of the UK railway industry. Getting at the detail, including around accidents, via our database, is crucial.

In next week’s post, we take a look at some of the less standard railway companies and systems that appear in our database and which were also not Grouped in 1923.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback:How didn’t Grouping affect staff safety beyond the mainline? Railway Grouping & accidents pt 4 - Railway Work, Life & Death

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