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Investigating Bromsgrove’s railway worker accidents

On 10 November 1840, a steam locomotive named ‘Surprise’ exploded in Bromsgrove. It killed its crew, Joseph Rutherford and Thomas Scaife. The incident might perhaps have been forgotten were it not for the spectacular gravestones later erected to remember the two men, by Rutherford’s wife and Scaife’s workmates.

Elaborate headstones for Thomas Scaife and Joseph Rutherford, killed following the explosion of the boiler of the train they were driving, in Bromsgrove on 10 November 1840. Black faced with white text, poems on both, and images of a railway engine at the top of both.
Headstones in St John’s churchyard, Bromsgrove, for Thomas Scaife and Joseph Rutherford.

They were not the last railway workers to die or be injured in and around Bromsgrove, of course. Over the years, many more were to suffer – some found within the records in our project database. This Friday morning, on the anniversary of the explosion which killed Rutherford and Scaife, we’ll be visiting St John’s churchyard to pay respects. We’ll also be taking a stand to bring our project to people in the area.

This all came about earlier this year, after we were invited to give a talk to a Bromsgrove railway group, ‘Coffee and Catch Up.’ Afterwards, the group convenor, Neil Gordon, discussed with the group the cases we’d mentioned during the talk – about whom we knew relatively little. He and some others wondered about researching them, and other Bromsgrove cases, further. To do so, they formed the Lickey Rail Group – named after the Lickey incline, at the foot of which Bromsgrove sits.

Wagon and shed illuminated by a powerful lamp, at night, with outline of steam engine.
Bromsgrove shed illuminated by the Lickey banking engine ‘Big Bertha’ in December 1920.
Courtesy National Railway Museum.

We were delighted to hear of the plans – and to support the development of the Group and its work. From the outset of our project we wanted to make more easily available the records of railway workers whose accidents were recorded in the original sources and transcribed in our database. We hoped that people would use our work to inform their existing research. Not only so, but that they might go one step further, and investigate the cases in our database. Supported by the Railway Work, Life & Death project, the Lickey Rail Group has started to do exactly this.

Ordnance Survey map of Bromsgrove station and wagon works.
1903 Ordnance Survey map of Bromsgrove station and wagon works.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

Bromsgrove was a significant railway location, not least because of the impressive Lickey Incline – a two-mile climb of around 1 in 37 towards Birmingham. It was also the site of a large wagon works. Between the mainline railway operation and the workshops, Bromsgrove posed many dangers for railway employees.

Bromsgrove wagon works and station, viewed from the air.
1925 aerial view of Bromsgrove wagon works.
Courtesy Britain from Above.

Two examples – now being researched by the Lickey Rail Group. On 5 October 1912 Midland Railway porter Oliver Hawkins was at work at Bromsgrove station. Just after 5am he had been on duty for eight and a half hours. He was carrying parcels across the lines, when he was hit by an engine. He was killed. The state investigation into the accident found Hawkins had exercised lack of care, though also noted his view might have been obscured by smoke and steam from a passing train. It also observed that ‘the practice of conveying parcels by hand from platform to platform across the metals at this place is attended with considerable risk’! Three tons of such traffic were transferred daily, so Inspector JPS Main recommended the Midland provide either a subway or barrow crossing with a look-out.

Plan of the Bromsgrove wagon works, showing the site layout and buildings.
Bromsgrove wagon works, c.1901.
Courtesy Ian Tipper.

From our trade union dataset, we have the case of 37-year old Midland Railway wagon repairer W Kimberley. On 26 October 1917 he crushed his finger in the wagon works at Bromsgrove. As a member of the National Union of Railwaymen, via its Bromsgrove branch, it ensured Kimberley received compensation for the period he was off work – 25 shillings per week (around £74 now) until 1 December 1917.

Images of the Bromsgrove wagon works after closure, showing derelict buildings.
Bromsgrove wagon works, 1969, after closure.
Courtesy Ian Tipper.

These are just two of over 50 cases so far in the project from Bromsgrove and the wider area. We already know that more cases will follow. We’ve mapped the cases available so far in this map, drawn from the database. This is an experiment in making the project data more accessible, and we’re interested to hear your thoughts on it.

In both of these cases noted the project has transcribed the records produced by the railway industry at the time. However, we know little about the wider lives and circumstances of Hawkins or Kimberley. This is what we hope the Lickey Rail Group will be able to help uncover – using project records as well as wider documentary sources from the time. At least as important, they bring their own specialist knowledge and experience, based in their lives in the area. That local connection is invaluable. We look forward to supporting the Group – and to sharing their efforts with you in due course.

We’re also keen to see how this will work as a means of encouraging other people and groups to explore our project database. We’d love to see other groups following this model and developing their own research work, using us as a starting point.

In the meantime, if you’re in Bromsgrove on the morning of Friday 10th November, please come to St John’s church between 10.30 and 12.30. See the graves of Joseph Rutherford and Thomas Scaife, meet members of the Lickey Rail Group and see the project stand: you’ll be very welcome!

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