This week’s blog post came about following a talk Mike gave at the U3A Family History Conference in Buxton in September 2019. Mike had a number of interesting conversations, including with this week’s guest author, Rosie Rowley. They discussed a case Rosie had found from her family history, also notable for the fact that the coroner’s inquest records survived – for England and Wales, a relatively unusual situation. (As it happens, next week’s blog post draws from the same unusual survival of coroner’s records, from the Peterborough area.) Rosie and Mike continued the conversation on and off over email, with Rosie putting this together – first published in the Peterborough Family History Society Journal in March 2021. Our thanks to Rosie for the conversations along the way and for her work on this blog post..
If anyone has a railway staff accident they would like to blog for the project, please feel free to get in touch – we welcome guest submissions.
James Spridgeon, Railway Platelayer: Accidentally Killed in 1880
James Spridgeon was baptised on 16 November 1856 at Paston parish church, the son of Mary (née Ginn) and Thomas Spridgeon, a labourer of Werrington. In 1861, four-year-old James was living at Town Street, Werrington with his parents and siblings William (19), Joseph (17), Alice (11), Thomas (8), Jane (6) and Robert (1). By 1871 the family had moved to 34 Church Street, Werrington and James, then aged fourteen, was working as an agricultural labourer.
A few years later James started working as a platelayer for the Midland Railway Company at Peterborough. He married Eliza Wright in Werrington in 1878 and their daughter, Mary Elizabeth, was born in May 1880.
On Thursday 12 August 1880, James went to work as usual with four other workmen who made up the “New England Gang.” New England was an area to the north of Peterborough where railway cottages were built by the Great Northern Railway Company to house workers for the nearby engine sheds and enormous marshalling yard. The workmen were given the job of repairing track at the Wisbech sidings of the Midland Railway, located west of New England between the main line heading northwards and the Midland Railway branch to Wisbech. At the same time as the track were being repaired, empty coal wagons were being shunted. The men had to move away while the shunting engine and wagons passed, and then return to work once it was safe to do so.
The shunting engine took several wagons from No 4 siding, and while the 3.22 Lynn train was passing, the shunting engine was reversing into No 5 siding when the foreman shunter gave the driver, Thomas Collins, a signal to stop. James and a fellow-workman, Robert Trewell, had returned to working on the line as soon as the wagons passed them, apparently not realising that they were to be immediately shunted back into No 5 siding. Someone shouted, “Look out, Jim,” but James, who was standing in the four foot (the space between the pair of rails) didn’t manage to get out of the way in time and was knocked down by the wagons. His legs were very badly crushed where they had been run over.
James was pulled out from under the wagons and the shunting engine took him in a wagon to the Midland Railway gates of the Thorp Road level crossing, just south of Peterborough North station. He was taken by stretcher to nearby Peterborough Infirmary in Priestgate, arriving there at about 4pm. The surgeon, Dr Walker, operated to amputate both legs, one at the knee and the other above the knee, but James died in the early hours of the morning on Friday 13 August 1880.
The accident was reported in the Peterborough Standard on 14 August 1880:
TERRIBLE ACCIDENT TO A PLATELAYER AT PETERBOROUGH
… It appears that Spridgeon went to work as usual in good health on Thursday afternoon with his fellow-workmen and put on the job of repairing some points and crossings close by the Wisbech siding of the Midland railway…. A coal train had just been shunted, and was expected to return on the line where the gang were at work almost immediately… the unfortunate man Spridgeon [was] standing on the shunting line, apparently forgetful of the approaching empty coal waggon, when he was knocked down by it… When the awful circumstances were realised… his fellow workmen… prepared a truck… and [he] was taken to Peterborough station. Once there, a stretcher was procured, and the unfortunate man was conveyed to the Peterborough Infirmary. There he received every attention…. and under the influence of ether his legs were disengaged… but Dr Walker, who performed the operation… held out no hope of the unfortunate man’s recovery… Spridgeon lingered on through the weary hours of the night… but the maimed platelayer passed to his rest.
The deceased, who lived at Werrington, leaves a wife, and a child of three or four months old, to mourn his loss. It has been stated subscriptions are being collected for their relief.
The inquest was held on Friday 13 August 1880, the day that James died, at the Public Infirmary, Priestgate, Peterborough and was reported in great detail by the Peterborough Standard on 21 August 1880. Two representatives from the Midland Railway Company, Mr Simpson and Mr Needham, attended the inquest.
The jurors, some of whom seem to have been fellow railway workers, were John Bean Tilbury (Foreman), Philip Philipson, William Whitehead, John Claypole, William Brown, Cornelius Markham, Frederick Wright, George William Holden, Jabez Kneeshaw, Charles Ambrose, William Brooks, William Edward Bincks and William Clarke. The Coroner was Mr Edward Vergette and the Coroner’s Officer was Sergeant Robert Lovick.
The first witness at the inquest was Thomas Spridgeon, brother of the deceased and my 2x great-grandfather. Thomas identified his brother’s body and stated that the deceased was 23 years of age, married with one child, lived at Werrington and worked for the Midland Railway Company as a platelayer.
The next witness was Mary Ann Jinks, a nurse at Peterborough Infirmary. She said that the deceased was brought into the Infirmary at about 4 o’clock on Thursday afternoon. She was present when Dr Walker operated to amputate both legs, one at the knee and the other above the knee, and said that everything possible was done to try and save his life. He lived until twenty minutes to two the following morning.
The driver of the engine, Thomas Collins of 23 Gladstone Street, Peterborough, who was employed by the Midland Railway Company, said, “I was on duty on Thursday afternoon at the Wisbech sidings, in charge of an engine, shunting empty waggons from the sidings into the shunting road and back into other sidings. I had taken seven or eight waggons from No 4 siding on the shunting road, and was backing into No 5 siding when I saw a signal for me to stop, from Cole, the foreman shunter.
I stopped the engine at once, and looked in the direction of No 5 siding, when I saw the deceased on the ground. The deceased had been repairing the line with other workmen. I was just shunting back as the 3.22 Lynn train was passing. I did not whistle. I thought the road was clear, as it was when I shunted out. I looked out to see if anyone was on the line before I shunted back again. I saw no one. Not more than a minute elapsed before I went out of the siding, reversed the engine, and returned.”
A juror said, “It was the shunting road that was being repaired”
A juror then asked, “How far would the last wagon be clear of the deceased when he went again to his work?” Collins replied: “Not more than six or seven yards.”
Robert Trewell, railway labourer of Walton, said: “I am a railway labourer in the employ of the Midland Railway Company. I was at work yesterday at the shunting road of the Wisbech sidings, New England, repairing the crossing. I, together with the deceased, had been repairing the crossing and was filling it up again at the time of the accident. I went on to work directly Collins had shunted out of the siding. I did not see or hear the engine and waggons returning until someone called, “Look out, Jim,” and I had just time to get out of the way, when Spridgeon, who was also at work with me, was knocked down by one of the waggons. He fell with his head and body outside the line. I saw that his legs, which were across the line, were much hurt. I helped to put him in a waggon, and went to the Infirmary with him. The deceased had been in the employ of the company for about four years.”
A juror asked: “Were you both working together when the accident occurred?” Trewell replied: “Yes, but I was outside, and he was inside the four-foot-way.”
The Foreman said: “We did not take any notice of the waggons coming back. As soon as they backed we commenced working.” A juror added: “If I had been in the four-foot-way at the time, like the deceased was, I should have been killed also. As the engine went up the bank we both commenced work.”
Another juror asked: “Is it usual for you to go on working when a train has only gone on a few yards?” Trewell replied: “I thought it had gone further up the embankment, or we should not have done so.”
George Harris, foreman platelayer, of Marholm, said: “I live at the Marholm gatehouse, and was in charge of five men who were employed repairing the road near the Wisbech sidings. The deceased man, Spridgeon, was one of them. I saw the accident happen. It was about twenty minutes past three. I saw Collins go out of a siding. He had just time to reverse his engine when he returned. The next thing I saw was the deceased’s legs between the wheels of the wagon. I called to the men when Collins came out of the sidings. They all stood clear of both roads. I did not call out when the engine was returning, as I did not think any of the men would be silly enough to go on to the line whilst the engine was on the point of returning.”
A member of the jury stated: “Two men went to work as the shunting engine went out. They should not have done it. The deceased was perfectly sober, and a good workman. In my opinion the noise of the Wisbech passenger train drowned the noise of the shunting train.”
The Coroner then proceeded to sum up, saying that the occurrence was one of those unfortunate accidents which did happen upon all railways. He added that it was regrettable that the driver of the engine did not whistle whilst he was shunting.
After some discussion, the jury gave their verdict. A Juror (Mr Claypole) expressed the opinion of the majority of the jurors, stating that he could not see that the engine driver was in any way to blame. He had only shunted out about a minute, and therefore had just reason to expect that no-one would have got on to the line to work in that short time.
The jury returned a verdict of accidental death. The jury and witnesses gave their fees to the widow.
The accident was recorded in the Midland Railway Company’s accident book – with errors – which stated that the accident took place at Wisbech, and James, a platelayer, was knocked down and killed by a shunting engine whilst repairing 3 “throws” and the inquest verdict was “accidental death”.
What happened to Eliza?
In 1881 Eliza and ten-month-old Mary were living at Church Street, Werrington. Visiting at the time of the census was her niece, thirteen-year-old Ann E Wright; Eliza’s father Robert and three of her brothers lived a few doors down the road.
On 30 October 1882, just over two years after the death of her husband, Eliza married 33-year-old Isaac Manning, a farm labourer, at Werrington. This may have been to some extent a marriage of convenience, as Eliza was a widow with a two-year-old daughter and Isaac was a widower with two sons aged eight and two. Isaac’s first wife had died on 12 May 1882, so he remarried less than six months afterwards.
Sadly James and Eliza’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth Spridgeon, died in Werrington of scarlet fever on 21 March 1884. Her death was registered by Sophia Fox of Werrington who was present at the death but does not seem to have been a relation.
The family later moved to Red Top Farm, Cants Drove, Murrow, near Wisbech. Eliza and Isaac Manning went on to have another six children together between 1885 and 1895, two of whom died young. By 1911, Isaac had risen to the position of farm bailiff.
Isaac Manning died in the Wisbech area in 1929, aged 80, and by 1939 Eliza had returned to Peterborough, where she died in 1944 at the age of 86.
I like to think she had a good life after the deaths of her first husband and daughter.
I was inspired to research and write this account of James’ fatal accident after hearing a talk by Mike Esbester, of the University of Portsmouth, about the Railway Work, Life & Death project. The project aims to make it easier to find out about railway worker accidents in Britain and Ireland from the late 1880s to 1939. Working on the railways one hundred years ago was incredibly dangerous, with hundreds killed and tens of thousands injured each year. You can learn more about the project, access the accident database, and find out about some of the accidents elsewhere on the project’s website.
Rosie Rowley (@MaccHistorian)
Although she gave up learning history at school as soon as possible, Rosie has been a keen local and family historian since the 1980s. She has volunteered for several family history societies over the years and is currently the journal editor for the Family History Society of Cheshire. She enjoys contributing to collaborative projects, most recently researching the lives of almost one thousand men named on over sixty Macclesfield WWI war memorials and adding the data to the Cheshire Memorial Roll website (www.cheshireroll.co.uk).
A former computer programmer for British Rail, Rosie still has a soft spot for railways and also enjoys knitting, birdwatching, and visiting museums; occasionally she finds the time to research her own ancestors.
Paston Parish Baptism register (Ancestry)
GRO Birth, Marriage, Death indexes
GRO Death Certificate for Mary Spridgeon, 1884
England & Wales Census, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1901, 1911 (Ancestry/FindMyPast)
Peterborough and Huntingdonshire Standard, 14 and 21 August 1880 (FindMyPast)
Inquest into the death of James Spridgeon, Ref PCI/0597 (Northamptonshire Archives; now held at Peterborough Archives)
UK, Railway Employment Records, 1833-1956 (Ancestry)
1939 Register (FindMyPast)