Menu Close

John Hurrell – rushing on a platform

This week our blog features a guest post, from Marc Treloar, a 2nd year student at the University of Portsmouth. It’s particularly nice for us to include, as he and fellow student Archie McDermott-Paintin worked with project co-lead Mike to use project data and insight. They did this as part of their work on the History degree programme, in the new ‘Working with the Past’ module, which gives students experience of designing and leading their own projects. As Marc explains, he took a personal route into the subject of railway accidents – leading to this post.

Archie’s blog post appears here – and we’ll be launching a leaflet that Marc and Archie put together in a few weeks as well. In the meantime, thanks to Marc for this post!


I discovered the fairly brutal story of John Hurrell by first looking for railway accidents in and around Plymouth, my hometown. I was interested to see just how many accidents there are that I never knew about, something that seems to be the case for the rest of the country, too. One case I discovered was that of John Hurrell.

On 22 September 1860, John was out to dinner in Plymouth with a friend, when they swapped hats without realising the mistake. The friend went straight to the station for his train home; John decided to head into town to do some shopping before returning home. However, after picking up his shopping, John realised the error with the hats and wanted to retrieve his hat, so he returned to the train station to catch the same 7:10pm South Devon Railway Company service his friend was on.

Plympton station in the 1860s.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

John was only going as far as Plympton, his home town. When the train arrived, he got out, opened his umbrella (as it was raining) and put his parcels under his arm. He ran along the platform to find his friend, who was in one of the other carriages, to try to switch their hats. He found the friend ‘and was explaining the circumstance to him’.[1] John was heard to say ‘you could have known my hat by a bit of crape round it’.[2] By this time, the guard had blown his whistle and the train started moving.

1924 passenger safety poster about a similar issue, for the London and North Eastern Railway by artist Arthur Watts.

Despite being warned by his friend and, according to the accident report published by the Board of Trade, having his jacket grabbed by another passenger who said ‘stand back, old man, you’ll get knocked down’, John persisted in running along the platform. Just then, John collided with a post that was towards the end of the platform, and fell between the platform and the train. Being caught between the moving train and the platform, which was made out of wood, John’s arm was maimed and his spine received ‘severe injuries’.[3] Instead of dying outright there, John was transferred to a hospital, where he unfortunately passed away a few hours later, early in the morning.

Ironically, the post had been installed at the end of the platform as part of a wicket-gate, intended to stop passengers from crossing the lines on the level, and instead making them use the relatively recently installed footbridge. So – a safety measure actually caused the accident! The Board of Trade report recommended that these gates were removed.

Interestingly enough, not long after John died, there were reports of a railway guard almost succumbing to the same fate. This guard was ‘walking by the side of a moving train, speaking with someone in the rear’, but he was made aware of the danger and stopped short of walking into the post, as John had.[4] The fact that such a similar incident almost occurred a day or two after John’s death shows how some of the railway dangers for both passengers and those who worked there.

It was difficult to find information about John, as I was unable to find any records dating back before 1828. Because of this, the only concrete information I was able to find about John was from the Daily News article, where he is described as “over sixty years of age, was clerk to a benefit society at Plympton, and has left a widow and several grown-up children.”[5] From the few scant records I was able to find, it seems likely that John Hurrell was married either in 1858 or 1851. Unfortunately, the friend he was having dinner with at the time was not named in any article I could find, so we can’t find anything out about him.

Overall, it is fascinating to see how the story of John Hurrell is not more widely known, especially considering how it is a prime example of caution being required whilst on a train platform, something that railway companies have now been promoting for decades. I think that it points to how generally hazardous railways were during the 19th century. Sadly, there are undoubtedly many more cases like John Hurrell, who aren’t commonly remembered. Fortunately, the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project is helping to uncover those whose stories have been untold until now.


Marc Treloar

I am a 2nd year History student at the University of Portsmouth. I researched John’s case and put this blog post together as part of the ‘Working with the Past’ module.


[1] Daily News, 25 September 1860.

[2] Board of Trade accident report. (Courtesy the Railways Archive.)

[3] Daily News, 25 September 1860.

[4] Board of Trade accident report.

[5] Daily News, 25 September 1860.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.