King’s Cross accidents

On 14 October 2022, King’s Cross station in London will be 170 years old. To mark this anniversary, this week’s blog post looks at accidents at King’s Cross and in the associated area. It gives an impression of how our project database can be used, to build a picture of the operation of a single location or area – a sort of local history for the railway.

Schematic map of the lines leading into and around King's Cross, including graphics showing number of injuries and fatalities found in the project database for each location.

Railway Clearing House map of the King’s Cross area, showing number of casaulties and the severity.

 

In the database we have 46 cases with a location that involves King’s Cross. We’ll discuss some of those, including the different locations, shortly – but firstly it’s worth noting that for a location as large and with as many movements as King’s Cross, 46 accidents might seem like a small number. Looking at the nearby terminals, Euston appears 23 times in the database; St Pancras and its environs, 47 times. Why so few?

In reality, there would have been many, many more accidents at each of these locations, including King’s Cross. We don’t know enough about how the state accident inspectors decided which cases to investigate, but it’s suspected that they chose cases spread across a range of locations and in a range of types, where they might be able to see cases as ‘typical’ enough to provide instruction to avert future accidents of a similar nature. So, we might suspect that the King’s Cross accidents that were investigated and appear in our database were representative of others at this location and more widely.

 

‘King’s Cross’ in the accident reports – and therefore in our database – also covers a multitude of sins. It includes the passenger station as we’d perhaps think of it now (10 accidents), but also the ‘suburban station’ (1), the goods and coal depots (15), gas works and Copenhagen tunnels (3), loco shed (2), York Road station (3), Belle Isle (3), underground locations (3) and other locations (6). There’s quite a wide geography here, as the extract from the Ordnance Survey map shows.

Ordnance Survey map of the King's Cross railway infrastructure.

Ordnance Survey map of the King’s Cross railway infrastructure, stitched together – imperfectly! – from several maps, c.1913.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

 

Here we’ll only give an indication of the riches found within the database, looking in brief at a few of the cases – for more detail and more cases, you’ll need to explore the database. In our period, the King’s Cross complex was operated by the Great Northern Railway (GNR) until the 1923 grouping of railway companies, after which it was within the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER)’s system.

Starting at the mainline passenger station, we have a sense of the 24-hour nature of the railway network. At just past midnight on 8 October 1907, GNR carriage cleaner Leonard Moggeridge, 37, was working on a ladder. It was hit by a carriage being shunted and he was thrown to the ground, spraining his left wrist. According to Inspector Amos Ford’s report, Moggeridge should have taken more precautions setting up his ladder, and a look-out should have been provided to keep watch. It was noted that a look-out was provided during the day – but one should also be provided at night (1907 Quarter 4, Appendix C).

Posed safety image, showing a ladder positioned in the railway track, with a man working up the ladder, and a train approaching which would hit the ladder.

Posed staff safety image about a similar issue, to do with the ladder and risk from passing trains.

 

We see operational detail in the reports too; practice long-since superseded but crucial at the time. On 3 October 1914, GNR number-taker Stanley Banks, 17, was at work at the suburban station. His role was to record numbers of engines and carriages entering the station, to help the Company keep track of what was where. As he reached one of the slopes leading up to the platform, he caught his left foot against some woodwork and fell onto his left knee, injuring it slightly. Inspector John Hornby’s report recorded that since the accident, the woodwork had been made level with the stone platform (1914 Quarter 4, Appendix C).

Moving north of the main passenger stations, we reach York Road. Here on 7 December 1927, LNER driver H Digby was a victim to his desire to ensure the trains kept moving, and were done so safely in a complex environment. He saw an ‘all clear’ repeater signal, but ‘was anxious’ to ensure he had seen the correct signal serving the converging LNER and Metropolitan Railway lines. He leant out of the cab as the gas works tunnel narrowed to only 15 inches clearance between wall and engine. He hit his head on the tunnel side. Whilst the injury could have been fatal, on this occasion it was ‘comparatively slight’ – however, he was (understandably) dazed and fell to the cab floor. Inspector JLM Moore made some technical recommendations about the provision and siting of signals to lessen the risk to staff in the future – though as ever, we don’t know if these recommendations were carried out (1927 Quarter 4, Appendix B).

 

Moving north again, as we might guess, goods handling exposed staff to plenty of dangers, with lots of movements going on, in often noisy and cramped environments. On 21 January 1907, GNR goods porter Edward Abrahart, 26, was in the goods station, to the north of Regent’s Canal. To save lengthy walks around between platforms, movable bridges were provided, which could be wheeled across tracks at particular locations. As Abrahart was taking a load across one of these bridges, some wagons were moved along the lines he was crossing. They knocked the bridge down – in the process, bruising Abrahart’s jaw. Inspector Ford’s inquiry concluded that the shunter concerned hadn’t given sufficient warning of the movement and was therefore responsible (1907 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

Six of the 46 cases investigated took place in 1907. It wasn’t necessarily that 1907 was a particularly dangerous year for King’s Cross – it might reflect other factors. Six cases were also investigated in 1901, but then nothing until a single case in 1904; after which nothing until the 1907 cases. Was there a cyclical nature to investigation, then?

Black and white photo of King's Cross goods shed interior. A man stands beside a pile of rope and a capstan, about to move a wagon.

c.1950s photo inside the King’s Cross goods shed, showing a capstan about to be used.
Courtesy National Railway Museum.

 

Whatever the reason for this cluster of cases, our next example comes once again from 1907, and again relates to goods working. On 16 September 1907, rope puller Alfred Prior was taking a message through the goods station. He was warned to keep clear of a movement about to take place using a capstan – a mechanical device to which a rope was looped around and then attached to a wagon with a hook, to pull a wagon without needing a locomotive. Prior ignored the warning, and was struck by the loose end of the rope and thrown against a wall, sustaining injuries which proved fatal. Whilst Inspector JH Armytage found Prior should have exercised greater caution, he also noted that the capstan should be able to release the tension on the rope more rapidly, and that the GNR’s attention should be drawn to this (1907 Quarter 3, Appendix B).

Whilst we’re now further out from King’s Cross station in its strictest sense, the cases in our database that were in the locale were still attached to King’s Cross. This included those cases at Belle Isle, like the accident to GNR fireman Leonard Durham, 21, on 6 September 1921. As in driver Digby’s later case, Durham was leaning out of the footplate to spot signals; on this occasion he was hit by the open door of a carriage on an adjacent line. Inspector William Cooke’s investigation concluded that the lock on the door failed, and before the guard of the train could get to it, Durham had been hit (1921 Quarter 3, Appendix C).

Posed staff safety photo, showing a worker crossing from behind one train - into the path of another.

1930s staff safety warning about the dangers of being on and around the track as trains were passing.

 

Finally, on 16 July 1934, ganger G Harger was working on the tracks near Copenhagen Tunnel. He stepped into the path of an engine and was knocked into the tunnel, receiving injuries from which he died the next day. Apparently he hadn’t heard the engine coming, probably as a result of a passing express service. He seems to have been working on his own at this busy location, as Inspector JLM Moore’s report noted that arrangements had since been made for track workers to sign on at York Road station and then proceed under the protection of a look-out, rather than cross lines individually (1934 Quarter 3, Appendix B).

From this overview and selection of King’s Cross cases found within our project database, we can see some of the challenges and dangers faced by railway staff in the past. There’s more to be said about each case noted, of course, and about the other cases which we haven’t highlighted. Combined what we hope they will do is give you a better impression of what went on in order to keep the trains moving in and around King’s Cross in the past. As we reach the 170th anniversary of the passenger station’s opening, it’s worth remembering the staff who made the station work – especially those who were hurt in the process.

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