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Leaving the kettle on

From time to time we might leave an appliance running whilst we’re doing something elsewhere – leaving the oven or kettle on, for example, when we’re not in the same room. It’s a pragmatic action, saving waiting time and enabling us to get on with something else.

On the railways the time pressure under which staff had to work might have compelled them to take similar shortcuts – sometimes with tragic consequences. One such case in our database resulted in the death of fireman Robert Stephenson, on the Great Southern and Western Railway (GSWR) at Inchicore, Dublin. Inchicore was home to the workshops and running sheds of the GWSR; it retains a strong railway link to this day, via the workshops which remain partially open.

Loco 198, involved in Stephenson's accident
Loco 198 at Inchicore works.
Courtesy Irish Railway Record Society.

On 1 February 1912, at 10.30pm, 20 year old Stephenson was helping driver M. Dunne move engines around the shed. Between them they were dealing with 3 engines in steam and another which was cold (i.e. not in steam). They were moving them from the coaling stage, which involved a series of awkward shunts, to the engine sheds. While Dunne was inside the shed, ‘Stephenson applied steam to engine No. 206 to join it to No. 198’, the engine not in steam, ‘and then jumped off the footplate to couple these two engines as they came together.’

The problem was, Stephenson left the regulator ‘wide open’ – that is, the handle that controls how much steam leaves the boiler and enters the cylinders, to make an engine move. As a result, ‘after he made the coupling he was knocked down in the five-foot way and run over by that engine and crushed between the ashpan and the ground, sustaining fatal injuries.’

Inspector JJ Hornby investigated. He was told Stephenson wasn’t supposed to be moving the engines – but also that ‘he had not been instructed to do so.’ Hornby attributed the responsibility to Stephenson: ‘Although his intentions may have been good, the responsibility for the accident appears to rest with himself’ (1912 Quarter 1, Appendix C). It’s important Hornby at least acknowledged the good intentions. I suspect that the vast majority of the cases in our database – indeed, of all staff accidents – were due not to some disobedient or malicious streak, but a very positive desire to keep the system running smoothly. This nudged staff to take risks and save time. Ninety-nine times out of 100 this chance might have paid off and allowed them to keep up with the expected level of efficiency. Tragically, though, we’re only dealing with the other one time in our project.

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