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Manton Tunnel, 24 May 1924

John Cockerill

William Hibbert

George Buckby

Richard Shillaker

Thomas Shillcock


Five men, at work at Manton junction and tunnel, in Rutland, on Saturday 24 May 1924. John Cockerill and William Hibbert were to die as a result of the accident that day; George Buckby, Richard Shillaker and Thomas Shillcock would be injured.

Over the next five days, we’ll be posting a new blog each day, looking at the accident and its impacts, including on the men and their families. Importantly, to mark the centenary, we’ve been organising a small scale act of remembrance near the site, for descendants of the men involved and members of the railway community.

Period image showing two railway tracks entering tunnel with stone facade; cutting to either side. A railway worker stands on one side of the tracks; two men on the other.
Roughly contemporary image of Manton tunnel south portal. The hut can just be made out by the right hand side of the tunnel, and the two workers are stood near what appears to be the brickwork referred to in the accident. Courtesy National Railway Museum.

Collaborating to mark the centenary

This has been a collaborative effort. The research has started with the Railway Work, Life & Death project, but has involved all sorts of help from others. We’re grateful to all involved, including:

  • the descendants of the two of the men, and friends of those descendants;
  • Network Rail East Midlands Route;
  • the Railway Mission and the Railway Chaplain for the area, Colin Fraser;
  • the RMT Union;
  • Leicestershire & Rutland Family History Society;
  • Gordon Dudman;
  • Leicester Mercury and Rutland Times.

This is also an ongoing process, so if you have further information about the men involved or their families, we’d be very keen to hear from you.

Accidents to staff of this magnitude were unusual. Rather than five casualties at once, in particularly dramatic circumstances, most worker accidents occurred in ones or twos, in very mundane ways. The scale of the Manton accident therefore made it more visible than the ‘regular’ accidents which cumulatively killed and injured more people. Railway worker safety remains an issue to this day, and action is being taken to make improvements.

Much of the detail for today’s blog post comes from the Ministry of Transport report into the accident. It is summarised in the Railway Work, Life & Death project database of accidents to pre-1939 British and Irish railway employees.


Manton station, junction and tunnel

Manton was found on what was the Midland Railway – by 1924, the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) – line from St Pancras to Nottingham. It was the meeting point with the Midland’s route to Peterborough. This meant there was a junction, close to southern portal of Manton tunnel. The tunnel took the line under the village of Manton, a short walk from the station; the village of Wing was also nearby and served by Manton station.

Ordnance Survey map: countryside, cut through by two lines one running from the bottom northwards, the other from the east. Intersecting towards the top-left of the map, before entering the tunnel.
Ordnance Survey map c.1928, giving an overview of the junction. Manton village is just off-screen, over the tunnel; Wing can be see to the south.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

The lead up to the accident

At about 9am on 24 May 1924, track worker Richard Shillaker was filling around 40 lamps with naphtha – a type of fuel oil. The lamps were needed to illuminate relaying of one of the tracks in Manton tunnel, planned for the following day. Two steel barrels, ‘each of from forty to fifty gallons capacity’,[1] of naphtha were ‘stored in a rough sleeper hut close to the mouth of the tunnel’.[2] The lamps were refuelled on some bricks, around 10 yards from the hut.

The Railway Inspectorate report into the accident noted that it was ‘usual to keep one lamp burning in order to light and test each of the others in turn’. All the lamps were filled and tested ‘without incident.’ Shillaker’s next task was to go and work in the tunnel, so went to return some pliers to the fuel storage hut. Whilst he did so, he left the testing lamp burning on the brickwork.

Close up view of 1928 Ordnance Survey map of Manton junction and tunnel, showing two routes merging just before the tunnel mouth.
Detailed view of the junction and tunnel mouth.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

The explosions

As he entered the hut at about 11am ‘an explosion occurred which severely burned his hands and face and set fire to the hut itself.’ A signalman on duty in the nearby signal box saw this and raised the alarm. Nearby workers rushed to help but ‘while they were attempting to extinguish the flames a second and more violent explosion occurred’.[3] According to press reports ‘there shot across the front of the tunnel a huge mass of burning liquid’ which set fire to all those nearby.[4]

It was this second explosion which injured track workers George Buckby, Thomas Shillcock and John Cockerill, and coppersmith William Hibbert. Cockerill and Hibbert were to die of their injuries.


‘pluckily ran to his aid’

Press reports of the time gave a picture of the help that was offered to the injured: ‘Mr Slater, the stationmaster, pluckily ran to [Hibbert’s] aid and threw his mackintosh around him. Mr Slater himself narrowly escaped being burnt to death.’[5] Hibbert had rushed into the tunnel to try to escape the flames. First aid was rendered. Railway workers were often first aid trained – a recognition of the frequency with which they encountered accidents at work.

Photograph from 2017, looking out of Manton tunnel, towards the junction and signal box.
2017 image looking out of Manton tunnel, towards the junction and signal box.
Courtesy Network Rail.

According to the Peterborough Standard ‘the fire raged for two hours delaying traffic’[6] – the signalling system and telephone wires being destroyed. This block on communication meant that help could not summonsed from the closest source, Oakham cottage hospital. This was, of course, pre-NHS, so there was a mixed economy of medical provision. Hibbert was taken to Oakham cottage hospital by the 1pm train that day; sadly, he died at the hospital at about 6pm.[7]

In the absence of further medical advice at the scene, the four less seriously injured men were initially taken to their homes. Their doctors were called; Cockerill was ‘at once’ ordered to Stamford Infirmary. Shillcock was also sent to Stamford Infirmary, on the following day.[8] Shillaker was reported as being severely burned, though remained at home. George Buckby was considered less seriously injured.[9]


Reporting the news

Most railway worker accidents affected only one or two individuals and were unspectacular. As a result, they were, generally, not seen as newsworthy. If they involved a fatality they might be noted in the local press, particularly the coroner’s inquest. Typically, however, railway employee accidents received little, if any, attention.

The Manton tunnel accident was an exception. It was very unusual, in terms of its scale and its drama. This meant that not only was it reported locally, it made national papers too. The Daily News reported on the ‘five victims of hut explosion’[10]; the London Daily Chronicle told of ‘5 men ablaze through explosion’.[11] Needless to say, some of the reporting – particularly in the nationals – was rather breathless in tone: ‘Hibbert dashed from the building enveloped in flames’ was more restrained than some.[12] All of this means that we have rather more detail than usual available in the documentary record about the accident.


What caused the explosions?

Inspector JLM Moore could not ascertain a definite cause of the first explosion. He thought it possible that Shillaker has some inflammable material on his boots or clothing, which caught fire as he passed the lighted lamp on his way to the hut. According to this idea, when he entered the hut, this then ignited the fuel fumes. As a result Moore put the accident down to ‘misadventure.’ Interestingly he observed that despite the dangerous contents of the hut ‘no precautions against fire had been taken’. He called that this ‘should receive the early attention of the Company’[13] – though as ever, we don’t know if the LMS did anything about it.

There were ideas at the time that a spark or cinder from a passing train might have ignited the fuel.[14] We’ll see in a future post in this series that this has remained within the memory of George Buckby’s family. However, it was noted at the inquest into Cockerill’s death that the LMS official ‘gave details of the times of the passing of trains by the oil shed, apparently with the object of showing that there was no possibility of a spark from an engine having set fire to the structure’. The inquest jury added a rider to its verdict of accidental death ‘suggesting that the railway company should issue printed instructions to men engaged on duties such as Shillaker’s and also pointing out the danger of standing near the scene of a fire of such a nature.’[15]


Having considered the accident itself, in our coming blogs we’ll look at the men involved and their families, starting with the fatally injured: John Cockerill and William Hibbert.


[1] Grantham Journal, 31 May 1924, p.11.

[2] State accident report, 1924 Quarter 2, Appendix B.

[3] State accident report, 1924 Quarter 2, Appendix B.

[4] Grantham Journal, 31 May 1924, p.11.

[5] Daily News, 27 May 1924, p.5.

[6] Peterborough Standard, 30 May 1924, p. 12.

[7] Peterborough Standard, 30 May 1924, p. 12; Grantham Journal, 31 May 1924, p.11.

[8] Grantham Journal, 31 May 1924, p.11.

[9] London Daily Chronicle, 27 May, p.9.

[10] Daily News, 27 May 1924, p.5.

[11] London Daily Chronicle, 27 May, p.9.

[12] Daily News, 27 May 1924, p.5.

[13] State accident report, 1924 Quarter 2, Appendix B.

[14] London Daily Chronicle, 27 May, p.9.

[15] Nottingham Evening Post, 1 August 1924, p.6.

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  1. Pingback:Manton Tunnel fatalities: John Cockerill & William Hibbert - Railway Work, Life & Death

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