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Misadventure in the Union Accident Data

One of the main causes of injury or fatality frequently recorded in the RWLD database is by ‘misadventure’. However, as anyone who has explored the database will know, this term covers a plethora of circumstances and unfortunate incidents. The legal definition of ‘misadventure’ is an accidental death caused by a person while legally performing an act without negligence or intent to harm. However, this definition was arguably stretched to cover a range of cases, as inquest proceedings reveal. Some accounts also suggest that there were not suitable safety measures in place at that time and that these accidents could have been mitigated against. This blog post looks into some such cases in our database to try to understand why the term so frequently appears. 

In our previously published accounts of the Railway Inspectorate reports in our database several cases of ‘misadventure’ are found. One account that stood out was that of Eli Ince who, at the age of 34, was crushed while working in the Cambridge engine shed of the Great Eastern Railway (GER) on 12 January 1900. His accident was judged as a case of ‘misadventure’ by the Inspectorate; however, some fault was also seen in the layout of the engine shed. This unfortunately is quite a typical case from within this section of the database. See details of his accident below … 

This was not just a typical accident but somewhat frequent. Just two days after Ince’s accident Mr William Taylor, a horse shunter at Victoria Station in Norfolk, was also injured. He was with ‘Horse Lad’ WM Goldman at the time, working together to move a wagon with two horses. “Taylor went in the 4-foot way to uncouple the horse-chain from the wagon draw-bar hook when his foot was caught by the point blade. He managed to extricate his foot, but his heel was caught by the wagon wheel”. Records show William was 24 years old at the time and only spent a week off work recovering from his injury. 

Two staged photographs from a 1920s accident prevention booklet, showing a shunter stepping over the rails in safety, and another with his foot trapped in points in front of an oncoming train.
Stated accident prevention photograph, showing a similar issue to that of William Taylor – a foot, stuck in the track by a pair of points.

Taylor’s case strongly resembles those in Union records of non-fatal compensation claims, where time off work due to injury could be supported by a granted amount over a period of time. Sadly there was no corresponding account of a William Taylor in the recently added Union data. The only Taylor for the year of 1900 was a Mr B Taylor, carman for the Midland Railway, who received an injury to his leg in May 1900 whilst working in Birmingham. He returned to work in October but received £50 in compensation (around £5,750 today) and return of his expenses.

We would like to explore the relationship between the records of the recently added Union records and the previously added data from the Railway Inspectorate (1900-1939) and the GER Benevolent Fund (1913-23) to see if individuals or accidents appear in multiple locations within our database.

Cases of ‘misadventure’ on the railway often lack a level of descriptive detail in our Union accident data. Finding out what happened requires further research into historic accounts to reveal a clearer picture of the incident. Linking to other data entries would be useful to achieve this. External sources significantly enrich our understanding, and newspaper records are particularly useful. This was the case in the following case study of ‘misadventure’ that we showcased in our Twitter contributions to Rail Safety Week 2023. 

Rail Safety Week 2023 image from our twitter @RWLDproject for Monday 26th June headlining the day’s theme of ‘misadventure’.

Records of Union representation at inquests into accidents document the fatal injury of Mr W Walker on 21 November 1914 in the small village of Nantyderry, Monmouthshire, in southern Wales. Not a railway employee but ‘a farmer,’ a verdict of ‘misadventure whilst trespassing on the railway’ was reached. However, little detail into the accident is captured from the Union’s March 1915 quarterly report from which the account was transcribed. With additional searching a more rounded picture of events has been found. 

Further intrigue in the case was found when one Twitter user replied to us with a clipping from the Western Mail newspaper report from 26 November 1914. The report adds more detail but still alludes to the mystery of the accident with the assumption he was knocked down by an engine. However, how he came to be stood on the platform with a brace of pheasants to then being found a quarter of a mile down the line remains a mystery. 

William Charles Walker, 45. farmer, of Pcnwern Farm, Goytrey. Western Mail 26 November 1914

Thanks to this input from our Twitter community and the work of local historians online we have been able to find more information about Mr Walford and his family. The Gytre local history blog holds a brilliant record of the dwellings in the local parish and details of those who once leased and occupied the buildings. Ty Hir (Long House, Plot NO.692 on the 1841 Tithe Map) is here recorded to have been given to new tenant William Walker some time between 1895-1897. Matching records with the census of 1900 Walker appears as a 34 year old farmer who was born in Llangattock, and married to his wife Mary (33). There are no children recorded. The Parish history notes the burial at Chapel Ed of William Charles, their 11 month old son who had died a short time after they had moved to the village in 1897. However, in the course of the first ten years of the 20th century they would have 5 surviving children, all born in Goytrey. 

1841 Tithe map of the parish of Goytrey. Attribution: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales (see here).

From a brief description of a railway accident to an account of rural life at the turn of the 19th century, this record is far more than one of simple ‘misadventure’. The tragic accident is not just the recorded loss of a farmer and his brace of pheasants but also of a father and husband. The local history blog notes only a simple line of his death on the railway line in November 1914, some short time after William moved away from his family to Penwern farm for work. Perhaps his reason for being at the train station was to make his return to his family that Saturday evening. His wife and children presumably remained living at the house until the next year when new tenants were occupying the Walker’s former abode of Ty Hir. But what befell William’s family?

We hope that we may be able to find out more from our records and gather further information like this that enriches our understanding of the dataset. In this way the ‘data’ becomes more than just entries in a spreadsheet but can be understood as glimpses into the life histories of those working on or using the railway, and used to expand and enrich research. It opens up much wider questions, including about public safety measures on the railway, historically as well as today. 

With many cases of death by ‘misadventure’ on the railway in our archive there are untold circumstances and stories that we (and hopefully you) would be interested in exploring. For instance, Mr W Betts’ death is recorded in 1904 as ‘misadventure’ with little additional information except for his union membership. Recorded within the Union Death Claims in our database, Mr Betts had been a member of the Retford branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants for 6 years. He joined not as a young boy but as a man at least 50 years of age. He was working on the Great Central Railway by the time of his death. It begs the question if he had always been a railwayman, what spurred him to join the Union at that point? Through a record of tragedy we also get a glimpse into the life of so many who worked on the railway.

We hope to continue research into our recently added Union accident data and discover more stories through the enrichment of its contents. If you are interested please explore our database here and contact us to share any findings from your exploration of cases!


Daisy Turnbull

I’m a Research Assistant on the Railway Work, Life & Death project and a current PhD student at the University of Portsmouth, looking at shipwrecking in Britain and Sweden.

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