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‘Never even blew me cap off!’: Railway Grouping & accidents pt 1

Cartoon, showing an explosion with the words 'amalgamation upheaval' and a railwayman in GWR uniform springing from it, with other railway workers thrown out, under the caption 'A survival of title'. The man says 'Hooray! Never even blew me cap off!'
Cartoon from the South Wales News, showing the perceived impact of the Grouping on the Great Western Railway, the only one of the new ‘Big Four’ companies to retain an old title.


On 1 January 1923 a new era of British railway history began. Following state direction of the industry during and after the First World War, a rationalised structure was imposed upon the railways of England, Scotland and Wales. Around 120 railway companies were merged into four major concerns – the ‘Big Four’ of the Southern Railway (SR), the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS). Today’s post looks at the ‘Grouping’ in terms of staff accidents.

Much of our new data release, found in our free database of accidents to British and Irish railway workers, covers the Grouping era (1923-1947). Whilst our coverage stops in 1939, it still includes 8,145 cases. Clearly, then, staff accidents didn’t stop happening simply because the number of companies was significantly reduced.

Thinking about the process of Grouping, it’s worth saying it was a planned and reasonably long-term process. The Act of Parliament enabling the merger was passed in August 1921; various proposals for reorganising the industry had been floated for the preceding year and a half. Some of the mergers took place before 1923, too – the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (L&Y), for example, was absorbed into the London and North Western Railway in 1922. This means the final L&Y accident appearing in the project database occurred on 12 December 1921. Likewise, the Taff Vale Railway (TVR) was brought into the GWR in 1922, meaning we have a 1922 accident appearing as ‘Taff Vale (Great Western) Railway.’ (The GWR was the only one of the Grouped companies that existed before the merger, effectively carrying on and absorbing the companies that came into it, reflected in the cartoon above. The other three companies were new creations.)

Essentially, however, it appears it was ‘business as usual’ for accidents. The final case from a company that was to be grouped was that of 17 year-old William Payne. He worked for the Great Central Railway, which became part of the LNER. On 30 December 1922 he was at work in Nottingham, as a ‘greaser’ – someone who applied grease to wagon axle boxes, to ease the friction caused by movement and ensure they didn’t catch fire. He was about an hour into his 12-hour shift when the accident occurred. Though it was unwitnessed, Inspector William Worthy Cooke concluded that Payne had shown a ‘want of caution’ by going between two wagons. He had been crushed between them. His body was found at 7.20pm between the tracks of the siding he’d been working in (1922 Quarter 4, Appendix C).

There would have been other accidents later that day and on 31 December 1922 – just as there would have been more cases on 1 January 1923. However, as these weren’t investigated by state officials, they don’t (currently!) appear in our database. That means the first case we have in the Grouped era occurred on 2 January 1923. The LNER has the dubious honour of starting the new period.

Posed staff safety photos and accompanying text, showing a railwayman bending over near a point lever. The lever springs back and hits him when a train runs over the points.
Posed staff safety photos, showing another danger from point levers.


Shunter John Hanes, 32, was working at Armley, Yorkshire. Just before 7am, whilst changing a pair of points, his hand slipped – no doubt as the point lever was wet, due to the falling rain. He lost his balance, falling face down between the point lever and the balance weight, suffering an abdominal rupture (1923 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

Several other LNER accidents were investigated, before the first from another new company: the LMS. On 3 January 1923, goods guard George Morris, 46, was involved in shunting at Mirfield, Yorkshire. As the engine approached a wagon he took the weight of the engine coupling on his shunting pole. The hook slipped as he was about to throw the coupling over the drawbar and his forefinger and thumb were crushed between the buffers. Inspector Cooke found Morris responsible, as he broke the Company rule about not coupling before stock was stationery (1923 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

There’s a bit of a gap before the appearance in the records of the final new company, the SR. On 10 January 1923, shunter Frederick Harmer, 23, was at work at Three Bridges in Sussex. He was assisting two colleagues, when he seems to have slipped from boarding that was covering signal wires. Ironically, this boarding was designed to prevent dangers of tripping over the wires. Harmer fell onto the buffer of the last of six wagons, just as it was closed up with the other wagons, crushing him fatally. Inspector Amos Ford found the position of the boarding and the wires to be the causative factor, and recommended that they were moved (1923 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

Wagons being coupled using a pole.
Posed GWR accident prevention image, showing the coupling pole in use (and one danger it posed). The hook is around the coupling, seen towards the bottom of the image.


And for measure, the first GWR staff accident in our database appears on 12 January 1923. Goods guard James Collins, 44, was working at Lonlas sidings, Glamorganshire, Wales. He was trying to couple two moving wagons to a rake of 29 other wagons, when he slipped on the end of a sleeper. It appears he caught his hand and the coupling pole between the buffers of the wagons as they came together. The fore finger on his left hand was crushed. Inspector Cooke held him responsible, for disregarding the Company rule about not coupling moving vehicles (1923 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

It’s indicative of the dangers that railway staff faced that these four immediate post-Grouping accidents were all to grades connected with freight handling, involving working amongst moving trains. How representative was this, as a cross-section of staff accidents? On one level, not necessarily representative, as we’ve simply selected them by ‘virtue’ of their being the first case in the database for each company. On the other hand, these cases were selected as being worthy of investigation by the state inspectors. Presumably it was felt they offered some points from which learning could be taken – possibly because they were fairly typical events.

We’ve started this look at accidents and safety at the time of Grouping by looking at some of the specific accident cases. In our next blog post, we’ll take a rather wider view, and consider what the accidents in our database might tell us about safety cultures 100 years ago, and the impact that Grouping had on staff safety. As is often the case, it’ll raise more questions than answers!

1 Comment

  1. Pingback:How did Grouping affect staff safety? Railway Grouping & accidents pt 2 - Railway Work, Life & Death

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