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One extra day – lots of extra accidents

A leap year and a leap day are always a bit unusual. Sadly for the railways they weren’t so unusual in terms of the accidents which occurred and which feature in our project database. It was very much just another day. Indeed, February 29th appears 48 times in our database, covering 1889-1939. One of the more dramatic of those cases is discussed in this blog post: the Woodhouse Junction crash of 1908.


Joining the Union

Some of those appearances in our database are not accidents. They appear where trade union activity continued unabated: recruitment. In the records of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS)/ National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) trade union, we have members who joined on February 29. They appear where they died at a later date and some form of benefit was provided by the Union.

This might be in the Death Fund data – a flat-rate payment of £5 made to dependents soon after a member’s death (from whatever cause). For example, we see Midland Railway fireman AFW Lack, who joined the Burton-on-Trent branch on 29 February 1908. He died of ‘flu on 12 January 1915, age 44.

In the Orphan Fund, discussed in more detail here, we find London and South Western Railway shunter WG Brown. He joined the Eastleigh branch on 29 February 1912 and died of pneumonia on 21 October 1918, age 30. He left four children. They received five shillings per week (equivalent to £14 at today’s prices). This was paid until each child was 14, with the sum being reduced as each child came off the fund.


Union member cases

More cases appear where a Union member died or was injured on 29th February. London and North Western Railway inspector G Lewis appears in the Disablement Fund. Discussed in more detail here, the Fund paid out when members were incapacitated. Incapacity was not necessarily through death or injury, however, as it could include ill-health or old age. The latter was the reason given for Lewis’ appearance in the records, aged 65. A member of the ASRS Swansea branch, he received a payment of £20 (around £2350 now) on 29 February 1908.

There are many people who appear in more than one of the datasets which make up our database. Two of them were killed together, on 29 February 1908: Timothy Doyle, 33, and William Needham, 23. They were shunters, employed by the Dublin and South Eastern Railway (DSER). On 29 February they were at Bray station. At 7pm, they were pushing a six-wheeled carriage on a track which crossed other lines. As they did so, a steam engine travelling tender first hit the carriage, which then ran over Doyle and Needham. Inspector JH Armytage’s report found that the men were moving the carriage without permission from the signalman. As a result he put the accident down to ‘their lack of caution’ (1908 Quarter 1, Appendix B).

Ordnance Survey map of Bray station area, showing station and line close to the sea.
Bray station area c.1910.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

From the Union records, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the DSER only paid the dependents of each man £25 (around £3100 now). Other compensation payments made for fatal accidents on 29 February 1908 were £300 and £206.0.6 – so why did Doyle and Needham’s families receive so little? Was it because they were deemed to have acted in ways which led to the accident? In other cases where workers were (by the standards of the time) deemed to bear responsibility for their accident we largely see no difference in the compensation payment.


Tunnel working

On 29 February 1936, Great Western Railway lengthman (track worker) TSG Grimes went to work with a colleague. The track they were to maintain was inside the Severn Tunnel. Tunnel working posed particular challenges (something discussed here and here), not least the dark, cramped and sometimes smoky conditions.

Cutting, with railway tracks at the foot, leading into a tunnel mouth.
Severn Tunnel, English entrance, 2007.
Courtesy Brett Palfrey, via Wikipedia.

At around 9am, Grimes and his un-named colleague accessed the Tunnel via the entrance on the English side, at Pilning, Gloucestershire. As the did so, they heard a train approaching. According to the Railway Inspectorate report, by Inspector JLM Moore, they stood back against the tunnel wall ‘adopting the customary practice of standing on one leg with the other foot against the wall to avoid getting wet from the damp wall.’

Without these reports, and our project database, we might lose sight of the particular experiences and challenges of railway work in a range of different environments. We can see the work-arounds that staff adopted to try to make their lives a little better. Unfortunately, we can also see the costs that these work-arounds sometimes had.

In Grimes’ case, he was lucky. The train struck his left knee – but he was only injured. He could easily have been drawn under the train and killed (1936 Quarter 1, Appendix B). The other four accidents in our database which occurred in the Tunnel were also injuries.


All told, on 29 February we see cases involving track workers, shunters, wagon repairers, footplate crew, guards, capstanmen, porters and more. Taking a look at one date like this, even an unusual one like 29 February, can show some of the typical people and accidents that happened on almost any given day in our database. Our project database is such a rich resource for railway work and railway workers, and really helps give better insight into working lives in the past.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback:“Good God! He will be into the coal train!” - Railway Work, Life & Death

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