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Policing the line

As we’ve noted in the past, the railway companies didn’t just run trains – their interests extended much further. As a result, they employed all sorts of staff that might not seem obvious, extending into road haulage and shipping, for example, as well as they myriad roles that were needed to keep the engines and stock moving. They also needed to protect their interests – in our period, the role of the railway police, the forerunners of today’s British Transport Police. The railways carried lots of goods that were vulnerable to pilfering, something the railway police protected against, as well as maintaining order, enforcing by-laws and the like.

This means we have another grade of worker out and about in railway spaces, often in goods yards or docks, places more likely to be cluttered and to see frequent movement of good vehicles – high risk environments. Today’s blog post features a police constable on the North Eastern Railway, T. Crowe.

Map of High Shields in 1913
High Shields station in 1913.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps

On 6 June 1914, Crowe was on his way to start duty at High Shields, on the route into South Shields at the mouth of the river Tyne. He would have been working for 12 hours – though that included 3 hours for dinner and rest, seemingly quite a long period, but no doubt reflecting that he was on his feet patrolling for the remaining 9 hours. He was walking along a run of boarding, about 50 yards long, covering point rods at the east end of the station.

This kind of covering had been in place for some time in locations where there were lots of rods or signal wires. They were both trip hazards for staff, and essential to the operation of the railway, so the companies wanted to ensure their movement was not impeded. However, in many places where there were relatively few rods or wires, no covering was provided. This was until rules were introduced in 1902, in theory forcing the companies to cover trip hazards in places where staff were likely to be. This didn’t always happen, as in this blog post.

At High Shields, given the complexity of the location, it’s likely that the boards were in place before the rules were made. However long they’d been in, by June 1914 they were evidently loose: ‘one side of a board … gave way under the weight of his right foot, and when the other side rose his left foot came against it and was strained.’ Then, as now, slips, trips and falls made up a good proportion of accidents, even if the outcome was, in Crowe’s case, physically minor.

Inspector Charles Campbell investigated, finding the condition of the board at fault, but importantly noting that ‘since the occurrence, [it] has been secured.’ He was critical of the provision at this location: the ‘boarding generally is in a bad state of repair, but I am assured that it will be put in proper order as early as possible.’ As always with these reports, the frustrating thing is we don’t know if the remedy was put in place – there was no follow up (unless we find a repeat accident in the reports – in this case we don’t). With minor fixes like this, it was probable the companies would have done it, but with some more time-consuming and expensive remedies the companies were more likely to ignore the inspectors’ recommendations.

We’ll be returning to the railway police in the future, with a guest post about the death of a ground-breaking police constable on the Great Western Railway.

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