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‘practically demolished’ – how not to rebuild your office!

The status of the north east as a producer of coal in the 19th and 20th centuries is well-known; it was one of the important sources of revenue for the railway companies, which vied with each other to build lines and facilities that would service a big income-stream. This included the construction of vast dock facilities, with rail-heads, to transfer coal into boats. These spaces might be extremely dangerous, something we’ve blogged about previously and cases from dock spaces appear in our database.

Tyne Dock and the 4 North Eastern Railway coaling staithes seen from the air, 1918.
Tyne Dock, as photographed in 1918 by Gladstone Adams.Image from Kevin Blair, courtesy of Dave Waller, from Tyne Tugs and Tug Builders (

The North Eastern Railway’s Tyne Dock was opened in 1859, covering around 50 acres. It was extremely busy – in 1913 it exported 7 million tons of coal, via a series of 4 ingenious staithes. They were worked by gravity, both onto and off the staithes, avoiding the need for engines or horses to move wagons and no doubt therefore saving time and money. It was here that the accident happened, on 27 January 1914.

Tyne Dock in 1913 – general overview.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.
Tyne Dock in close up.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

At about 7.30pm, 13 loaded wagons were being moved onto No 3 jetty. At the same time, another move was being made, involving 33 loaded wagons. The shunter was unable to stop those wagons, which then hit the rake of 13 wagons. Four wagons were derailed ‘and were forced against the assistant staith-master’s office, which was practically demolished.’

Tyne Dock from the air, 1928. The loading staiths can just be seen to the extreme right of the image.
Courtesy Britain from Above.

How the accident happened tells us something about how railway roles and skills were learnt – very much ‘on the job.’ Inspector JH Armytage investigated, finding ‘a combination of adverse circumstances’ were involved. In order to get the wagons moving, the shunter had to take 18 of the 20 brakes off. Whilst he began to re-apply them as soon as the wagons were moving, he could not prevent the wheels slipping on greasy rails, and was unable to apply the final 4 brakes. Armytage noted that ‘It is possible that a more experienced man […] would have appreciated the fact that the conditions were somewhat exceptional.’ There was evidently no-one to advise or help at this location, so the shunter was expected to learn the ropes for themselves.

Of course, there’s a serious side to the incident, hence it appearing in our database. The office was occupied at the time, by jetty foreman Thomas Ellis and jetty clerk George Milburn. Perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘both men sustained severe shocks, together with injury to the muscles of their backs’ – but it could have been a lot worse. Clerical workers don’t frequently appear in our database, largely because their work exposed them to relatively fewer dangers – and those dangers tended to result in less serious outcomes. Being in an office demolished by runaway wagons must surely have been extremely unusual!

The area was, in Armytage’s view, unsuitable for the office anyway, as he recommended some changes to the site. The NER had already decided not to put the office back in the same place, but Armytage asked the Company to consider putting another railway line in to give access to/ from the jetty (1914 Quarter 1, Appendix B). This would have eased the chance of collisions and improve efficiency (surely a winning argument with the railway companies). It’s hard to tell for sure from the available maps, but it doesn’t look like that change was adopted.

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