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Railway Accident at Ivybridge Devon 1917

We’re delighted to welcome Sandra Gittens back to the project blog this week. Sandra is known for her research on – amongst others – the railways of the First World War. In the course of that work she’s uncovered a number of accidents to railway staff on military duty overseas, many of which she’s already been good enough to write up for us.

However, this post is rather different – and more personal. There’s still a First World War connection, but here Sandra looks at the railway worker accident story from her family past. Thankfully it wasn’t one of her ancestors who was directly involved – though of course that means another family suffered a tragic loss. Sandra’s family experience and the story captured in this blog post point to the lasting, wider, impacts of staff accidents. They didn’t just affect or live on in the memories of the immediate families of the people injured or killed, but had an impact on all sorts of communities to which the worker belonged – including of course the occupational community.

We welcome guest contributions to our blog – more on that here – so do feel free to get in touch with us!

Railway Accident at Ivybridge Devon 1917

My great grandfather, William Hannaford, was a ganger on the permanent way at Ivybridge, Devon, and for some considerable time I have been looking for evidence of a railway accident there. The story had been related to me by a relative, and I was told that the accident had happened as there was no look-out on duty. Possibly my great grandfather usually acted as look-out, which is why this accident had an impact on him. Quite by chance I came across this article in the Western Morning News from 1 February 1917:

An inquest was held, and reported in the same newspaper on the 5 February:

Mr T. Edmonds held an inquest at Ivybridge on Saturday on William Purdey, aged 63, widower of North Filham, Ivybridge, platelayer in the employ of the Great Western Railway Co. – Eli Lethbridge, platelayer, said on the morning of the 31st ult. he was working with deceased in a siding 8 feet from the up main line. They went across the main line to bring back a sleeper, which they put down in the 8ft way. When a Red Cross train passed on the down main line deceased was standing between the up main line and the siding, with his back towards an up train coming in another direction. Through the noise of the Red Cross train they did not hear the up train, which struck deceased on the head and knocked him down. – George Oliver, engine driver, Newton Abbot, said he was the driver of the up train due at Ivybridge at 11.10 am, which was driven to time. As they came to the siding the fireman blew the whistle, and said he believed they had knocked a man down. As they were practically in Ivybridge Station he did not stop the train until he arrived at the platform. Owing to the curve they could only see about 15 yards ahead. – William John Lyddon, fireman, said on coming round the curve he saw two men standing dangerously near the rail, and he at once jumped to the whistle. They were then about 15 yards distant, and it was impossible to avoid the accident. – Charles Matthews, checker, said he found Lethbridge with his arm around deceased, who was unconscious, with his head badly fractured. Witness rendered first aid, and assisted in removing deceased. Dr C.E. Cooper, Ivybridge, said the case was hopeless from the first. The man died the same evening without regaining consciousness. – The jury, of whom Mr W. Martin was foreman, returned a verdict of ‘Accidental death’. – Chief Inspector Poultney, of Plymouth, and Inspector Cook of Newton Abbot, represented the GWR Company at the inquiry. The deceased had been in the company’s employ over 43 years. 

Great Western Railway Ambulance Train (From: The Great Western Railway in the First World War, by Sandra Gittins.)

The GWR Inquiries and reports into accidents to staff 1916-18, available via Ancestry and in due course to be a part of the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project, read as follows:

Particulars of Accident:

Two packers were carrying sleepers across the running lines. They placed a sleeper between the up line and the adjacent siding and stood watching a train pass on the down line. They failed to notice a train approaching on the up line and one, who was slightly foul was struck by the engine and fatally injured. The up train fireman sounded the engine whistle immediately on observing the men, but his view was restricted by a cutting and a curve, and the warning was not given in time to enable the unfortunate man to stand clear. 

Result of Departmental Inquiry & Recommendation:

The ganger had not given instructions for a look-out man to be appointed as the men were not working on the running line but crossing it carrying sleepers.


William Purdey had lived in Ermington with his wife, but after her death he moved back to his birthplace of Ivybridge, and on the 1911 Census (where his surname is misspelt as Purdie) he is living next door to Eli Lethbridge, who he was working with at the time of the accident. 

It is sad to think that this accident was caused because he was distracted by the spectacle of an Ambulance Train; a train designed to save lives.

Ivybridge (Author’s Hannaford archive)


Sandra Gittins 

Read more of Sandra’s research on the RWLD here! 

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