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Reading goods

Last week I attended an interesting workshop at the University of Reading, looking at the history of freight transport. It touched upon all modes of transport, though rail featured extensively – and occasionally safety issues cropped up, like the photograph of workers on top of a container, trying to secure a load that was in danger of coming off a wagon. Goods handling was a risky part of railway work – being a goods guard, for example, was one of the most dangerous grades. I therefore thought it might be interesting to have a look through the project spreadsheet to see what might turn up for Reading, related to freight accidents.

Of the seven cases, six related to goods working in some way. Today I want to focus on just one of these cases: that of Walter Rudman, engine driver on the Great Western Railway, injured on 28 July 1914. This is a date which is now remembered as the one on which Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, effectively starting the First World War – though these concerns were far away from Reading at just after 3pm that day.

1924 LMS safety booklet, on dangers of riding on wagons

The manoeuvre Rudman and his fireman, Jesse Clargo, were to perform was a routine, if rule-bound, shunt: taking wagons from the Great Western’s high level yard down the incline to the South Eastern & Chatham’s exchange sidings. We’ve already got a potentially dangerous scenario, as the incline required careful speed control, especially when moving 32 loaded wagons as in this case: drivers had to be prepared to bring their train to a halt at the points at the foot of the incline if so indicated by the low level ground signalman. This shunt was further complicated by various other practical arrangements, as well as the split jurisdiction between the two companies – the report helpfully gives us an extensive quote from the particular regulations covering movements between the two levels.

Of particular relevance here is rule 13, which told workers that ‘in every instance where wagons are taken up or down the incline the Shunters accompanying the Train must walk alongside the wagons prepared to put down brakes [i.e. apply them] as required. Before starting from High Level to Low Level sufficient Brakes must (in every case) be fixed down by the Shunters to require the Driver to use steam to draw the Train down the incline.’

The next line of the report is revealing: ‘In this case only one wagon-brake was pinned down before the train started from the top of the incline, and Rudman was unable to keep the train under proper control.’ The shunters were riding on a shunting truck in front of the engine, contrary to the rules, and when Rudman shouted to them to apply more brakes they jumped off and started putting the brakes on as the wagons passed. Rudman then saw that the line he was on was (as was permitted by the rules) already occupied by some wagons, so he then left the engine and went to help pin the brakes down. However, he ‘stumbled over a rail and fell to the ground, dislocating his right shoulder and bruising his right hip’ – though it could have been a lot worse. In the end, although the shunting truck struck the wagons, no damage was done.

Inspector JH Armytage concluded that failure to observe the special regulations for working the inline was the issue, with responsibility resting largely on head shunter Charles Blackmore. That said, Rudman and the low level ground signalman were also identified as blameworthy (1914 Quarter 3, Appendix B). As always, we might want to consider why the employees acted in the way they did – whether it was laziness, an over-confident belief in their ability to stop the train, time-pressure or something else sadly isn’t revealed by this report. My suspicion is the personal testimony, if only it had been either recorded or kept, might be slightly more revealing and what we end up with in the reports is a slightly sanitised version of events. Unfortunately we will never know – but either way, we have in this (and the other reports touching on freight work at Reading, and beyond, a reminder of the dangers of goods work.

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