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Rule-breaking and its consequences – 1

In most cases, the people judged (by the companies or the Railway Inspectors) to have caused an accident were the ones who suffered. Presumably this was deemed punishment enough for any rule-breaking, as the state reports rarely make reference to any sanctions being imposed – though the company records may record this, as it was an internal disciplinary matter.

Nevertheless, there are some occasions within the Railway Inspectors’ reports where we get a glimpse into the disciplinary aspects of railway accidents. Two cases are noted as resulting in the dismissal of staff involved – though importantly in both these cases, the person concerned wasn’t injured themselves. The first of these incidents occurred on the Great Northern Railway, at Derby loco shed on 13 May 1911. A little after 11am, engine cleaner Frank Fining moved a saddle tank engine about two yards ‘without any warning’. Presumably he didn’t know that fellow engine cleaner James Riggott was standing on the front of the engine, and so lost his balance, falling, with his foot bruised between the one of the engine’s buffers and the corresponding buffer of the wagon next to it.

As J.H. Armytage, the Inspector, noted ‘Fining had no right to move the engine under any circumstances, and the accident must be attributed to his misconduct. He has been dismissed from the service of the Company’ (1911 Quarter 2, Appendix B). What isn’t said is that engine cleaners (not yet ‘passed’ and therefore able to move engines officially) did move locos (even if under supervision) as a part of learning the ropes. This was no doubt known by those higher up the managerial structure and tolerated as necessary to keep the system working given the expected levels of efficiency whilst saving money. Only when it went wrong, as in this case, were the rules brought to bear and punishment inflicted. This raises all sorts of questions about who the rule book protected and how and why working practices were tacitly condoned. We need to read between the lines, carefully, if we’re to get at the lived experiences of railway workers.

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