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Safety glass now – unsafety glass then

Recently in my household, we had an object lesson in how government regulations have helped improve our health and wellbeing – via one (big) pane of smashed safety glass. A glancing blow, with very little force behind it but obviously the right (or wrong, as you look at it!) angle, and the sheet shattered. Not in immediately dramatic style, as all of the glass stayed in the pane, but gradually over the following 2 hours we watched and heard it continue to shatter. Fortunately building regs mandated the use of tempered glass, protecting us from what might otherwise have been a nasty incident.

One sheet of shattered – but intact – safety glass!

Obviously the domestic and occupational settings are rather different, as is the contrast between present and past, but it made me wonder if we had an cases in our database involving glass dangers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are several. As far as can be determined, none involved safety glass – although as versions of safety glass had been around since at least the 1870s, it is possible that the railway companies might have used it.

For this blog post, we’re going to focus on just one case: that of 25 year old brakesman James Russell, injured at Hamilton in Scotland on 18 December 1914. Russell was working at the engine sheds; his brake van needed shunting into a siding. To save time ‘and so avoid delay’, Russell decided to ‘fly shunt’ the van into the siding. Fly shunting involved a loco pulling a vehicle (coupled together), with the shunter or brakesman uncoupling the two whilst they were still moving. The engine accelerated away from the vehicle, passing over points which were then changed to send the wagon or coach along the other line; the shunter or brakesman applied the vehicle brakes at the right moment to stop it in the position needed. This manoeuvre was more risky than other forms of shunting, as it required greater speed: driver and shunter had to think and move quicker to get the shunt completed and not block the lines.  It was a practice which had been a cause for concern since at least the 1870s – as we shall see.

Hamilton engine shed, c.1910
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

When it came to stopping the van, Russell ‘failed to apply the brake with sufficient firmness, and the result was that the vehicle ran sharply against other vans standing in the siding.’ As a result of the collision Russell lurched forward ‘and when his left hand went through one of the van windows his thumb was cut by the broken glass.’ It is unlikely that safety glass would ever have been used in a brake van like this – presumably this sort of contingency wasn’t to be anticipated in regular service – but had it been present there might have been a different outcome.

As it was, Inspector Charles Campbell went on to discuss some of the important points arising from the accident. Russell was firmly blamed for not applying the brake sufficiently. At the same time, that it was being fly shunted was also noted as something which ‘calls for attention. Fly-shunting is extremely dangerous, and as accidents are likely to occur so long as the practice is allowed’, Campbell recommended it should be ‘strictly prohibited’ by the Caledonian Railway Company (1914 Quarter 4, Appendix C).

Whether or not the Company followed this recommendation isn’t apparent – though given this was something which had been noted by the state as a problem since at least the 1870s, and yet the practice continued, it seems unlikely that much will have changed. The issues of cost and efficiency which had driven the industry since its inception were also clear in this case, as in the comment about fly shunting having been chosen to avoid delay. Other decisions – about what type of glass to use and the costs of different options – were less clear, but in this case had a bearing on the accident. Thankfully in my own experience we had no choice about the type of glass that was installed!


With thanks to William Barter & Gordon Dudman for the detail on what fly shunting involved – and trepidation that they both described having seen it being used in the 1980s.

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