Stapleton Road: the aftermath

Yesterday’s blog post looked at what happened in the 1921 Stapleton Road accident on the Great Western Railway (GWR). Today we turn to the institutional aftermath – before considering the individuals over the coming days.

We made reference to a report, produced by Railway Inspector JPS Main, for the Ministry of Transport (more on who Main was in this blog post). Whilst today it’s a given that all staff accidents are investigated, in 1921 that certainly wasn’t the case. All passenger train crashes were investigated – extensively. But only about 3% of all staff accidents were. Put simply, there were too many accidents and not enough inspectors (state-appointed accident investigators) – both of which reflected particularly political and economic priorities of the day (a story for another time!).

The Stapleton Road accident, though, was investigated. It’s a measure of the seriousness of the case that rather than the usual half page report, it warranted over 2 pages of comment. As well as covering what happened, and making broad remarks about the safety of permanent-way staff (detailed in yesterday’s blog), JPS Main also made some recommendations for future changes.

Some of these focused on the track workers. The idea of a automatically-appointed look-out for any track work was noted – but dismissed. Instead, gangers (the men in charge of permanent-way gangs) should ‘be educated up to their responsibilities [of deciding whether or not to appoint a look-out] […] and encouraged to make a free use of such protection whenever danger is likely to arise. It should be impressed upon them that it is the desire of the Company that the safety of the staff should be a paramount factor to consider.’

How seriously track workers would have felt that desire, or been free to appoint a look-out, is an open question – certainly not one that was addressed in the Ministry of Transport report. Experience on the ground might well have been quite different to the idealised position noted by Main.

All of this left the element of individual discretion with the ganger; today we would want to question the wisdom of this idea – but at the time the companies couldn’t be forced into mandatory look-outs. Other possible solutions – possessions, audible warning technologies for example – weren’t examined.

Focusing again on the men, Main’s report suggested that they ‘do not always thoroughly understand many of the rules.’ This smacks a bit of the ‘stupid working-classes’ – though undoubtedly the rules were complex, they were certainly written in an uncompromising tone, with often challenging language. Main suggested that rather than simply handing out rule books, ‘some system of instruction and periodical examination should be instituted to ensure that they have a thorough knowledge of the precautions it is desired they should take.’

Interestingly, current practice featured. Rules were either read by, or read out to, the track workers, but ‘the mere reading over of the rules by the ganger on a wet afternoon in a platelayers’ hut, and the signing of a statement to the effect that the rules have been read over, are not sufficient.’ In our research, railway staff – including platelayers – were highly literate, though there were definitely occasions when illiteracy played a part in accidents (as in these blogs). But the general point – the conditions and times at which men engaged with the rules affected how meaningfully they both understood and implemented them – was a sound one. Put simply, the rules were boring and at times difficult to understand.

Main made two further suggestions, one more radical than the other. Firstly, he noted that the GWR had issued ‘a most admirable booklet […] on “Safety First” principles’ – but also that it didn’t touch upon the protection of permanent-way men. This was ‘an omission which is somewhat remarkable, and a reference to the matter appears to be required.’

Secondly – and more controversially – Main recommended that staff were consulted when it came to making rules. This was something the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) was of course keen on – and something that GWR and other railway companies were vehemently opposed to. They saw it as union and worker interference in matters which were the companies’ prerogative.

Ultimately these were only suggestions from Main – he couldn’t force the GWR or any railway company to adopt them. (For more on that issue, see here.) So what did the GWR do in response?

We have evidence from two sources. Firstly, the GWR’s own internal investigation into the accident (which will be coming into the project in due course). The report that survives is an entry in a wider volume detailing accident inquiries – hand-written, it amounts to only a little more than other ‘standard’ accidents which affected one or two individuals. That is: around 300 words. Much of the detail is – unsurprisingly – the same as that found in the MoT report.

What is particularly valuable is the final column, which records how the Company dealt with the MoT suggestions. This is something we rarely get from the MoT reports, which stop at the moment of the accident and don’t cover the ‘what next.’ A permanent look-out was ‘enrolled in slip gang’ – though whether this was just the one slip gang (a ‘flying squad’ of track workers who didn’t work on a fixed stretch of line, but moved from location to location as needed) or all slip gangs is unclear.

The Engineering Department was ‘instructed to together up, as far as possible, the personal supervision of gangers and men in the practical and intelligent application of safety rules.’ The idea about the staff having a say in the creation of the rules was resisted, though: ‘Men already have an opportunity of making any suggestions through [staff] suggestions scheme.’ Needless to say, that was a rather different proposition to consultation and genuine engagement in rule-making; the staff suggestion scheme could easily be ignored.

The final point was implemented: a dedicated safety booklet for permanent-way staff. It was issued in July 1922, and reissued in 1927, before a new booklet was produced in 1928.

Page from the 1922 booklet about accidents to track workers.

One of the pages from the 1922 ‘Safety on the Permanent-Way’ booklet, issued in response to concerns about safety.

Five of the dead were members of the NUR. Their interests were represented at the coroner’s inquests and at the MoT accident investigation by the NUR’s regional organiser, GW Brown. At the inquest, Brown shaped the outcome: he reminded the Coroner and jury that the location was dangerous and needed a compulsory look-out ‘and he considered a recommendation from the Court to that effect would have some weight’ – an interesting way the Union might try to influence Company practice.

When, at the inquest, the Coroner tried to suggest that Edmonds should bear some responsibility for not having appointed a look-out as the rule book allowed him to do, the representative of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF – the engine crew’s union, representing the men on the footplate of the loco that hit the gang) noted that the workers had no say in making the rules, The jury added two riders to the verdict of accident death: that no responsibility be apportioned to any individual and that a look-out should in future be appointed for that location.

The NUR would undoubtedly have been involved in securing compensation for dependants, under the Workmen’s Compensation Act. This would have been up to a maximum of £300 per person. However, it was recorded at the time that ‘it is obvious that the compensation will not adequately provide for the future of all the dependants.’

An NUR committee considered the issue, and ‘felt that it was necessary steps should be taken to raise a fund for the dependants of these men.’ Cleverly, the NUR meeting also noted with approval that the local newspaper, the Western Daily Press, had made ‘sympathetic reference’ to the accident. As a result, the NUR meeting sent a deputation to the Western Daily Press ‘in the hope that an appeal to the public might be made through its columns.’

The Western Daily Press talked with a GWR representative, and ‘with his good wishes’ opened a collection ‘so that citizens may have an opportunity of showing a practical sympathy which all must feel.’ A swift response was called for ‘as a prolonged appeal is not contemplated.’ The Press started off with a £10 donation. Further donations followed from individuals, local businesses, the girl guides, and railway workers and NUR branches amongst others.

The manager of the Premier & Olympia theatres, SH Justin, offered the Olympia up for free use on a Sunday evening for a fund-raising concert. This was duly held on 23 October 1921 and raised over £70. A charity football match was played on 31 October, between the ‘Bristol Butchers’ and ‘Staple Hill AS’. In advance of the game the Press noted ‘the match should prove an interesting one’ – though we don’t know more than that about it, sadly! It raised over £7. Collections were taken in nearby shops, too. Clearly the accident affected the local community, given these initiatives. Altogether they raised over £350 in the space of around a month and a half, which was distributed amongst the dependants.

In the next blog, we start to look at the men involved in the Stapleton Road accident – and the families that 6 of them left behind.

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  1. Stapleton Road, 26 September 1921 - Railway Work, Life & Death - September 21, 2021

    […] JPS Main concluded that ‘I can find no evidence that any pressure has been brought to bear upon gangers to discourage them from making use of look-out men. There is, however, all the difference between passive encouragement and positive encouragement’ (1921 Quarter 3, Appendix B). He made several recommendations for improvements – which we shall return to, in tomorrow’s blog, which looks at the aftermath of the accident. […]

  2. Stapleton Road: the men, pt 1 - Railway Work, Life & Death - September 22, 2021

    […] we discussed the institutional responses to the Stapleton Road accident; from this point onwards, we look more at the personal impacts, on men involved and their the […]

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