Steel and steam

This weekend, I did what any self-respecting person would naturally do on an April Saturday: head to Lincolnshire to have a trundle around a steel works’ internal railway network. I visited the fascinating Appleby Frodingham Railway, which operates on selected dates around the British Steel Scunthorpe internal railway system. That got me thinking … about a number of things, including railway accidents at iron and steel works.

Two railway lines lead under a blast furnace. On one of the lines, a diesel engine sits in front of a torpedo ladle wagon being filled with molten iron.

Molten iron being poured from one of the ‘four queens’ of Scunthorpe, into a torpedo ladle wagon – in the distance!

Transport is and was crucial to the steel industry: not least in moving raw materials into the works & bringing finished goods out. Railways were good at shifting heavy, bulky items; and many steel works were so big they had internal railway networks. They needed connections to the national network – & staff to work the railways, too. All that meant accidents.

This post has a few examples of where steel & railways intersect – & encouragement to find out more from our free project database. Though our project focuses on railway company staff, others appear too, albeit usually in passing.

Within steel works, accidents (whether railway or other) would have been reported to the Factory Inspectorate – sadly, their detailed investigation reports don’t survive. However, for cases outside steel works property and which involved railway staff, Board of Trade and Ministry of Transport accident investigations survive. What follows are a few examples of cases found in our database – either already publicly available or (teaser alert) coming in our next data release (soon!).

Booklet produced for employees at the Stanton & Staveley ironworks, Nottingham. 1963 revision of a 1947 original, showing risks from private railway networks, similar to those encountered at steel works.

 

Starting with one accident that will appear in the new dataset, on 27 August 1908, yardsman G McLachlan of the Caledonian Railway was at work in the Clydesdale sidings at Mossend in Lanarkshire. Whilst focusing on using a shunting pole on some wagons, he tripped on a piece of pig iron. He fell and his arm was crushed, later being amputated at the shoulder. The investigation found the sidings were dangerous as a result of scrap falling from wagons serving the Clydesdale steel works. The Caledonian took the matter up with the works – though if the tidied their act up isn’t relayed in the report.

 

1899 map of Maryport docks.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

On 13 February 1914 Jan Glevin, 68, was employed as a dock labourer by Workington Iron & Steel. He was pushing a wagon with a colleague at Senhouse Dock, Maryport. A train bumped into the wagon, knocking Glevin down. He suffered a bruised shin & shock.

 

1912 map showing the complexity of the rail connections at the Dalzell works.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

Sometimes railway company staff were injured by steel works’ property or actions – & we get little insights into life in the steel works. On 17 April 1914 Caledonian Railway brakesman G Stewart was coupling wagons standing next to Dalzell Steel Works, Motherwell. Part of No. 3 loading bank wall’s coping had been broken away ‘some time previously by a steel plate which had dropped on to it.’ Stewart stepped into the gap, falling between the wagons & wall, bruising his thigh. The accident report finished: ‘It is satisfactory to note that the owners of the Steel Works had the bank repaired a day or two later’ (1914 Quarter 2, Appendix C).  So … they could be quick on occasion!

 

1912 map of Frodingham station and some of the vast steel works complex.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

Sometimes consequences were more severe. On 20 April 1915 Great Central Railway goods guard Albert Scott, 24, was uncoupling wagons from his train at Frodingham. He walked too close to an adjacent branch of the Frodingham Iron & Steel Works. A Works loco was shunting on the line, which struck Scott, running over his left leg. It was later amputated. The report found that the Works’ engine driver couldn’t see Scott until it was too late.

 

1911 Bathgate Lower station, including the steel works with its private connection.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

On 27 January 1914 at Bathgate Lower, Midlothian, North British Railway goods guard A Scoon was working on wagons being moved into a siding in the West Lothian Steel Sheet Rolling Mills & Shovel Works. The report gives us some nice detail about this bit of the works: the floor ‘is laid with cast-iron plates’ and Scoon was wearing hob-nailed boots. Scoon ran ahead of the wagons but slipped on the floor plates and fell. Fortunately he only bruised his left leg – it could have been a lot worse (1914 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

Two diesels haul two torpedo ladle wagons along railway lines at the Appleby Frodingham plant.

Two diesels hauling torpedo ladle wagons full of molten metal at the Appleby Frodingham site.

Perhaps the most remarkable case in our data is that of London and North Eastern Railway foreman, W Bucknall. Part of his role was ‘to keep trace of the railway-owned wagons on the Appleby-Frodingham Steel Company’s premises.’ This meant he had access to the railway spaces of the steel company’s site. On 13 June 1935, at 9.35am, he was walking in an 11foot space between two tracks when a loco hauling four ladles of molton slag stopped beside him and then reversed. When they set back ‘some molten metal splashed from one of the ladles in his direction, and in jumping aside to avoid it, he became foul of the adjoining line.’ Unfortuately for Bucknall, at that moment another works engine was approaching, and it hit him, causing severe (though unspecified) injuries. Inspector JLM Moore found no fault with anyone – other than Bucknall ‘who was well acquainted with this traffic [and] would have been better advised had he kept further from the ladles from the start’ (1935 Quarter 2, Appendix B).

Those are some of the accidents found in our current and immediately forthcoming data which feature steel works as a setting. As we add more cases – for example, those in which National Union of Railwaymen members were involved – we may well find further accidents which feature steel works as locations. We’re keen to hear about the railway accidents inside steel works, too, so please let us know if you’re aware of any!

 

Postscript

This isn’t the first time I’ve been to a steelworks, either. I was fortunate enough to go on a tour of an operational steel mill in Pittsburgh in 2009 and see hot steel being cut – very dramatic, and very noisy (even with ear defenders!).

On that same trip we also went out to one of derelict, turn-of-the-19th-century mills a short ride away. That was another piece of amazing engineering, very much of its time. Its rail connection had long since been cut, though stranded in the wasteland surrounding what was left of the mill was a torpedo car, used to transport molten metal: very impressive.

This post emerged from a Twitter thread put together in 2020, for the ‘Social Worlds of Steel’ Twitter conference – thanks to all involved in that conference for a fascinating two days! The conference can be found with #SWOS20.

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