In this guest blog post, one anonymous project volunteer looks at a very specific aspect noticed in the entries in the volume of one railway company’s casualty records: suicide. This is a challenging topic, in many ways, which might account for its neglect so far as railway history goes. We’ve previously featured a blog post on the topic – related to this one, as the case it considers, that of Hezekiah Brett, appeared in the records considered here.
Our thanks to the blog author for bringing this important topic to our attention. Thankfully today there is support available to help prevent railway suicide and reduce the impact on those affected. The Samaritans do excellent work in all areas, including a dedicated railway programme, working with the current industry – more details here.
Whilst checking through the records of the Midland Railway Company between April 1895 and January 1901, I noticed that the word “suicide” cropped up several times, but in different formats. I decided to investigate further and found that, of the 4,161 records of accidents, 50 of them had the word “suicide” in the details. The records are quite revealing in the use of “suicide” in that it was still legally a crime at that time, so although some of these railway records include the verdict of an Inquest, others use the phrase “supposed suicide”.
At the time of these records, suicide was deemed a criminal act in English law; this was not decriminalised until 1961. It also meant that attempted suicide (i.e. a failed suicide) was punishable by a term of imprisonment or incarceration in an asylum, on the assumption that the perpetrator must be suffering from a mental illness.
Approaches to the issue of suicide ranged quite widely from the Church’s legal point of view to the pragmatic view taken by the custodians of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. The long-held Christian view was that suicide was an act against God and, as such, was punishable by effectively removing the person from the church. This meant that suicides were usually denied a normal Christian burial; instead they were often buried in a hastily-dug pit at a crossroads with no memorial, no service or mourners. It is alleged that the body was often pinned to the ground by a stake to ensure that the soul could not move. It is rumoured that the rather more enlightened stance taken by the Trustees of the Clifton Suspension Bridge was shown by a nineteenth-century board showing the various toll charges for crossing the bridge. After listing carriages, wagons and bicycles, next were the pedestrians, who were charged one penny to cross the bridge, but only a halfpenny if they intended to walk to the middle…
Suicide rates of males in England were rising at the time of these records to a peak of just over 30 per 100,000 by 1905; the female rate was about 7 per 100,000 at the same time.
To return to the records of the Midland Railway Company under scrutiny here, there are 623 fatal incidents in the 4,161 records (15%), and of these 623, 50 are suicides (8%). This means that suicides represent only 1.2% of the total incidents. It should be remembered that the railway system was widespread at that time and the opportunities for committing suicide were everywhere, particularly in places where the act was likely to be unseen (except perhaps for the locomotive driver or fireman) or, more obviously, in the darkness of the night.
36 of the 50 cases are listed as male and 9 as female; sadly, five are not identified by sex, although two of these do have names and an initial. Four of them have the words “supposed suicide” and one has a “Verdict: Suicide” in the details.
Dealing with the female cases first, all are noted as “Not in Company’s Service”, and one is listed as “Married woman”; the status of the others is not recorded. Does this show a simple lack of information or does it say that these women were so unimportant that it was not worth recording their status or occupation? More than half of the male suicides were identified by a trade or occupation and even an ‘escaped lunatic’ was noted as such!
Two of the female cases are listed as “Verdict: Suicide”; most of the others are noted as “supposed suicide”. Where there are further details of the incident, several were “found dead on line” and one is recorded as “Stepped from platform in front of train”.
The male cases are varied, too. As before, all of these cases are listed as “Not in Company’s Service” except one, an “Under ganger”. He was run over by a passenger train, although the details states that he was off duty through sickness at the time; is this an example of the company attempting to avoid liability? All of the male cases are listed as “Killed” with the exception of two people who were seriously injured; these are listed as “supposed suicide attempt”.
Most of the suicides were “found on the line”. Three of them placed themselves in front of a moving train. In no-train related deaths, one was found on the embankment having taken poison, whilst another was found hanged in a warehouse belonging to the company.
Further research could be undertaken into the correlation of these individual cases with the court records of Inquests and the reports in local newspapers; local newspapers at that time usually carried quite detailed information of court proceedings and many newspaper archives are now available in digital form.
It would be interesting to find out how the Inquests arrived at their verdicts in cases of suicide. Did people sitting on an Inquest jury have any conflict between their duty to the law and their compassion for the circumstances of the individual who have been driven to suicide? How much actual evidence was given as to the act of suicide – did the individual leave a note, perhaps, or had they told someone the classic line: “I am going to end it all”?
The use of the phrase “supposed suicide” in these railway records probably means that assumptions were being made about the incident. It could easily have been manslaughter, at least, or murder, with the perpetrators leading their victims to the railway before leaving them at the mercy of the oncoming train. Whilst none of these records indicate that any of the cases were tied to the line by the Victorian villain, awaiting the arrival of the hero in the last reel to release them, the possibility exists that not all of these “supposed suicides” may have been actual suicides.