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The Buckley brothers

Our last 2 blog posts have taken an overview of the new project data (available here, free). This week we’re going to start looking at the individual level, taking a single case and seeing what we can find out.

Or, more accurately, we’re taking two cases that occurred in the same incident: brothers Thomas and Joseph Buckley. There are a number of accidents in the database like this, involving family members. This both makes them all the more sad for those involved and their wider families, and allows us to see patterns of employment, which saw railway jobs as being secure, desirable and something in which a family connection might be a useful ‘way in.’

Those family connections aren’t always as clear in the database as they were in the case of Thomas and Joseph. The same surname, the same location, the same incident, the same company … as soon as we spotted these it was likely there was a family link. A bit of digging in the wider records – notably census returns – showed this to be the case, and a fuller picture emerged.


The family

We know from the 1871 census that Thomas and Joseph were sons of Daniel and Sarah Buckley. Joseph was born in c.1859 and Thomas c.1862. The whole family had been born in Northwich, Cheshire; Daniel was listed as a labourer. In 1871 there were 4 children all told.

By the time of the 1901 census, Joseph was living in Wharton, a village near Northwich. He was married to Harriet; they had 3 children. We know from the 1911 census that 3 other children had died in infancy. On both census Joseph was working as a platelayer (someone who maintains the tracks) on the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). (Intriguingly, Harriet appears to have been ‘double-counted’ on the 1911 census: she was listed both on the same return as Joseph, where her occupation was given as ‘domestic’, and on the return where she worked (all of the details are the same: name, age, numbers of children alive and dead, birthplace, and that she was married)). Joseph and Harriet appeared alone on the 191 and 1921 census – the children by this time having moved out.

Joseph was a member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), the trade union that in 1913 became the National Union of Railwaymen (now the RMT). He appears to have joined initially in 1897, alongside his brother, who is listed nearby as a part of the Crewe branch in the ASRS membership register. He has a second membership entry, in 1912, so he might for some reason have left the Union but later rejoined, this time as part of the Northwich branch.

Thomas was rather more elusive in the records. His 1901 census entry places him living in Crewe, with his wife, Annie, and their 6 children, ranging in age from 19 to 2. The eldest, Benjamin, was also working as a platelayer on the LNWR, following in his father and uncle’s footsteps. By the 1911 census, 1 of Thomas and Annie’s 6 children had died, and Benjamin was listed as unemployed. Thomas also seems to have left the ASRS after his initial period of membership, rejoining in 1919 as part of the Winsford branch. Both Joseph and Thomas have a date of death recorded against their Union membership entry as June 1922.


The accident

On 6 April 1922, Joseph and Thomas were working just north of Winsford station, maintaining the track. The ganger – the man in charge of the gang of men – was Joseph Sproston. He left the men working whilst he went further along the track to mark up other areas needing attention. Ominously, the report by Inspector JAA Pickard notes early on that ‘No look-out man was posted’, as the early morning fog had disappeared and there were a clear view in both directions.

Ordnance Survey map of Winsford station area.
Winsford station area, mapped in 1909. The accident took place just beyond the bridge near the station. Map orientation altered by about 45 degrees; railway runs from SE to NW, roughly.
Courtesy: National Library of Scotland Maps.

As a goods train approached on the line next to the one they were working on, Sproston shouted a warning to the brothers ‘who, according to his statement, looked up and laughed but continued in the same position.’ As the goods train passed them, Sproston saw an express approaching on the line they were working on and called warnings to the Buckleys. However ‘the men took no notice and appeared to be arguing as they worked.’ Their view of the approaching train was obscured by the steam and smoke from the other train. Sproston saw ‘their imminent danger’ and started to run towards them blowing his whistle – but he tripped over his shovel and fell. The brothers seemed to have misunderstood Sproston’s intention but ‘they witnessed and laughed at his fall.’

The report continued: ‘He got up and ran towards them, shouting and waving them away, and possibly they then realised their danger, but too late’. Both brothers were hit by the train and killed.

Posed accident prevention photo, 1920s, showing workers standing clear of one train but in the way of another approaching from behind.
Posed 1920s staff safety image, showing a similar issue to that which killed the Buckley brothers.

The driver of the train was unaware of the accident due to the smoke of the goods train. When he reached Liverpool, his destination, he was informed.

Pickard noted that both men had good eyesight and hearing, though neither could read or write. They knew the rules – in cases of illiteracy, rules were periodically read to the workers – and had worked on this stretch of line ‘for a considerable period.’ Interestingly, the report gives us an idea of the workplace power dynamic that might have been going on, as well as the familial one (what were they arguing about?). Sproston had worked with the Buckleys for many years, but had only been in a position of authority for around 9 months. In that time ‘he had had occasion, more than once, to check them for lack of caution and failure strictly to observe the rules of safety. […] Such contempt for personal risk, leading not only to a flagrant breach of Rule 273(a) but also to a complete disregard of the warning attempt of the ganger, was the direct cause of this accident.’

Pickard contended that Sproston should have reported the earlier breaches of the rules to his superior. He also called for ‘more educative propaganda […] in order to bring home to the men concerned the necessity of properly adhering to the principles of’ the rules. Pickard was satisfied when the Divisional Engineer – much higher up the chain of management than Sproston – ‘personally has interested himself in the proper observance of this Rule, and that the Management have issued warnings to the staff’. Pickard encouraged this, and the idea that when cases of breaches of the rules which didn’t produce an accident were detected, if they were ‘taken up’ – for which, almost certainly read ‘punished’ – then a welcome improvement in safety would result (1922, Quarter 2, Appendix B).

The impact of the deaths of the Buckley brothers isn’t known, but for the wider family this must surely have been very difficult. To lose one relative in an accident of this nature was hard, but Joseph and Thomas being brothers must have added another dimension. Both widows should have received compensation for their husbands’ deaths; this would have been approximately £300 each. Harriet died in 1925, leaving an estate of just over £171.

So – starting with the accident record from the database, we can learn a lot about working practices, authority and discipline on the railways. We can see familial connections, inside the industry and – by combining the database with other records – beyond.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback:Holywell Junction, 1 September 1922 - Railway Work, Life & Death

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