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The impact of the First World War on accident investigation

It seems perhaps trite to say that the First World War had an impact on virtually every aspect of life in Britain, but we can see it in the evidence from the worker accident reports. A previous post, for example, has noted how wartime expediencies were probably involved in the death of one worker on the Isle of Wight. Another way in which the presence of the War intruded into railway working and railway accidents was as employees joined the services.

This had an impact on the numbers of workers available and probably therefore a knock-on effect on the intensity of work and conditions for those who remained. This might have led to more accidents. But one way in which the War’s influence was definitely seen was in the accident investigation process.

When an accident was selected for investigation, the relevant inspector would visit the site and talk to as many people as possible to try to work out what happened. In the first flush of enthusiasm for war, some of those either injured in or witness to accidents enlisted for war service, meaning they were not able to provide evidence. This was noted in the reports with a simple entry such as that about J. Heaton, injured at Putney on the London and South Western Railway on 20 July 1914: ‘Heaton, who was employed as a porter, has since joined the Forces and did not attend my inquiry’ held in early October (1914 Quarter 3 Appendix B). Throughout inspector John Main was forced to rely upon testimony from others: ‘I understand that … I am advised that …’.

Other volunteers – conscription wasn’t introduced until 1916 – mentioned in the reports are:

* lengthman William McGhan (North Eastern Railway, witness to a fatal accident on 14 July 1914 at Newport; 1914 Quarter 3, Appendix B)

* an unnamed blacksmith (North Eastern Railway, witness to an injury on 17 August 1914 at Tyne Dock; 1914 Quarter 3, Appendix B)

* temporary labourer John Pinchen (North Eastern Railway, injured whilst removing engine ashes from the ashpits and trackside at the Lower Loco Shed at West Hartlepool; 1914 Quarter 3, Appendix B)

* engine cleaner Alfred Edward Youngs, age 19 (Great Eastern Railway; acting in place of ‘another youth’ who had enlisted in the Army, his body was found between the rails with no indication of what had happened; 1914 Quarter 4, Appendix C)

* goods porter Alfred Horne (Great Northern Railway, injured at Leeds Goods station on 9 November 1914; 1914 Quarter 4, Appendix C)

* capstan-rope runner John Grimes (London and North Western Railway, injured on 23 October 1914 at Curzon Street, Birmingham; 1914 Quarter 4, Appendix C)


Fears about the depletion of a vital national resource of skilled railway workers meant that by October 1914 no railway worker was allowed to enlist without seeking permission from their employing company. Nevertheless, over the course of the War around 185,000 railway workers joined the forces.

What became of these men whose war service meant they couldn’t provide evidence to the inspectors? One thing it is possible to discover is if any of them died, courtesy of another project at the NRM, ‘Fallen Railwaymen’. Another team of staff and volunteers have compiled a fascinating database detailing the nearly 20,000 railway workers who died in the War effort, available here.

Ultimately so far as railway worker accidents was concerned, the War had a more serious implication than witnesses unable to give evidence. Part-way through 1915 the Board of Trade took the decision to focus the attention of those railway inspectors still at work on the more public (and more visible) accidents – passenger crashes and incidents. Railway workers would have to wait until 1919 for investigations to resume.

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