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The network that never stopped

In a week’s time, on Christmas Day, the UK’s rail network will be a lot quieter than usual. There won’t be any passenger services running. However, plenty of work will be going on – some freight will remain moving and engineering works will take place. This will help keep the system operational the rest of the year.

Whilst the network in 2023 doesn’t stop over Christmas, in the past it used to be even busier. The passenger service shut down began in the post-Second World War era (more here). This means that we have plenty of accidents in our project database which took place on Christmas day. Some of these we’ve looked at already. From our first run of data we had two accidents, considered here. And of course, in the run-up to Christmas, increased pressure and traffic demands led to accidents – with some examples in this blog post.

Page from a booklet, with text describing an accident, accompanied by a posed photograph, showing a fireman on top of a steam engine's tender as it was moving, about to be struck by a bridge.
Caledonian Railway 1921 accident prevention booklet, showing similar accident to Beattie’s.

Now we have more cases in the database – around 48,000 – it’s worth mentioning a few more Christmas day accidents. One occurred in 1938, involving 21-year old Robert Beattie. He was a passed engine cleaner for the London and North Eastern Railway, acting on the day as a fireman. This was part of his career progression, as he worked his way up into a regular footplate position. Possibly working on Christmas day offered the opportunity for more experience firing. On the day, at 1.24a.m., he was passing through Reston station in Berwickshire, Scotland, working an excursion train. His driver, William Hislop, instructed Beattie to bring some coal forward in the tender. He went up in the tender and, as he had his firing shovel raised almost vertically, his right hand came into contact with an overbridge. He was injured.

Ordnance Survey map, showing a railway line running bottom right to top left, with a small town to the north; a line branches off to bottom left from the station in the centre of the map.
Ordnance Survey map of Reston, c.1906.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland.

The state investigation into the accident was carried out by Inspector J Birch. He determined it to be a case of misadventure. Beattie wasn’t witnessed by Hislop – possibly due to the darkness. Hislop said that he’d intended Beattie to bring the coal forward without leaving the footplate, though hadn’t given a clear instruction to this effect (Railway Inspectorate, 1938 Quarter 4, Appendix C).

One of the six Northern Irish cases that appears in our database took place on 25 December 1925. (Before 1921, plenty of other cases in our database took place in what was to become Northern Ireland.) Belfast and County Down Railway porter William Meneely, 64, had his chest and face bruised at Newtownards. Not a passenger train accident, it reflected the continued movement of freight on the railway network. He was involved in shunting eight wagons. According to the Railway Inspectorate investigation, by Inspector Charles Campbell, the weather was wet and stormy. As Meneely put his shunting pole between two wagons – to uncouple them – his hand lamp blew out. His ended up putting his pole in the wrong place, which meant that it struck him on the chest (Railway Inspectorate, 1925 Quarter 4, Appendix C).

Coupling in the blackout. Railway worker uses coupling pole at night, between wagons, whilst holding a hand lamp.
World War 2 era image, showing coupling under blackout conditions. You can see the shunter’s handlamp. Trying to couple without any light would have been very difficult – and hazardous.
Source/ credit unknown – please contact us if there are any issues.

Incidentally, this is the final case to appear in our database for Northern Ireland. It certainly won’t have been the last accident to have happened in Northern Ireland. So why don’t further cases appear to have been investigated by the Railway Inspectorate? Were Northern Irish accidents – and staff – overlooked by the Inspectorate, as a result of the political situation? Or were accidents investigated by an organisation based in Ireland?

Goods working was at the heart of a Christmas day case in 1905. Glasgow and South Western Railway yardsman William Irvine, 37, was killed at Glengarnock, Ayrshire. Whilst shunting Irvine was helping move three wagons. He was setting points when he slipped and fell. The wagons passed over his legs and he died (Railway Inspectorate, 1905 Quarter 4, Appendix C).

Ordnance Survey map showing main running lines top right to bottom left, with sidings and track for industrial works to north of the main line. Town and station to bottom of the main line.
1909 Ordnance Survey map of Glengarnock.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

It wasn’t just goods that were moving. From this year’s trade union data release comes the case of 35-year old London and North Western Railway porter E Sheppard. He was a member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) trade union (now the RMT), via its Manchester Victoria branch. On 25 December 1907 he was unloading mails when he suffered a splintered bone. He resumed work on 20 January 1908; whilst he was off he was awarded 7/6 per week (around £42 today) in compensation, under the Workmen’s Compensation Act (Union Non-Fatal Compensation).

Christmas day 1908 ended badly for Midland Railway labourer W King. Member of the ASRS Derby 1 branch, he was acting as a porter – again possibly because Christmas day working meant that staff were working in different roles to normal. Unfortunately he was crushed between a milk van and the loading dock. He died, age 32. Under the Workmen’s Compensation Act, his dependents were awarded £158.12.0 (equivalent to around £17,600 today; Union Fatal Compensation).

Ordnance Survey map, showing railway line running bottom right to top left. Station in the middle; above it sidings to industrial use.
1899 Loughborough map.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

Other Christmas day cases appear elsewhere in the project database. Again from the Union datasets, the Orphan Fund contains a number of examples. This includes Midland Railway porter WH Everton. A member of the ASRS Leicester branch, he was killed in an accident at Loughborough, on 25 December 1884. He paid into the ASRS Orphan Fund, which in the event of death provided a weekly payment to any dependents under the age of 14. Everton had three children on the Fund – William Henry, born on 30 September 1876; and twins Maud Alice and Catherine, born on 18 October 1878. They were supported to the tune of 5/- per week (around £28 now).

Back of NUR Orphan Fund flag, sold to raise money, from 1916. A small paper rectangle on a metal pin, with text in red which reads 'National Union of Railwaymen 2253 children supported in 1916. Annual coast £12,759.15.9.
NUR collecting flag, sold to raise money for its orphan fund – front and back. c.1916.

The Fund provides additional detail about the subsequent lives of the children. As fitted the Fund rules, William came off the Fund in 1890, aged 14. As he could now work for a living it was expected he would support himself, or least contribute to household costs. It also records that the children’s (unnamed) mother died on 12 March 1890. She had been the primary care-giver, as it was noted that the girls were split up, one each taken by an aunt. An application was made for increased support for the girls, and it was agreed – between them they were provided with 7/- per week (around £41 at today’s prices). By 1895 the twins were reported as being over age and so ineligible for support. By this point the ASRS had provided £95.13.6 support for. Everton’s children – around £11,760 now. The costs of accident were widely spread, far beyond the railway company – financially and of course emotionally.

Clearly, just like the railway itself, the ASRS/NUR’s work didn’t stop for Christmas either. As well as the accidents to and ill-health suffered by its members on December 25th, it appears that Union administration continued. There are many cases in which payments were agreed and/or started from 25 December. Members also joined the Union on Christmas day too – like Great Northern Railway of Ireland porter J Cunningham. He joined on 25 December 1889, as part of the Dublin Amiens Street branch. He was a member for 19 years before the accident on 9 January 1909 which led to his calling on the Disablement Fund (more on that Fund here). He received the standard £20 payment (around £2200 today).

So – thanks to those railway employees who worked on Christmas day in the past. For many it was simply a working day like any other, meaning that the risks and the accidents continued. And of course, thanks to those working on December 25th this and in future years. Our system depends on them. Hopefully they will stay safe.

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