Menu Close

The Quintinshill Disaster and how workers were viewed after a railway accident

This is another in our occasional series of posts produced by University of Portsmouth History degree students as part of their course. For their second-year ‘Working with the Past’ module last year a group explored the Project’s dataset, with a view to finding out more about some of the themes that emerged or the individuals they discovered.

In this post, George Robinson looks at possibly the most well-known railway disaster in British railway history: Quintinshill in 1915. He has located a connection in our project dataset, and thinks about where staff have – or haven’t – featured in the telling of disasters like Quintinshill. Our thanks to George for his post and for exploring the project data!


The Railway Work, Life & Death project (RWLD) has recently made it easier to understand the devastating number of fatal accidents that took place on British railways in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The purpose of this blog post series is to raise awareness of a number of people who worked, and sadly lost their lives, on the British railway system. They come from the trade union dataset added to the RWLD database last year.

This blog will focus on a major railway accident where one of the workers who appears in the database died. It will look at the events surrounding the disaster, and some of the issues that we can look back upon with hindsight.

Contemporary postcard of the Quintinshill disaster, entitled 'Tending the wounded', showing lots of people in the fields next to the railway, looking after people laid out on the ground.
Contemporary postcard of the aftermath of the disaster.

The Quintinshill disaster was and remains today, the deadliest rail disaster in British history. It resulted in the deaths of 226, with 246 being injured. It involved a collision that included five trains, amongst which was a troop train which suffered the highest number of deaths in the incident. Among others who died in the disaster were the driver and fireman of the troop train, Francis Scott and James Hannah. Yet they who are only mentioned in passing in most cases in the media around this topic and the subsequent research. The fireman, James Hannah, is found in the RMT dataset that forms part of the RWLD project.

Posed staff safety photograph, showing a railwayman going between the front of one engine and the tender of another, to couple them, but in a position where he risks being crushed between buffers.
Posed staff safety photograph, taken at Doncaster in 1930.
Courtesy National Railway Museum.

James Hannah actually appears in the RWLD database before Quintinshill, in an earlier accident. This indicates some of the dangers that railway staff faced across their working lives. It shows that on 22 June 1907 Caledonian Railway fireman J Hannah, belonging to the Carlisle branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), was injured. He was coupling (presumably his engine to its train) and was crushed between buffers. This kind of incident was frequently fatal, though as we know, not in James’ case. He was, however, off work until 16 September 1907, during which time he received 12 shillings per week in compensation payment (around £75 now).

Postcard of the Quintinshill disaster, showing the remains of one steam engine amongst the wreckage. Four people watch the wreckage being cleared.
Postcard of the Quintinshill disaster, sold at the time.

The next time we see him was Quintinshill. After his death in the disaster, his Union (the National Union of Railwaymen [NUR] – formerly the ASRS) paid its standard £5 death fund benefit, presumably to his wife, Mary Anne. This payment was a flat rate, made to any member who died – whether through accident, ill-health or old age. We think it was intended to help with any immediate costs before any other source of income or compensation might materialise.

In addition, James paid into the NUR’s Orphan Fund. This was a discretionary payment; if a worker contributed but died (whether through accident or any cause) before any of their children were 14, then the Union would provide a small sum of money each week to help support the dependent children, until they reached the age of 14. In James’ case, the record shows that he had one child on the fund, in receipt of 3 shillings per week (around £14 at 2024 values).

The treatment and lack of representation of workers like James show a common theme in railway history: that worker deaths have usually gone under-reported and under-studied. Therefore, this blog aims to identify why these workers’ stories have not been remembered alongside their fellow countrymen.

The Quintinshill disaster came at a difficult time for the people of Britain. War continued to rage on in Europe, and Britain was not performing as well as many had hoped. With Quintinshill came another challenge to national morale.[1] Blame for the accident was put squarely on the two signalmen on site at the time, George Meakin and James Tinsley. This culpability in the public eye led to the railwaymen who were killed not being remembered in the same way as the soldiers who died.[2]

In fact, the vast majority of reporting at the time was only focused on the deaths of the soldiers, comparing their deaths to the many who had died on the battlefields.[3] This was not totally unexpected of the media at the time. The war had put a massive strain on the whole of Britain, with Quintinshill being another in a long line of tragedies that the British people had to endure. In fact, this was not even the only large railway disaster in 1915. The year was filled with accident after accident, albeit with Quintinshill being the largest. In the case of those other accidents, there was a similar response from the media: in most cases, accidents would only make national news if notable people or soldiers were involved.[4] It was not uncommon to see that the media would focus on the passengers’ experiences over the railway workers’ more common and dangerous experiences during this period.

Rail disasters often have – and had – a large impact on the public. Quintinshill remains the largest loss of life of any rail disaster in British history, and the sheer magnitude of destruction led to scrutiny of rail services. The blame for the accident was put entirely on the two signalmen; there’s more on this in this blog post from The National Archives. Some historians have argued was the result of the railway companies trying to divert the blame away from themselves.[5] Although this disaster in particular has been the subject of much conspiracy over the years, it is not completely unreasonable to suggest that the rail companies did not want to hurt public relations or cause the government to crack down on their poor oversight.

It’s difficult to assess whether the response to Quintinshill was any different to the disasters that came before or followed it. The coverage of railway accidents almost always ignored railwaymen and their deaths in these accidents. This has not changed since the Quintinshill disaster either. Coverage of the 100th anniversary of the disaster was completely focused on the deaths of the soldiers, with virtually no mention of the workers who had died.[6] All of this can be linked to the larger historical issue that railway workers’ deaths massively outnumbered the deaths of passengers on the railways, but these deaths went under-reported and without much study. This issue has been seen elsewhere in the RWLD project blogs that look at other railway accidents and how the deaths of workers only really made national news when passengers were involved.[7]

There have been a number of arguments about why passenger train accidents have attracted more attention than the much more common deaths of workers. One could be the idea that accidents involving the public have the potential to “affecting or concerning the whole of society”, whereas worker’s deaths tend to be viewed as much more than only affecting a select group of people.[8] There is also the aspect of responsibility, especially concerning accidents involving passenger trains and mistakes made by other rail employees, where the public sees all rail employees as having some level of responsibility compared to the passengers.[9]

To wrap up this blog, why were the deaths of the railway workers not viewed in the same way as the deaths of the soldiers in the Quintinshill disaster? The reason for this can be seen through a few different compounding factors. The first was the situation at the time of the accident: the First World War was raging, and Britain was facing disaster after disaster, causing national morale to plummet, and therefore the focus was on the deaths of the soldiers. It was also that the accident was blamed on the two signalmen who had been on shift at the time, whose conviction likely swayed national sympathy away from the rail workers.

The final possible reason could be the general lack of care that society has put on the lives of rail workers compared to the passengers who died in not only this accident but in the vast majority of accidents on the railways. We can see, however, that it is possible to re-focus attention on railway staff affected by passenger train accidents, using the Railway Work, Life & Death project resources – including fireman James Hannah at Quintinshill.


George Robinson

I wrote this blog in my second-year of study for my undergraduate degree in History with Politics. I had an amazing time taking part in this project with my fellow students and hope that blogs like these can help to bring greater attention and respect for those workers who kept this country moving and those who tragically lost their lives in events like the Quintinshill disaster.


[1] Adrian Searle, & Jack A. Richards, The Quintinshill Conspiracy, (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Transport, 2013), 2.

[2] Robin Jones, British Railway Disasters : Lessons Learned From Tragedies on the Track (Horncastle: Gresley, 2019).

[3]  Michael Foley, Britain’s Railway Disasters : Fatal Accidents From the 1830s to the Present Day (Barnsley: Wharncliffe Books, 2013), 160.

[4] Foley, Britain’s Railway Disasters, 160-164.

[5] Jones, Britain’s Railway Disasters.

[6] “Quintinshill Rail disaster remembered 100 years on,” BBC, Accessed April 26, 2023,

[7] “Reading 1914: passengers, workers, family” Railway Work, Life & Death, Accessed April 26, 2023,

[8] Jill L. Matus, “Trauma, Memory, and Railway Disaster: The Dickensian Connection.” Victorian Studies 43, no. 3 (2001): 432.

[9] Judith Covey, Angela Robinson, Michael Jones-Lee, and Graham Loomes. “Responsibility, Scale and the Valuation of Rail Safety.” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 40, no. 1 (2010): 106.

1 Comment

  1. Helena Wojtczak

    Thank you for this well-written post, George. May I add something from my book?

    “When the signalman involved in Britain’s worst train crash, at Quintinshill, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, his employer (the Caledonian Railway) offered his wife a job as cloakroom attendant at Carlisle, and allowed her to continue to rent a company cottage next to Gretna station. Mrs Tinsley, who had three small children, began work on 4th October 1915 at a wage of 21s a week, the male rate of pay.”

    Ref: National Union of Railwaymen, Executive Committee Minutes 1915. James Tinsley was released after a year.

    From Wojtczak, H. (2005) “Railwaywomen”, p.5.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.