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They started – and died – young

Volunteers working on the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project have uncovered the stories of nearly 4,000 individuals who were either injured or killed whilst working on Britain’s railways between January 1911 and June 1915. Amongst the casualties was 16-year old James Beck, a ‘wagon greaser’ (someone responsible for ensuring the axle boxes of freight wagons were topped up with grease, to make the wheels turn smoothly) for the Caledonian Railway Company. On 16 July 1914, Beck was walking between two railway lines near Shawfield (in Glasgow) when he was hit by a train and killed.

The investigation by Inspector Charles Campbell (1914 Quarter 3, Appendix C) attributed the accident to ‘want of care on the part of Beck, who, I am assured, had been specially warned to beware of trains’ when he was walking between the lines – though notably he hadn’t been told not to walk between the lines and to find a safer way to do his work. This was assumed to be a ‘natural’ part of the job: employees had to learn to deal with the danger and use ‘appropriate’ levels of care and attention.

Beck’s was just one of 125 cases featured in the accident reports for the 3 months between July and September 1914, itself a small fraction of the total numbers killed or injured. And, sadly, Beck wasn’t the youngest to be involved in an accident between 1911 and 1915 – at the moment we’ve found several cases involving 15 year olds. Given at this time people were working from age 14, it’s highly likely we’ll see cases involving children younger still.

Cover of the Caledonian Railway's 1921 'Vigilance Booklet' Page from 1921 Caledonian Railway's 'Vigilance Booklet' which discusses Beck's case

Beck’s death and the subsequent investigation were not the end of the story, however. His  case was later used as a warning to others in the Caledonian Railway’s 1921 accident prevention publication ‘The Vigilance Booklet’, from which the images here are taken. Beck’s case – perhaps anonymous as a nod to the upset it might cause? – features at the top of the page. It’s not always possible to link the examples mentioned in these booklets, which many companies issued, with the actual case from which the detail came, so it’s somehow fitting that we can make this connection here.

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