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Thomas Henry Stearn: injured at work, died at war

Last year we blogged about some of the railway staff who were injured at work and then went on to fight and die in the First World War. They appear in both our database and the NRM’s Fallen Railwaymen database, also put together by volunteers. We identified 11 men who cross over like this, including Sydney Leeming and Fred Todd, discussed here, and Raymond Towers, discussed here.

Thomas Henry Stearn (image from Great Eastern Railway Magazine)

To mark Remembrance Day this year, we’re taking a look at another one of those 11 men: Thomas Henry Stearn. From a railway family (his father was a platelayer and his brother also joined the comapny), in 1908 he joined the Great Eastern Railway in Cambridge. He started as a parcels cart lad, aged around 15. By 1 April 1915, the date of his accident, he was a porter-guard – someone who would spend most of his time on local services as a guard, whilst learning the job. Four hours into his 11 hour shift he was shunting at Coldham Lane Sidings, just north of Cambridge station.

Map of the accident location as it appeared in 1902.
Coldham Lane sidings, as it was in 1902.

As two carriage trucks were slowing down, Stearn went between to couple them by hand. He managed that, but when getting out ‘he unfortunately slipped with his left foot’, getting it wedged in the space between the wing rails of a V crossing. According to Inspector Amos Ford’s report, ‘he appears to have had some difficulty in getting his foot clear before he heel was struck by the wheel.’ His heel was bruised, but it could have been a lot worse.

A mocked-up image similar to Stearn's accident.
Posed image of similar type of accident, from a 1924 accident prevention booklet.

Ford’s conclusion was that Stearn was ‘to blame for getting between the vehicles before brought properly to rest’ (1915, Quarter 2, Appendix C). The language here is significant: ‘blame’. A rather different approach to today’s, which seeks to work out what happened with a view to preventing future occurrences, but avoiding ideas of blame.

Unfortunately Stearn doesn’t appear in our other dataset, of claims to the GER’s Benevolent Fund between 1913 and 1923, so presumably he wasn’t off work for long enough to require additional financial support.

Stearn enlisted in April 1917. He died of his wounds on 31 May 1918 whilst serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery, 25th Siege Battery. He is buried at Crouy British Cemetery, Crouy-sur-Somme, and mentioned on the family grave in Cambridge (more detail here).

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