Wilmcote, 24 March 1922

Edward Sherwood.

George Booker.

Lewis Washburn.

William Bonehill.

On 24 March 1922, these four Great Western Railway track workers were killed by a steam engine near Wilmcote station in Warwickshire. In the lead up to the centenary, on Thursday, we wanted to bring their stories to light and to remember the men and the impact their deaths had on their families and communities.

1915 photo showing George Booker, in military uniform, his wife Annie, and 3 of their children, Alfred, Norman and Edward. Edward was the father of Lynda Ashby who has provided us with the photo.

George Booker, in military uniform c.1915, with his wife Annie, and 3 of their children, Alfred, Norman and Edward. Edward was the father of Lynda Ashby who has provided us with the photo. Our thanks to Lynda for sharing this photo.

Over the next five days, we’ll be posting a new blog each day, looking at the accident and its aftermath. On the day of the centenary, we’ve been organising a small scale act of remembrance at the station, for descendants of the four men who died and members of the railway and local communities.

Contemporary press report, including images of three of the Wilmcote men. Courtesy TrinityMirror.

 

This has been a collaborative effort. The research has started with the Railway Work, Life & Death project, but has involved all sorts of help from others. We’re grateful to all involved, including:

  • the descendants of the four men;
  • the Heart of England Community Railway Partnership, especially Julia Singleton-Tasker;
  • the Wilmcote station adopters, especially John Philips;
  • Wilmcote’s station master, Ian Taylor;
  • the Railway Mission and the Railway Chaplain for the area, Andrew Hall;
  • the RMT Union;
  • The National Archives of the UK, especially Chris Heather and Sarah Ahmed;
  • the Stratford Herald, especially Richard Howarth and Simon Woodings;
  • TrinityMirror, especially Fergus McKenna;
  • West Midlands Railway;
  • Network Rail.

This is also an ongoing process, so if you have further information about the men involved or their families, we’d be very keen to hear from you.

One of the particularly tragic things about the Wilmcote accident is that it was so similar to the Stapleton Road accident, which occurred almost exactly six months before. We helped mark that centenary last September – you can read more about it here.

Accidents to staff of this magnitude were unusual. Rather than four deaths at once, most worker accidents occurred in ones or twos. The scale of the Wilmcote accident therefore made it more visible than the ‘regular’ accidents which cumulatively killed and injured more people. Track worker safety remains an issue to this day, and action is being taken to make improvements.

Much of the detail for today’s blog post comes from the Ministry of Transport (MoT) report into the accident, and the Great Western Railway (GWR)’s internal investigation. Both of these will be featured in new data releases, coming soon – the MoT report hopefully within the next month or so, as part of the data covering 1921-1939.

 

The Wilmcote accident

On 23 March 1922, the four men involved in the accident were working at a site between Wilmcote and Stratford-upon-Avon stations. They were supervised by their ‘Ganger’, the man with responsibility for maintaining this section of track, John Harris. One of the men, George Booker, was qualified to act as a look-out man: that is, someone whose dedicated role was to keep watch for approaching trains. Qualification involved understanding the nature of the task and a form of examination to prove suitability.

The following day, 24 March 1922, the men booked on duty as usual, at 7am. Harris went to inspect the length of track for which he was responsible, so he left the gang of four to continue their work from the previous day. Edward Sherwood, as Sub-Ganger, took responsibility for the gang in Harris’ absence. Edward had 14 years experience as a Sub-Ganger. Before he left them, Harris warned the men ‘to keep a sharp look-out, and to appoint a look-out man “if necessary.”’[1]

This was a rather ambiguous command, of course – and something that was explored at the coroner’s inquest and the state investigation into the accident. It left freedom with the Edward to decide. It appears that as the work on the track they were doing that day was limited, he opted not to take a man away from the work. This meant each of the four men was reliant upon keeping a watch out themselves, whilst they were working.

At 7.40am, the men were working near a path that crossed the line allowing the farmer access to his fields. The double-track line at this point was in a cutting, and on a curve, which meant that the sight lines for oncoming trains was restricted. The weather was good, and the men spotted a goods train coming from Wilmcote towards Stratford. The driver of the goods train said that he saw two of the men step away from the track he was travelling on, joining the other two men standing between the rails on the other line, which they were working on.

Map of the accident location.

Map of the accident location, c.1923. The approximate site of the accident is indicated by the blue circle, to the bottom of the map (click to enlarge).

The presumption was that the men resumed their work before the goods train had finished passing. They were seen by Herbert Haytoun, a farm hand who crossed the line to feed cattle in a shed. They were facing each other ‘stooping over the inner rail at the precise moment when they were struck by the light engine’ (a light engine being an engine not pulling a train).[2]

Posed accident prevention photograph, showing a man moving out of the way of a train in front of him, but into the path of a train approaching unseen from behind.

Posed GWR accident prevention photo from 1936, showing an accident from a similar cause.

Why didn’t the driver or fireman of the light engine see the men?

Even if they had seen the men it was unlikely they would have been able to stop the engine in time, but they might have sounded the whistle to warn the men. Tragically that didn’t happen. The engine was running ‘tender first’ – so, the unit carrying coal and water formed a barrier to what the crew could see. This problem was compounded by the curve of the line and the passing goods train. Inspector JAA Pickard also suspected the engine might have been travelling faster than the crew thought.

According to the piece published in the Stratford Herald, driver Ransome ‘remembered the tail end of the goods train passing, and about that time heard a noise under the tender. He thought something was the matter with the water scoop or brake irons, so shut the steam off, applied the brakes, and stopped as soon as possible.’ There he found one of the men under the engine’s tender. At that point Haytoun ‘came to the fence and shouted: “You have knocked three or four others down.” He went back a little way, found everything was quiet, and decided that his best course would be to run on Wilmcote for assistance.’

Once at Wilmcote station, the staff there called the hospital, doctor and police. A ‘motor ambulance journeyed by road in the hope of being able to render first aid’ but to no avail. The stationmaster, EP Roberts, arrived at scene to find all of the men dead. Once this was confirmed by the doctor, ‘the bodies were carefully removed to the mortuary at Stratford.’[3]

 

The investigations

Not all railway staff accidents were investigated by the state – indeed, only around 3% of injuries or fatalities were. However, an accident of this size was particularly serious and so was investigated – not least because of the similarities with the Stapleton Road accident just six months before.

The inspector determined that the four men had broken the GWR’s rules (which were common to all companies) by not standing clear of all lines as the goods train passed – and then by continuing work without checking that there was nothing else coming. There might well have been perfectly valid reasons why the men did this – to do with the pressure of work, for example – but these weren’t discussed in the report.

Instead it was simply noted that the rules and regulations had been read to the men by Harris last December. This wasn’t to say that the men couldn’t read, and so needed the rules reading to them; this was just the standard protocol at the time. Inspector Pickard was critical of this, all the same: ‘The usual practice of having a stereotyped reading through of the Rules and making a periodical statement to that effect … has repeatedly been proved to be insufficient to drive home the practical application of those Rules, and some system of organised education and closer supervision is again most strongly urged upon all Railway Companies.’

You can hear the frustration in Pickard’s voice here. However, he could only ‘urge’ the companies to act – he had no power to compel them to make changes. Inspectors lacked compulsion, and so had to rely upon the goodwill of the railway companies to implement suggested changes. Needless to say, that the need to change things was being observed again rather suggests that changes hadn’t been made previously – and that might not be made in the future.

Inspector Pickard also noted the Stapleton Road accident: ‘Harris tells me that the circumstances of this accident were discussed amongst his gang only a week previously, and the need for watchfulness emphasised.’[4] We might question whether or not advocating ‘watchfulness’ on the part of the men, who had a task to do in a given length of time, was the most productive way of safeguarding them. This was common rhetoric of the time, however. Pickard’s report contained a further comment – to which we return in our next blog post – about next steps to make changes and hopefully improve safety.

Page from the GWR's accident record book, showing the Wilmcote accident.

Page from the GWR’s accident record book, showing the Wilmcote accident (lower part of the page).
Courtesy The National Archives. RAIL 270/29.

The surviving documentation from the GWR’s internal investigation is very limited: a short entry in the volume of accidents which included 1922. That investigation suggested that noise from the passing goods train ‘no doubt prevented them from hearing the approach of the engine’ that killed the men.[5] Otherwise the comments given replicate those from the state investigation – with the exception of the detail about what the Company would do as a result of the accident and the Pickard’s recommendations. Again, this is something we discuss in our next blog on the Wilmcote accident.

 

[1] State accident report, 1922 Quarter 1, Appendix B.

[2] State accident report, 1922 Quarter 1, Appendix B.

[3] Stratford Herald, 31 March 1922, p.2.

[4] State accident report, 1922 Quarter 1, Appendix B.

[5] GWR accident report, The National Archives of the UK, RAIL 270/29, p.125.

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  1. Wilmcote: ‘the whole district in mourning’ - Railway Work, Life & Death - March 20, 2022

    […] yesterday’s post, we looked at the immediate circumstances of the accident, as seen through the investigation […]

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