Wilmcote: ‘the whole district in mourning’

In yesterday’s post, we looked at the immediate circumstances of the accident, as seen through the investigation reports. Today we turn to what happened in the days and weeks following.

 

The Coroner’s inquest

The accident happened on Friday 24 March 1922. The Coroner’s inquest took place the following Monday, on 27 March 1922, in Stratford-upon-Avon. The purpose of the inquest was solely to determine how the men died – not to apportion blame or decide guilt. Sadly for most English cases, the original coroner’s records have been destroyed. However, local newspapers frequently reported on the proceedings, sometimes at length and featuring verbatim transcripts. This makes them an invaluable resource in the absence of the official record – and this was true of the Wilmcote accident.

In terms of the overall findings, much of the testimony and evidence given to the inquest matched the broad details in the state and railway company accident investigation. As detailed yesterday, the men were hit by a steam engine travelling from Stratford to Wilmcote, and died at the scene. They had been working without someone specifically tasked with keeping a watch for oncoming trains.

The inquest allowed questions to be asked, publicly, about working practices on the railway. For example, the Ganger for the section of line south of the accident was asked about employing a look-out man. Reuben Arthur responded that he always put a look-out man on at the site as it was ‘a dangerous curve.’ As a follow-up, the coroner, GF Lodder, asked: ‘Can we assume that the Company puts no difficulty in the way of getting look-out men?’ The answer: ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you grumbled at for employing look-out men too much? – No, sir.’ This might have been the case, but if not, how far Arthur could have answered honestly in the presence of his employer is an open question.

Ganger John Harris was asked about his instruction to appoint a look-out man ‘if necessary.’ He answered that as the four men were going to do limited and light work on the track, and then off-track work, the ‘if necessary’ instruction referred to the work on the track, and that he’d always appointed a look-out at that location.

Driver George Ransome noted that it wasn’t usual practice to sound the engine’s whistle at that location, and when gangs had been at work there they had posted a look-out man. The Coroner pushed him twice on why he hadn’t sounded the whistle, but received no answer until a member of jury asked a question, to which he replied ‘As the goods train was passing I expected any platelayers who might be working to have cleared the line.’ Whilst the Coroner found Ransome should have sounded the whistle, he was still exonerated from any blame, it being found that the men should have appointed a look-out. Coroner Lodder also took issue with the railway companies on the protection of track staff: he ‘thought the railway companies should call the attention of the men in some special manner to the rules, for he doubted whether the reading of them once in every six months was sufficient.’ The jury added a rider to the findings, that the GWR should supervise working more carefully.[1]

 

The funeral

As Edward, George, Lewis and William had worked and died together, so they were buried together. Their coffins were transported from Stratford to Wilmcote by a special train; they were met by representatives of local authorities, the GWR and several hundred GWR workmates. Wreaths on the coffins expressed condolences: ‘In loving sympathy, from comrades and employees of the GWR’ and ‘In affectionate remembrance of four comrades, from the Stratford branch of the NUR.’ From the station they were carried by the men’s workmates to St Andrew’s church.[2]

Wilmcote graveyard, showing the graves of the four men: a large headstone, shared, and four smaller markers, each bearing one of the men's initials.

The men’s graves, in St Andrews Churchyard, Wilmcote. Note the four individual grave markers bearing each man’s initials.
Both courtesy Andrew Hall.

 

With such a prominent and large-scale accident, it was perhaps unsurprising that the loss was keenly felt: ‘Not only the village, but the whole district has been in mourning since the tragic occurrence, and so large was the assembly at the church yesterday that only comparatively few were able to gain admittance to the building.’[3] Hundreds attended, with thousands being reported as lining the route, with ‘most impressive and touching scenes as the cortege moved slowly on towards the church. … As the procession approached the church the crowd became more dense, and was soon a surging mass of humanity, anxious to pay their last tribute to four men who had died in the execution of their duty.’[4]

The school children were given the afternoon off, on account of the deaths of fathers of children attending the school. The Mayor and Mayoress of Stratford attended; representatives of NUR branches at Pathlow, Stratford and Leamington Spa also attended. The men were buried in graves beside each other ‘lined with daffodils.’ The costs of the funeral were covered by the GWR, and relief was arranged to enable railway colleagues to be able to attend.[5]

 

Investigation recommendations & changes

As noted in yesterday’s blog, the state investigation recommended that ‘some system of organised education and closer supervision is again most strongly urged upon all Railway Companies.’[6] This could not be enforced, however. One of the brilliant things about our project is that it allows us to combine different records and gain a fuller impression of the accidents – and in some cases, what happened afterwards. This is one such case. The GWR’s accident investigation (coming into the project dataset in due course) not only gave a summary of the Company’s findings, but how it dealt with any changes suggested by the state. In this case, it recorded: ‘Engineering department will as far as possible tighten the personal supervision of gangers and men in the practice and intelligent application of Rules dealing with safety.’[7]

National Union of Railwaymen cartoon from 1928, showing track workers being hit by a train as a result of the same policy in place at the time of the Wilmcote accident.

National Union of Railwaymen cartoon from 1928, demonstrating the same discretion about appointing a look-out man remained – with the same costs.
Railway Review, 20 April 1928.
Courtesy Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

 

Translated, that seems to indicate that not much was actually going to change. It would still be down to the workers to look after themselves, and to decide whether or not to take a man away from gangs of track workers if they wanted to appoint a look-out man. Quite how personal supervision was tightened wasn’t explained. The state accident investigation, by Inspector JAA Pickard concluded ‘No efforts should be spared to take up and deal with all cases of unnecessary exposure to danger or disregard of Rules on the part of me working on or foul of running lines, so that any such practices may be checked at all times, and not only when they result in accident.’ Sadly it is impossible to know from surviving records what, if any, measures were attempted along this lines.

What the GWR did do – and other companies followed suit – was to issue a special booklet, aimed at permanent way (track) staff. This had actually been put into production after the Stapleton Road accident of September 1921, but wasn’t ready until after Wilmcote. Discussion of both accidents was included in the booklet. This was noted in the state investigation report: ‘It is satisfactory to record that the GWR has decided (a) to issue specially for permanent way men a supplementary “Safety First” pamphlet, which has been actively in preparation for some time’.

 

Supporting dependents

Over the coming four days we’ll be detailing what we know about each of the men who died and what happened to their families in the longer-term after the accident. As a result, we’ll not be saying too much about them here, other than to consider what was done to provide financial support for the families in the short term.

All of the men were married; they were reported as having left 14 children between them.[8] However, we can only find evidence of 13 children – still a considerable number, of course, and a tragedy to each one of them to lose their fathers. Lewis Washburn was also responsible for supporting his mother and his father-in-law.

The Stratford Herald reported the GWR’s representative at the inquest as saying that he was to ‘convey their sincere condolences to the relatives of the unfortunate men’. He also recognised the impact on the families: ‘He was afraid the accident must necessarily inflict hardship on those left behind, and any temporary assistance which might be necessary, would gladly be given by the Company before the respective cases were finally settled.’[9] Quite what this amounted to, or the mechanism for administering it, isn’t known.

Page from the GWR's Traffic Committee minute book, detailing the compensation payments made to the widows.

Page from the GWR’s Traffic Committee minutes for 1922, detailing compensation payments made to the Wilmcote widows.
With thanks to Chris Heather for the image, courtesy The National Archives of the UK, RAIL 250/353, p.98.

In due course – likely to have been within 2 months of the accident – the GWR made payments to the families under the 1906 Workmen’s Compensation Act. Each received the maximum payment prescribed under the Act, £300.5.0.[10] As three of the four men were members of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), their dependents would have received Union support. That would have included representation at the inquest and help securing the compensation from the GWR. Depending on which funds the men contributed to their dependents might also have received weekly payments from the Orphans Fund.

The four wives also received a payout from the Birmingham Daily Gazette or Evening Despatch newspapers. As the Daily Gazette reported just three days after the accident, as all the men were readers of one of the newspapers each of their families were entitled to £10 under the paper’s free insurance scheme. This included Edward Sherwood, who had actually stopped taking the Daily Gazette regularly ‘as the expense of maintaining a family of seven recently compelled him to cancel the order for the Gazette’.

Annie Booker, widow of George, was reported as saying ‘I am most grateful to the Gazette for recognising and meeting the claim so promptly. The paper concluded by noting that others could benefit in the similar way simply by placing an order for either paper with their newsagent: ‘Tragedies like that which suddenly robbed four Wilmcote houses of breadwinners and sent the whole village into mourning serve to illustrate, not only the uncertainty of life, but the special risks run by railway workers and the benefit to next-of-kin in cases where the victims have taken the precaution of having their names entered no the list of regular readers.’[11]

On top of this, the local community rallied around. The mayor of Stratford opened a fund to collect money for the dependents. A committee ‘of representative townspeople and railwaymen has been formed to raise and administer the fund.’[12] A concert was organised by the local NUR secretary, Mr Pickford, and Mr J Marshall, stationmaster at Henley-in-Arden, and raised £36.5.10: ‘an excellent musical programme was contributed by members of the district goods managers’ office staff. The chairman was Dr WE Nelson, OBE, who emphasised the dangerous nature of the work undertaken by platelayers in the interests of public safety.’[13]

No doubt there was also much that was done informally, particularly in the village of Wilmcote, to help support and comfort the grieving families, but which hasn’t been captured in the formal records that now remain. Think of the community support offered to neighbours today in times of need – without wishing to be ahistorical and cast modern responses backwards, in all probability neighbours and the railway community did what they could to help.

In the next post in our series, we start our look at the four men and their families, beginning with Lewis Washburn.

 

[1] Stratford Herald, 30 March 1922, p.2.

[2] Warwick & Warwickshire Advertiser 1 April 1922, p.7.

[3] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 30 March 1922, p.3.

[4] Warwick & Warwickshire Advertiser 1 April 1922, p.7.

[5] Stratford Herald, 30 March 1922, p.2.

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

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

[8] Warwick & Warwickshire Advertiser 1 April 1922, p.7.

[9] Stratford Herald, 30 March 1922, p.2.

[10] The National Archives of the UK, RAIL 250/353, p.98.

[11] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 27 March 1922, p.3.

[12] Warwick & Warwickshire Advertiser, 1 April 1922, p.7.

[13] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 15 April 1922, p.3.

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