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World War Two blackout accidents

This week’s blog post comes from guest author Evan Cossburn. Evan’s post was based on cases in last year’s data release of 17,000 accidents between 1921-1939. Here he focuses on the impact of changed conditions due to the Second World War. Whilst relatively few of the new cases fall within the wartime window, those that do help us understand how war had an impact far from scene of battle.

Evan wrote his post while he was a second-year undergraduate History student at the University of Portsmouth, as part of his degree work on the ‘Working with the Past’ module. The module involves students working as part of a group, often with partners from beyond the University. This helps give the students wider experience, to apply the skills they have learned during their degrees to date and to enhance their employability. They produce work that falls outside the traditional forms of assessment – including things like blog posts.

Other posts written by University of Portsmouth History students can be found here. Our thanks to Evan, and them all – and all the best with their future studies and employment!


With last year’s release of 17,000 accidents investigated by the Railway Inspectorate between 1921 and 1939, certain possible themes amongst the data have become apparent. One of these is accidents relating to the blackout measures put in place during the opening stages of the Second World War. According to the data available, the cause for some accidents was clearly identified as ‘lack of light’. In other cases, whilst there was another cause for the accident, such as ‘misadventure’ or ‘lack of caution’, ‘lack of light’ or ‘wartime lighting’ were stated to have contributed to the accident. Did the wartime blackout therefore contribute to unsafe conditions on the railways during this period?

Whilst it’s clear that lack of lighting contributed to a number of accidents, it’s hard to gauge how much lighting alone was a cause of accident. For instance, was poor lighting indicative of poor safety conditions more widely? Or were other factors involved, like bad weather conditions, such as rain or ice, that could together cause accidents?

Coupling in the blackout. Railway worker uses coupling pole at night, between wagons, whilst holding a hand lamp.
World War 2 era image, showing coupling under blackout conditions.
Source/ credit unknown – please contact us if there are any issues.

One instance of this is the case of goods guard H Rumble, who died after being struck by a train during shunting at Maidenhead, Berkshire, on 5 November 1939. Though being hit by a train was given as ‘misadventure’, ‘Rumble’s ill-health was noted as having an important impact’. At the same time, whilst ‘lack of lighting at the location’ was mentioned, it was ‘not felt to be a factor for a man of Rumble’s experience’. A man of Rumble’s experience was thought to have been able to perform his job in conditions where it could be hindered; his 29 years of experience would make it reasonable to assume that Rumble had done his job in similar conditions before, without it causing death or injury. It was considered by the relevant authorities of the time and those responsible for recording the data that ill health was the most important factor considered as an explanation for the cause of the accident. Rumble was ‘discovered missing at the next station’, and his body ‘was later found near where he had been shunting’. It is stated that there was no way of determining the official cause of death, as no other witnesses were present to determine how Rumble had died. Whether his poor health had caused him to either be in the path of the train, collapse and die at the site, or the lighting had indeed caused him to be unaware of an oncoming train, is unknown. From this account solely, it is unclear whether lighting was a definite cause for accident (1939 Quarter 4, January 1940 Report).

The case of goods guard H.S. Sampson, who died on 8 November 1939 after being struck by a wagon, presents a different angle. The supposed cause of the accident was that ‘Sampson was run over as the engine set back’ in Ardsley, Yorkshire. The typical procedure of the time was that usually ‘the guard meets the engine and couples to the train’. However, Sampson was not seen as the engine met the wagon; presumably the accident then occurred. Was it possible that wartime lighting contributed to the accident?

The contributing factors given in the investigation were ‘failure of shunting staff to apply brakes to rear wagons of the train’ and the ‘local practice of allowing the train engine to enter sidings unattended, especially in the dark’. Crucially, the report also observed that ‘wartime lighting contributed’. From this information, we can theorise that the unsafe practice of letting the engine move about without supervision on the ground, especially in the dark, caused it to strike Sampson. According to Railway Inspector J. Birch (the state official investigating the accident), Sampson was ‘knocked down by this vehicle as he was crossing the track’, and that he ‘fell with his legs over the rail’. Birch also talks of the ‘restricted’ lighting, and how it ‘should be regarded as a contributory cause’. These were early days of the War, and people and organisations were having to second-guess the extent of blackout measures necessary. Birch therefore thought that the lighting could be improved ‘without infringing the emergency lighting regulation’ (1939 Quarter 4, Jan. 1940 Report). This account helps substantiate the argument that poor lighting was a cause for accidents of the railways during this time.

Using this evidence as well as other examples of accidents with contributing factors listed as ‘poor lighting’ or ‘wartime lighting’, then it seems that the blackout did indeed have an impact on railway worker safety. Presuming so, it must be worth mentioning the lack of attention given to the issue. It is obvious why, for at least several obvious reasons, but also more obscure ones. For a start, news media will have been dominated at the time by news of the Second World War and associated issues (this particular one not included). News of worker deaths on the railways, rarely in the public eye before the War, will have been further overshadowed by other events. Secondly, the government would be reluctant to publicise these incidents, as it potentially called into question the nature of the blackout measures, something which was largely successful in others areas, and no doubt saved many lives. Finally, a less obvious reason would be that the worker accident data stopped being publicly released after the first couple of months of the War, meaning there was no data easily available for people to follow trends.

There’s no doubt that the Project’s release of interwar data is a significant look into the history of railway worker accidents between 1921 and 1939. To go further, into the Second World War, would be incredibly useful in lots of ways, including as part of a deeper look into the effects of blackout measures on accidents on the railways. If that data were available, it would allow us to understand if blackout measures proved to be a minor and unimportant cause of accidents during the whole of World War Two, or if it was indeed a major safety issue and cause of death and injury. However, at present there is no way of knowing, as the reports are not available for public use.

However, gathered from the data and reports that cover the early months of the War, we can still understand that poor lighting was indeed a cause for accidents in this brief period, and that a sudden change in conditions necessitated by outside factors did indeed impact the day-to-day running of the railways.


Evan Cossburn

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