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Wrong place, wrong time – Mrs Quelch

Sometimes someone is simply in the wrong place, at the wrong time. On 30 September 1922, Mrs Quelch was one of those people.

Her case is interesting in its own right, as we shall see. It also demonstrates something important about our database: not everyone featured in the database was a railway worker. Plenty of people had reason to be around the railway, and thus exposed to danger – merchants delivering or collecting goods, postal workers, farmers, dockers, and more.

On the other hand, Mrs Quelch had the dubious distinction of simply being a passer-by, injured when a steam engine crashed through a wall.

Ordnance Survey map of the Brighton area, 1932.
1932 map of the Brighton railway environs. The accident location is towards the top left of the map.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

The accident took place at Brighton engine shed, on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR). Driver John Yeates took his engine to the turntable, at the north end of the shed and yard. As the map shows, the turntable was tucked up against a public road; the road was separated from the railway by a brick wall around eight feet high. As Inspector John Main noted, there weren’t any buffer-stops on the rails leading from the turntable towards the street. Instead the rails were turned up through 90° in a curve, to form a barrier of sorts.

Images showing a model rail stop - track bent upwards at the end, following the curve of wagon wheels.
A model version of the type of rail stop featured in this incident.
Courtesy Adam Chapman.
Fold up rail stop in use today.
Fold-up rail stop in use today, on the same principle as the stop in this case.
Courtesy Adam Chapman.

Yeates, who was noted as ‘an experienced driver’, moved his engine onto the turntable. In order to balance the turntable it was important to get the loco as close to central as possible – in this case a 50foot engine on a 60ft table. Yeates initially went a bit too far, so reversed … only to go a bit too far in the other direction. He tried to even up again – but as there was steam retained in the cylinders, it ‘drove the engine backwards through the rail stops against the wall, which was thrown down.’

Close up of the location of the accident, showing the turntable and road.
Close up of the accident location, showing the relationship between the turntable and the road.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

The report noted that ‘Mrs. Malcolm Quelch, who was passing along the side walk at the time’ was hit by bricks from the wall, injuring her foot. The eagle-eyed of you will note two things. Firstly, that Mrs Quelch was not given the courtesy of her own name but her husband’s, in keeping with the social conventions (for some) of the time. Secondly, the use of ‘side walk’ was unexpected – we thought this was confined to our American cousins.

Main’s report concluded that ‘the accident and damage were directly due to a lack of care by Yeates’. The infrastructure provided – the lack of more effective buffers – by the Company was only noted as being ‘incidentally’ involved, even though they were ‘quite inadequate’. The LBSCR was recommended to replace them with ‘some more efficient and substantial form’ (1922 Quarter 3, Appendix B).

As ever, we know a little more by going a bit wider than the accident investigation report. The only press report of the accident we’ve been able to find, from the Daily Herald, featured the case under ‘Rail engine’s prank’ – Mrs Quelch might have felt otherwise. According to the report – rather less dry than the official investigation, as we might expect – ‘a great chunk of wall […] crashed’ into the street. Margaret Quelch, 30, was identified. She had her big toe amputated as a result, and the puppy she was carrying in her arms died. Possibly this part of the report was more accurate than the understanding of railway practice: ‘it seems an engine was being moved on a turntable […] when it swung round too far and struck the wall’ (Daily Herald, 2 October 1922, p.5). Close, but not quite right!

As to Margaret Quelch – well, we thought with a reasonably distinctive surname it would be a fairly straightforward task to identify her. Needless to say, that wasn’t the case. There were a fair few Quelchs around, and of course the was a Margaret AND a Margaretha who had married a Malcolm Quelch in the Brighton area! We believe the right person to have been Margaretha, born in 1892. She and Malcolm had two children; by the time of the 1939 Register, Malcolm had died, and one of the their children was still living with Margaretha.

So, in many ways a remarkable case, with a comparatively small personal impact – but one which illustrates some important facets of our database and the work we’re doing.

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