Surfacemen, a sixteen-year-old, safety and the Scottish Railway

16 July 2019
cr-booklet-99118.jpg Cover of the Caledonian Railway Company Vigilance booklet
Dr Mike Esbester introduces the Railway Work, Life and Death project, a free resource that is shedding light on the dangers of working on Scottish railways in years gone by.
Surfacemen, a sixteen-year-old, safety and the Scottish Railway Images

On 10 April 1914 a gang of four Caledonian Railway workers were maintaining the track on the Muirkirk branch line, near Sandilands Viaduct, near Lanark. Just before 11.30am, surfacemen John Laidlaw and William Symington were between the rails, with colleagues James Stewart and Charles McLauchlan, the foreman, at the edge of the track.

An untimetabled train approached unnoticed, in part due to the strong wind and sound of the river Clyde in spate obscuring its noise. Tragically, the train struck the gang, killing Laidlaw and Symington, and injuring Stewart (who was hit by Symington’s body, surely a gruesome event). McLauchlan was unharmed.

These are just three of the 700 Scottish railway workers who feature in a free resource being made available by the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project. The project is making it easier for you to find details of accidents to UK and Irish railway employees, from the late 1880s to the Second World War. We’re taking records that were created at the time and producing transcriptions, including all the key factual information and summaries of the accidents. This is all then made available free from the project website.

Railway Work, Life & Death project

The project is a joint initiative of the National Railway Museum, the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick and the University of Portsmouth, working with The National Archives of the UK at Kew. What’s really amazing is that what has been produced so far is all down to the dedication of the volunteer teams at each of the institutions involved – their hard work has meant we can get better insight into the working lives (and in some cases, deaths) of staff like Laidlaw, Symington, Stewart and McLauchlan.

Our first run of data covers nearly 4,000 cases from January 1911 to June 1915, but we’re currently working on extending the project back to the 1880s and forwards to 1939. We anticipate this bringing in another 70,000 records over the coming years, a great many of which will be from Scotland.

The 700 existing Scottish cases cover the extent of the railway network over 100 years ago, from Aberdeen to Whifflet, via Ayr, Burntisland, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth and many more locations. They give us more detail about what railwaymen and women were actually doing at work, including people like cleaners and capstanmen, drivers, guards, lamp boys, porters, stationmasters, signalmen and shunters.

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The stories behind the statistics

What might you find in the project? Unsurprisingly, we get a strong sense of the dangers of railway work. The sheer numbers are staggering – in 1913 alone, across the whole of the UK, nearly 30,000 workers were either injured or killed.

But only around 3% of those cases were investigated by state-appointed inspectors, whose records are currently the backbone of our project. Still, that 3% gives us the individual perspective: the cases move from being large numbers to real people.

One of those people was sixteen-year-old James Beck. He was a ‘wagon greaser’ (someone responsible for ensuring the axle boxes of freight wagons were topped up with grease, to make the wheels turn smoothly) for the Caledonian Railway Company.

On 16 July 1914, Beck was walking between two railway lines near Shawfield in Glasgow when he was hit by a train and killed. The investigation attributed the accident to ‘want of care on the part of Beck, who, I am assured, had been specially warned to beware of trains’ when he was walking between the lines.

Importantly Beck hadn’t been told not to walk between the lines and to find a safer way to do his work. This was assumed to be a ‘natural’ part of the job: employees had to learn to deal with the danger and use ‘appropriate’ levels of care and attention. Beck’s death and the subsequent investigation were not the end of the story, however. His case was later used as a warning to others in the Caledonian Railway’s 1921 accident prevention publication ‘The Vigilance Booklet’.

The data also helps us see some national differences across the UK. In the case we started with, the two workers, Laidlaw and Symington, who were killed were ‘surfacemen’. All bar one of the 57 cases of accident to surfacemen took place in Scotland: why? What was so dangerous to Scottish surfacemen in comparison with the other nations?

Not a lot – but you need to know the wrinkle in the terms used. A ‘surfaceman’ was someone who worked on the track, maintaining it – known in the other nations as a ‘platelayer’. So – it wasn’t the case that Scottish track work was any more dangerous than in England, Wales or Ireland, just that a different term was used to describe the work! (Working on the tracks, in amongst moving trains, was one of the most dangerous jobs on the railways, and there were lots of fatal accidents.) 

Looking to the future

As a result of the variety of information found in the database we’ve had interest from all sorts of people and groups, across the world. As you might expect, family historians and rail enthusiasts have been very keen on what we’re doing. But we’re also working with the current rail industry to see how we might contribute to efforts to improve safety today; as well as with museums and archives to improve the visibility and accessibility of the stories found in the accident records. There’s great potential for local historians, too, as the records tell us about the impact of the railway on local communities.

To return to the deaths of John Laidlaw and William Symington, the accident investigation concluded that ‘the accident was clearly due to the fact that an efficient look-out was not being kept.’ The noise and the structure of the viaduct meant that advance warning of the train would have been limited. Under those circumstances the state inspector felt that foreman McLaughlan should have appointed a special look-out man (someone whose sole job it was to watch for approaching trains) instead of attempting to help with the work and keep watch.

As a result, McLaughlan received a large portion of the responsibility for the accident. Interestingly a rider was added to this: ‘I consider that his failure in this respect was largely due to a want of proper guidance from his superior officers’. The report went on to detail the failings of the railway company, something relatively unusual for its time – but helpful in giving us a sense of the intricacies and deficiencies of railway operation.

If you use the database, available free from the project website, along with a host of other resources, and find someone you’re researching, please let us know – we’d love to hear about it!

Follow the project on Twitter (@RWLDproject) for more & find all our resources, free, on our website.

Dr Mike Esbester, one of the project co-leads, is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Portsmouth, where he researches and teaches on a variety of topics, including the history of safety, risk and accident prevention in modern Britain.

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