The Earl of Dudley’s Railway – Accidents and incidents

Preamble

“Countess”, delivered to the Pensnett Railway in 1859

Elsewhere on this web site and in “Kingswinford Manor and Parish” I have written about the Pensnett or Earl of Dudley’s Railway, which developed in the mid-nineteenth century from the original Kingswinford Railway to carry coal and metal products around the Brierley Hill, Pensnett and Kingswinford area. It was centred on the Round Oak Iron Works, but extended to Ashwood in the west, Baggeridge in the north, Saltwells in the east and Cradley in the south. Along with others who have written on the subject, I have primarily concentrated on the development of the system and the industry it served. However, the railway was an integral part of the local society, and impinged on the inhabitants in ways both good and bad. In this post I want to present some information on how the wider public perceived the railway, from a keyword search of the British Newspaper Archive for the phrases “Pensnett Railway”, “Earl of Dudley’s Railway” and “Kingswinford Railway” from the opening of the Kingswinford Railway in 1827 up to 1920. The extent and quality of this information is thus wholly dependent upon what the local newspapers thought it worthwhile to report on. As is the way with press reports, the material primarily concerns accidents that often resulted in inquests presided over by a coroner, or criminal activity that found its way to the local police and magistrate’s courts. We will thus consider firstly accidents on the railway, both to its workers and to others and then move on to consider criminal cases associated with the railway, principally small scale stealing of coal, but also some more serious incidents. 

Accidents and inquests

Round Oak Iron works showing Pensnett Railway in foreground

Accidents to railway workers were by no means unusual, and occurred throughout the period being considered. One major cause of accidents involved workers being run over by the trains, either through failing to see a train approaching, or through slipping from the train itself. For example, in the County Advertiser of 15/9/1877 we read that Thomas Jones, a labourer at the Wallows, was on the railway just after a possession (a flag) had ended, and was not aware of a train of 13 trucks approaching him. 

“The buffer of one of the trucks struck him and rolled him over. The wheels of six trucks went over him and he died in about five minutes”.

And from the County Express of 21/6/1910 we read of Richard Teague, aged 60, who worked on the incline between Level St. and Saltwells.

“…. several trucks loaded with ironstone had just reached the summit, when he attempted to disconnect the rope from the first wagon. He slipped down, and in a moment his body was cut in a frightful manner by the wheels, death being instantaneous.”.

Shunting was also a hazardous occupation, and there were a number of incidents of workers being crushed between wagons. From the Staffordshire Sentinel of 15/9/1877, concerning John Small at Sandfield Bridge.

“…the trucks did not stop at the proper time and he was crushed against a wall….. in a space of eight inches and was frightfully mangled…”

From the County Express of 28/5/1910, concerning Benjamin Parker (24), a shunter at Round Oak, 

“…both his legs were caught between the wagon and locomotive, with the result that they were frightfully smashed, and a thigh and a leg bone broken…”

There were also accidents to those other than railway workers. The most common seem to have been to children (almost always boys) who tried to jump on or off a moving train for a free ride. In the County Advertiser of 30/4/1904 we read that nine-year old Samuel Oakley of Lower Church St, Pensnett attempted to mount a train on the Barrow Hill incline, but slipped and fell beneath the train

“Two of the trucks passed over him and when the train had been stopped it was found that both legs had been severed from the body and his right arm and hand were terribly crushed”

He died soon afterwards at the Guest Hospital.  In the Dudley Chronicle of 17/6/1916, we read again of children from Church St. in Pensnett – Robert Clowes (14), George Adlington (14) and Thomas Downey (12). They jumped onto a train of empties on its way to Baggeridge. After riding some distance, Downey jumped off, and turned to see Clowes and Adlington disappear through the bottom frame of the truck. Clowes was killed and Adlington seriously injured, one of his arms being badly mangled. 

Much of the railway was used as walking routes by those in the locality, and inevitably this could lead to accidents. In 1882 George Shakespeare (13) had walked along the railway with a friend, Isaac Hardwick, who was taking supper to his father at the Round Oak works. As many readers will be aware one of the idiosyncrasies of the Pensnett Railway was that it crossed the GWR main line at Round Oak on an extended flat crossing across six or more tracks.  When the two lads were using this crossing, George missed the approach of an express train from Wolverhampton, and he was “swept down by the express” ((County Express 21/1/1882). We read further

….when the train had passed the lad was found to be quite dead, the top of his head being crushed to pieces and his brains scattered about the place”. 

If an accident resulted in a fatality, an inquest was held within days at a local public house under the jurisdiction of the coroner, with a jury drawn from the locality. For example for George Shakespeare, the inquest was held in the Commercial Inn in Bromley. The verdict for accidents of the type described above was nearly always “accidental death” with little blame being attached to employer or operator.  In the early days these seem to have been relatively informal affairs, but in the early twentieth century, there was a greater level of formality, with factory inspectors often involved, and the Earl of Dudley being represented by legal council. 

Not all accidents resulted in injury to either workers or local residents. In 1916, Charles Mace, an engine driver, was shunting trucks in a siding near Tansey Green, when a number of trucks ran into the engine and through him off. The driverless engine and its coke trucks then ran for about a mile towards the Stallings Lane crossing where it derailed  (Dudley Chronicle, 28/1/1916). The report also notes that 

“It is a curious fact that the same engine, in charge of the same driver, was overturned at the same spot sometime ago.”

Curious indeed. Finally, it is worth mentioning the accident that received the most press coverage of them all, the same text being reported in newspapers the length and breadth of the country. Naturally it involved animals rather than humans. We quote the Worcestershire Chronicle of 6/11/1867 in full.

“On Friday evening at the Earl of Dudley’s railway at the Old Park  Coliery near Dudley, a singular accident occurred. Mr Phineas Parsons, a farmer of Pensnett, has the  right to run his sheep on the pasturage near the Old Park Colliery; and on the night in question one of Mr. Parson’s men proceeded to drive a flock of 65 sheep from one portion of the land to another, and in doings o the whole flock got onto the tramway. A couple of trucks, loaded with coal had been started in charge of one of the men down the incline, and these trucks overtook the sheep in a narrow cutting, and the consequence was that 23 were killed on the spot, and six others were so mutilated as to render it necessary to slaughter them at once. “

Phineas Parsons worked Hollies Farm (1872 Post Office Directory), so it is natural he would have pasturage rights in the Old Farm area nearby. It is not however clear which incline is referred to here – the Barrow Hill incline seems too far away from Old Park to be the incline in question, so perhaps there was a smaller incline within the Old Park colliery complex itself. 

From Facebook post by Dave Fisher, photograph by Roger Shenton. If further acknowledgements are required, please let me know. The likely site is at the bottom of the Barrow Hill incline.

Crime and punishment

The stealing of coal was endemic in the area in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, both from pits themselves and the railway, and scores of incidents are reported in the press.  This perhaps reflects the relative poverty of the area , as well as the easy availability of coal. Those involved were of all ages, although children and young adults were in the majority, with the magistrates court imposing fines of between 5s and £1 or 7 to 14 days imprisonment. In 1916 the local Superintendent of Police complained in court that “the local people went and fetched the coal away as though they had a right to it” (Dudley Chronicle 15/1/1916). Marxist historians would no doubt agree that they did, as the land from which the coal came had been common land on Pensnett Chase until a century before, when the rights of commoners had been extinguished by the Pensnett Chase Enclosure Award, and ownership of all underground resources had been “stolen” from the locals and given explicitly to the Earl of Dudley. Whether or not one accepts this analysis, it is hard not to feel sympathy for some of those arrested for coal stealing. For example Letitia Garbett (63) of Lower High St, Pensnett  was fined £1 for stealing coal from the railway, or fourteen days imprisonment. She complained she had no money and would have to go to prison in her old age (County Express 25/11/1911). Similarly, in 1916 Oswald Smith (11), Mary Parkes (12), Albert Beddard (10) and Alice Timmins (10) all of Chapel St Pensnett were caught with small amounts of coal in their possession by the local constable, and their parents were each fined 10s, or 6 days imprisonment if they could not pay (Dudley Chronicle 22/4/1916). 

Many of those brought to court were serial offenders. For example, Edward Jones (16) from Pensnett was said at his trial in 1881 to have been convicted six times in the previous four years, and was lucky not to be sent to the Quarter Sessions. He was imprisoned for six weeks with hard labour (County Express 31/12/1881). A year later Caroline Pulley (32), who was sent to prison for two months, was said to have nine previous convictions (Birmingham Daily Post 13/6/1882). 

One particular area of activity seems to have been the Queen St / Church St / Chapel St area of Pensnett, with many defendants coming from that area.  At the same hearing where  the elderly Letitia Garbett was sentenced, Eliza Wilde of Queens Lane, Pensnett was fined 10s; Barbara Watkins of Church St was fined £1; Gertrude Barker of Church St and Mary Hunt of Lower Church St were fined 5s each. This might be simply due to press reporting giving a false impression of the prevalence of crime in the area, but it may also be due to the assiduousness of the local night watchman, Josiah Hickman. He lived at Woodside and is recorded a number of times in the press as “proving cases” against a wide variety of offenders.  As an example of his modus operandi, we have a report in the County Express of 9/4/1910 of him lying on the ground somewhere around the end of Church St., waiting for Joseph Westwood to leave his home 50 or 60 yards away. The latter picked up a large chunk of coal from a truck on the railway (weighing about half a hundredweight), before Hickman detained him by putting his stick around his neck. Westwood managed to struggle free. It would seem that Ellen Horton was also in the area and tried to warn Westwood when Hickman appeared, shouting “Hey Up, Joe”. Westwood was fined 10s and Horton 5s for aiding and abetting. 

There are also indications of more organized activity. In hearings in 1916, several dozen women were charged with coal stealing from the Wallows area, where, it was said in court, the average loss on that part of the line was 25 to 30 tons per week (Dudley Chronicle 29/1/1916). It seems that there was an elaborate system of pickets to warn of approaching constables or watchmen. If any were caught and fined, then the fines were covered by a whip-round of all those involved. It was revealed that in total there were 215 convictions for coal stealing at Brierley Hill magistrates for the year ending January 24th1916, 57 involving children (and their 57 guardians who paid the fines), 90 involving women and 11 involving men.  For all involved at the cases being heard that day the sentences were quite severe – a 25s fine, or 21 days in jail. It was clear the magistrates were significantly swayed by the fact that most of the women were in receipt of army allowances, as their husbands were in the forces, and were thought well able to afford to buy coal.

From time to time the minor criminality associated with the railway took on a more dangerous form. Of particular concern was deliberate vandalism by youths. In 1906 Hezekiah Price and Joseph Rider (both of Lower Church St. again) were charged with moving points and putting a brick between the rail and the points in order to derail a train. Although they claimed they were only playing, the magistrate took the matter very seriously and sentenced them to six strokes of the birch each (County Advertiser 22/9/1906). In a similar manner in 1913, George Treadwell (11) and Percy Treadwell (10) of Vine St, Hart’s Hill were charged with tampering with points at Round Oak, through the insertion of a brick. This time it actually resulted in a derailment of truck, with the brakeman on the buffers of the truck being thrown off, and the tearing up of 30 yards of permanent way.  

At the other end of the railway in 1914, Albert Greenaway (10) and Joe Andrews (10) of High St., Wall Heath, were charged with releasing a truck at the top end of the Ashwood incline by tampering with its brakes (Dudley Chronicle 9/5/1914). Fortunately nobody was injured, although the seriousness of the offence was stressed. On hearing that the boys had already been whipped by their fathers for the offence (which, said the magistrate, “was the proper thing to do”), the boys were discharged and ordered to pay costs of 7s 6d each only.

Some of the components of the railway of course were worth stealing in their own right. In 1906, Josiah Hickman caught two brothers from Low Town (near Holly Hall), James and Joseph Bagley, removing “keys” from the line – wooden pegs used to attach the rail to the chair. 18 were removed in total to a value of 3s. The brothers were fined 21s each, or a month in jail. The railway also carried valuable items of course other than coal. In 1917 there was a spate of thefts from trucks on the railway, but no culprits could be found. It seems that a trap was set, and two constables kept watch under cover on some trucks laden with “sharps” near Sandfield Bridge (Dudley Chronicle 3/11/1917). They waited from 3.00 in the afternoon, till 1.00 the next morning. Whilst they were watching, at about 12.50am, they saw Harry Darrell (20) a bricklayer of Smithy Lane, and Joseph Mason (45), a stallman from somewhere in Pensnett, make two visits to the truck to remove two bags of sharps. After the second bag was removed, Darrell was seized, but Mason ran away. On following him home, they found the other bag of sharps there, along with stolen bags of flour.  Similar bags of flower were found at Darrell’s home. The constables were commended by the magistrate for their actions.  Both Darrell and Mason pleaded guilty and asked for their previous exemplary character to be taken into account. Unfortunately, and frustratingly, the quality of the copy of the report in the BNA becomes very poor at this point, so I am unable to say what the magistrate made of the plea!

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