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The Thirsk Railway Collision of 1892: How Grief and Exhaustion Led to Disaster

Updated on August 10, 2014
blood on the tracks
blood on the tracks

Most of us have been called upon at times to venture beyond the call of duty at work; to go that extra yard for the sake of the company. You know the sort of thing: staying behind for an hour to meet a deadline, or lending a hand to unload a late delivery in the warehouse. And although we may huff and puff a little when inconvenienced in this way, we are generally happy to help out – as long as the request is a reasonable one

But workers didn’t always enjoy the benefits of these laid back conditions that we take for granted today. There was a time when employees were expected to go that extra mile, not just that extra yard, as this tragic tale demonstrates.

A Terrible Collision

In 1892, a terrible railway accident occurred on the main North East line between Northallerton and Thirsk, when an express train smashed into a stationary goods train at sixty miles per hour. Eight people were killed, and forty injured in the collision. The investigation into the cause of the accident concluded that the blame lay at the feet of James Holmes, the signalman at Manor House box, who had fallen asleep while on duty that night. At the conclusion of the investigation, Signalman Holmes was charged with the manslaughter of George Petch, the guard of the stationary goods train, and he was subsequently found guilty.

Holmes’s dozing off had undoubtedly been the cause of the accident. Records taken from his signal box, and those immediately north and south of it, showed that there was a thirteen minute spell during which the signalman must have lapsed into sleep. When he awoke, in a state of confusion, he gave the all clear signal to the express, forgetting that the goods train was on the line.

But the signalman’s story of events leading up to his momentary lapse were so touching, and sympathy for his plight was so strong, he was allowed to walk free, to the sound of loud cheering from the body of the court.

For it emerged that on the night before the accident, Holmes’s young child had been taken seriously ill, and the concerned father had not slept at all. The following morning, he set off tramping the roads in search of the local doctor, who was out on his rounds. After a long and fruitless search, the exhausted signalman came home to the news that the child had died.

Exhausted and Grief-stricken

Holmes telegraphed his wife’s mother in York, asking her to come down to comfort her distraught daughter. He then went to Otterington Station to relay news of his child’s death to the stationmaster, telling him that he felt quite unable to go on duty that night. The stationmaster, Thomas Kirby, made efforts to install a relief signalman by sending the following telegraph to the signals inspector.

Can you send relief to Manor House tonight? Holmes child dead.

The signals inspector’s reply stated that no relief could be found, so Holmes had no option but to go on duty.

Holmes asked a fellow signalman to telegraph him when the train from York arrived, adding that he was ‘just about done to start duty’. After his wife’s mother arrived, the grief-stricken and exhausted Holmes set off on foot for his signal box at midnight. And at that time, somewhere on the rail network, two locomotives were making progress, each unaware of the other’s existence, their occupants without an inkling of the tragedy that awaited in the darkness.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of Holmes’s tragic experience criticism was aimed at others involved in the calamity. The driver of the goods train, and the signalman at the box up from Holmes’s were accused of contributory negligence, and Stationmaster Kirby was criticised for failing to mention in the wording of his telegraph that Holmes had declared himself unfit for duty. Lessons learned from this terrible incident saw the working hours for signalmen reduced and a better system of relief introduced to ensure full alertness in the box.

It is unthinkable that an employee suffering such great physical and emotional stress should be given the burden of responsibility that fell across the shoulders of signalmen in those days of rudimentary communications; that the safety of human beings was placed in the hands of such a wretched soul.

So the next time you are asked to go beyond the call of duty at work, remember Signalman James Holmes. And be thankful that, partly as a result of lessons being learned from tragedies such as this, working conditions have improved immensely since that tragic night when the signalman fell asleep.


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    • someonewhoknows profile image

      someonewhoknows 4 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      In some ways this reminds me of some people running the government