ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • someonewhoknows profile image


      5 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

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


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)