Chris Heather writes: Over the past two years, The National Archives has been cataloguing a selection of railway accident registers from 15 different railway companies from the era before nationalisation, making these records searchable via Discovery, our catalogue. The results of the data gathering exercise will also be added to the Railway Work, Life and Death database run by Portsmouth University, and hosted on a dedicated website which will include a whole host of additional background information on railway accidents.
So far we have added nearly 20,000 of these incidents to our National Archives catalogue, but we have many thousands more to add. Helping us with this work is a group of dedicated volunteers, one of whom – Andrew Munro – stumbled across an important discovery, which he describes in the following blog entry.
For the last two years I have been working on the Railway Accident Registers Project at The National Archives in Kew, cataloguing the accidents that occurred on the Barry Railway in Glamorgan, Wales, during the period of 1917 to 1921, and on the Midland Railway from 1902 to 1905. As you would expect, the vast majority of these accidents involved employees such as labourers, gangers, locomotive drivers, cleaners and guards.
The registers record a wide range of different injuries, from bruised fingers and sprained ankles to the most severe paralysis, and the deaths of workers run over by trains. As well as employees I have regularly encountered incidences of trespassers being run over and killed by trains, which appear to be cases of suicide. However, I had never encountered the accidental death of a passenger until recently, and I was somewhat taken aback when I came across my first example.
During my cataloguing of the Midland Railway Accident Register covering year 1902 (RAIL 491/1061), on page 68 I came across a most fascinating discovery: the fatality of the Scottish Baronet, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir James Henry Gordon Graham-Montgomery. On Friday 7 November 1902, the Baronet was on board the train that was travelling down from Edinburgh to St Pancras, London. At around 07:00, there was a tragic accident near Manton station in Lincolnshire. The entry in the Register simply states that the Baronet was: ‘supposed to have fallen out of the train. Verdict – Accidental Death’.
Exactly a week later, The Stamford Mercury newspaper, dated Friday 14 November 1902, gives a very detailed report stating that a ganger (a man in charge of a group of labourers) named Ezra Pratt found the Baronet lying in the six-foot way on the Midland main line about 100 yards from Seaton Tunnel. His head was badly injured and one of his feet was severed. Life was not then extinct, but he died 10 minutes later. The inquest, which was conducted on Monday 10 October at the local George Inn, produced the following deductions: While the train was in motion, the door had swung open suddenly, causing him to fall out onto the adjoining railway line. He was immediately hit by the approaching 06:25 train.
Who was Lieutenant Colonel Sir James Graham-Montgomery?
Born in 1850, and 52 at the time of his death, he was the son of Sir Graham Graham-Montgomery and Alice Hope Johnstone. He inherited the title of the Baronet Montgomery of Stanhope in June 1901, following the passing of his father, becoming the fourth holder of this title, and acquired Stobo Castle, located within the Scottish borders, in the historic county of Peeblesshire.
In what was to become a life of great distinction, he was educated at Eton College, and was commissioned into Britain’s oldest continuously serving Army regiment, the Coldstream Guards, in 1869 as a Lieutenant. He served his country in the Anglo-Egyptian War in the year 1882, in which he saw active service in the highly significant and pivotal Battle of Tel El Kebir on 13 September of that year.
In recognition of his gallantry, the then Lieutenant Sir James Graham-Montgomery was awarded the Egypt campaign medal, with the accompanying clasp, as well as the Khedive’s Star medal. In 1889, he retired from the British Army retaining the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He never married, and in later life he served as the Deputy-Lieutenant for Kinross and Peeblesshire.
The inquest into the circumstances of the accident, as reported in contemporary newspapers, arrived at a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’. Crucially, the notion that suicide may have been a motive on the part of the Baronet was dismissed at an early stage owing to the testimony of his brother, and successor to his title. The Stamford Mercury reported that, according to the new and fifth Baronet, he had:
‘never heard him (Sir James Graham-Montgomery) threaten to commit suicide, and there was no reason to believe that this was anything but an accident. He was in a very cheerful frame of mind and was arranging to grant a lease of one of his places in Scotland.’
An open door?
In addition, the possibility that the carriage door of the Baronet’s compartment was inadvertently open was effectively ruled out. Again, the Stamford Mercury reports:
‘The Coroner: “If the carriage-door had been open between Harringworth and Bedford would it have been noticed?” – Witness (Mr Bennett, Midland Railway Inspector): “Yes, (it) would have been noticed at Gretton. The signal-box is on that side and the train would have been stopped. There are seven signal-boxes (on) the six-foot side between Harringworth and Kettering – a distance 13 or 14 miles, and nothing whatever was noticed. If the door had been open (this) would point towards the rear part of the train, and the wind would keep it open. The drivers of two passenger trains which would pass this one did not see anything.” ….. Witness added that it was nearly dark at the time of the incident.’
A third option was mentioned in the obituary published in The Times newspaper on Monday 10 November 1902, in which it states that the Baronet ‘had given his ticket to the guard as he wished to sleep and it is supposed that on awakening suddenly he must have unconsciously opened the door of the compartment he occupied by himself, and have fallen on the line, the 6 o’clock train from Kettering passing shortly afterwards, and severing his foot’.
A fourth option occurs to me, which is the possibility that the carriage door was defective, a possibility which does not seem to have been considered at all, let alone assessed and evaluated. Considering reports that Sir James Graham-Montgomery was perfectly content with his life and was certainly far from being in a suicidal mindset, one cannot help but wonder whether the carriage door was indeed defective owing to negligence on the part of the Midland Railway Company.
If this was the case, it appears to have escaped the notice of the inquest and the Railway Company. Indeed, I have seen many incidents involving railway workers recorded in the Accident Registers which could be interpreted as due to the negligent practices of the company. Unfortunately, we will never know the absolute truth and all the facts in this case.
Following the inquest, the body of the Baronet was conveyed up to Oban and was buried in the graveyard of Stobo Kirk, a medieval church with origins that can be traced as far back as the sixth century. The church and graveyard are situated just six miles south-west of the town of Peebles in the historic county of Peeblesshire in the Scottish Borders, where visitors can still see the family gravestone.
For me it has been a very thought-provoking process to discover, while undertaking my cataloguing work, the untimely passing of a man who had accomplished many notable achievements during his all too short life. It is perhaps ironic that Sir James Graham-Montgomery survived the horrendous conditions and hardships of the Egyptian battlefield at Tel El Kebir in 1882, only to be killed on a peaceful railway line in rural England. It also brings to mind the death of William Huskisson (President of the Board of Trade), who was the first person to be killed on the passenger railways in 1830, and who died from injuries received in a very similar accident.
Unexpected discoveries such as this one are prime examples of why I have found it so rewarding to work on the Railway Accident Registers Project at The National Archives.