A Bad Job: Thirsk, 1892

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    Though the story of every fatal accident is a tragedy for somebody, few are quite so sad as the tale of what is known as the Thirsk railway accident, although it actually happened about three miles north of there. I have perforce had to include some (simplified) signalling technicalities, but you’d need a heart of stone not to be moved by this story.

    It begins quietly enough, with a signalman walking home from work.

    It is six o’clock on the morning of Tuesday 1 November 1892 in the North Riding of Yorkshire, and Signalman James Holmes has just finished his twelve-hour night shift at Manor House signal-box, between Thirsk and Northallerton on the North Eastern Railway’s section of the east coast main line from London to Scotland. He doesn’t go home straight away, but waits for his colleague Thomas Gibson to arrive from Avenue Junction signal-box, just over a mile to the south. Both men live in the village of Thornton-le-Moor, near Otterington, the next station northwards, and they are in the habit of walking home together. It’s a two-and-a-half mile walk, and it’s good to have some company.

    By the time Holmes gets home at 7.15 he is about ready for a day in bed. Manor House is as small and simple as a main-line signal-box gets, and it is closed down and switched out of the system on Sundays, giving him the chance to sleep through the night. Yesterday morning, Monday, he got up at nine o’clock and spent most of the day in his orchard picking apples to send to market, so he hasn’t had any sleep for over twenty-two hours. Now he intends to make up for it, to be fresh for another twelve-hour shift tonight.

    But his wife is worried about their four-months-old baby girl, who seems to be having difficulty breathing. ‘I don’t think our Rosy is very well this morning,’ she says. Holmes replies that it’s probably just a cold. He tells his wife to leave the child where she is in the bed, and gets in beside her. When his wife brings him a cup of tea and something to eat an hour or so later, the baby seems to be sleeping peacefully, so Holmes has his breakfast and goes back to sleep. The next thing he knows it’s getting on for midday and his wife, who has taken Rose from the bed to wash and dress her, is calling to him. ‘Jim, Jim, I believe this child is in a fit!’ They fetch a neighbour for a second opinion. She takes a look at the child and tells them to fetch the doctor.

    For a working man in this year of grace 1892 that is easier said than done. The doctor’s surgery is over four miles away in Northallerton, and people of Holmes’ station in life have neither telephones nor, usually, any personal transport. Around twelve o’clock he sets out to walk the mile or so to Otterington station, where he hitches a lift on a goods train to Northallerton – only to be told when he reaches the surgery that the doctor is out on his round

    Since that round will include his own village of Thornton-le-Moor, there’s a chance that someone will see the doctor and call him in to see the child as he passes through, but just in case Holmes decides to walk all the way home, in hopes of meeting the doctor somewhere along the way. It takes him about an hour, and it’s not hard to imagine his anxiety as he trudges through the flat countryside. With no means of contacting home he has no idea what has happened to the baby; neither does he see the doctor.

    When he gets home at two his worst fears are realised. The doctor hasn’t called, and the baby has died while he was out.

    His wife is distraught, and tells him she can’t face being left alone that night. Holmes replies that he himself is unfit for duty and will ask to be relieved, but in any case he will send a telegram to his mother in York asking her to come as soon as she can.

    Back he goes to Otterington. On his way to the telegraph office he calls in at the station to speak to Thomas Kirby, the stationmaster. He tells him that his baby has just died very suddenly and that he doesn’t feel fit for duty, and asks if a relief can be found for tonight. Kirby replies that it may not be possible at such short notice, but he will see what can be done. Holmes is to come back about the time he’d normally go on duty to see what the answer is.

    Holmes goes home to give his wife what comfort he can, and Kirby telegraphs to Thomas Pick, the district inspector. His message says simply, ‘Can you send relief to Manor House cabin tonight? Holmes’ child dead.’ He doesn’t mention that Holmes has declared himself unfit for duty.

    Holmes’ shift is due to start at 6.00pm. That is also when a train from York is due, and he is anxious to see if his mother is on it. Shortly before six he is back in the stationmaster’s office, where bad news is waiting for him. Stationmaster Kirby has had a reply to his message. ‘Cannot relieve Holmes,’ it says.

    Holmes doesn’t plead his case any further. If no relief is available he will simply have to work, like it or not. ‘It’s a bad job,’ he tells Kirby. ‘I’m in bad fettle for work. I shouldn’t care so much about myself, but I’m most bothered about my wife. She’s not fit to be left all night by herself.’ If his mother is not on the six o’clock train, he says, he’ll have to go home again to get some neighbours to stay with his wife until his mother does arrive, then he’ll come back to see if she is on the next train from York, at half-past seven. Kirby agrees that he can telegraph Signalman Creed, the day-shift man at Manor House box, asking him to stay on until eight o’clock.

    The six o’clock train comes and goes with no sign of Holmes’ mother; neither is she on the 7.30 train when he walks back to the station for the fourth time this day. Although his mate on the day shift was sympathetic and cooperative when he wired him earlier, saying that he should take all the time he needs, Holmes really can’t ask him to cover for him any longer. Creed has been on duty since he took over from Holmes at six this morning. Holmes has no choice but to go and start his shift.

    Still worrying about his mother’s non-arrival, he goes to the Otterington signal-box to ask the signalman, Henry Eden, to keep a look-out for his mother and telegraph him if she arrives by the next York train. ‘Harry,’ he says, ‘I am about done to start duty. I have never been off my legs since twelve o’clock. I’m done up.’ Eden thinks he looks tired, upset, and ‘put out,’ but seems more worried about his wife than himself.

    It is about eight o’clock when Holmes arrives at Manor House signal-box, and a misty evening is thickening into a foggy night. An hour later a message from Harry Eden at Otterington telling him that his mother has finally arrived eases his mind a little, and for several more hours he carries out his duties promptly and correctly, until he is feeling quite proud of the way that he has, despite everything, been keeping up with his work.

    Since the Regulation of Railways Act, passed three years before in the wake of the dreadful accident at Armagh, it has been compulsory for all passenger lines to be signalled on the absolute block system. A block is the section of line between two signal-boxes, and ‘absolute block’ means that no train is allowed past a signal into a section until the previous train has passed the signal at the other end of the section. This requires reliable communication between the signalmen, and so every signal-box is equipped with devices known as block instruments, by which information about the train movements is sent from signalman to signalman by coded bell-rings. The instruments also have indicators showing the state of the line.

    [Rather than burden the story with long explanations, I’ve added a footnote at the end of this blog setting out the procedures in more detail, for those who want more clarification of what comes next, or are simply interested.]

    Tonight the overnight express from Edinburgh to London is running in two portions. The second portion’s departure from Edinburgh has been delayed by the late arrival of a connecting train and the two trains are running twenty-five minutes apart, so at 3.36 the signalman at Northallerton North decides to let a goods train out onto the main line between them.

    The first portion of the express passes Signalman Eden’s box at Otterington at 3.37, and Holmes’ box at Manor House one minute later. The goods train is not far behind, so at 3.43 Eden sends Holmes the block instrument bell code for ‘Is line clear?’ or, as they call it on the North Eastern Railway, ‘Be ready.’ Signalmen call this ‘offering a train forward.’ Holmes repeats Eden’s bell code back to him straight away, thereby acknowledging it and accepting the train into his section. Eden pulls off his signals for the goods train, and goes to sit down by his fire for a few minutes.

    There is nothing in the rules to say he can’t do this: it should be safe enough, for the bell signals from his block instruments will alert him if anything needs doing. But what passes him by as he sits reading by the fire is not any bell signal, but the lack of one. It hasn’t occurred to him to wonder why there hasn’t been a peep out of Manor House since Holmes accepted the goods train.

    Outside in the darkness of the early morning, through the shifting veils of fog, the goods train is trundling southwards along the main line. It runs under clear signals until it is approaching Manor House, where Driver Joseph Barnes sees the distant signal showing a yellow light for caution. He puts the brakes on, and at around 3.50 the train comes to a halt 57 yards short of Holmes’ signal-box by the home signal, which is showing red.

    Rule 275A in the NER’s rulebook says, ‘In case of detention at a home or starting signal the engine driver must sound his whistle, and if still detained the guard or fireman must go to the signal-box and remind the signalman of the position of the train or engine, and remain there until the signalman can give permission to go forward. In foggy weather or during falling snow the guard or fireman must, immediately upon the train coming to a stand, proceed to the signal-box.’ This is the NER’s version of the rule known throughout the British railway world as Rule 55, and it is one of the cornerstones of railway safety.

    But Driver Barnes doesn’t do any of this. He neither sounds his whistle nor sends his fireman to the signal-box, but is content to let his train stand waiting. He wouldn’t be, if only he knew exactly why that signal is at danger.

    It is now nearly forty-three hours since James Holmes got up on Monday morning. Since then he has had only three or four hours’ broken sleep, and he has spent most of this day before going on duty on his feet. For over seven-and-a-half hours he has carried out his duties to the letter, but now, worn out by a long day of worry and grief, and by fifteen miles or more of walking, it has all caught up with him. His head suddenly swimming, he has managed to accept the goods train from Harry Eden at Otterington, but before he can complete the process by offering it forward to Tom Gibson in the next box at Avenue Junction and pulling off his signals, he has been, as he will later put it, ‘overpowered by sleep.’

    Unfortunately there is a loophole in the NER’s signalling rules. On some railways a signalman is not allowed to offer a train forward to the next section until he has received the ‘Train out of section’ bell code for the preceding train, but the North Eastern has no such rule. When Signalman Eden is alerted to the impending arrival of the second portion of the express he sees no reason not to offer it forward to Manor House, even though he still hasn’t received ‘Train out of section’ for the goods train. He does so, at four o’clock exactly.

    At Manor House the bell on the block instrument startles Holmes awake. In a daze, he checks the instrument and sees its indicator showing ‘Train on line.’ What’s that about? He must have forgotten to reset it after the first portion of the express passed, he thinks. He resets it now, sends ‘Train out of section’ back to Otterington, and accepts the second portion of the express. He offers it forward to Avenue Road, gets an acceptance, and pulls off his signals. He doesn’t remember anything about the goods train he accepted just as he was falling asleep.

    On that train, Driver Barnes sees the home signal change to green. He releases the brakes and opens the regulator, and as Holmes sees the train chugging towards the signal-box he is paralysed by a moment of terrible doubt. The bell code he received from Eden at Otterington was offering him an express train. This can’t be it.

    Quickly recovering, he gets on the telegraph to Eden. Is the train he has just accepted the express? Yes, replies Eden. Holmes throws all his signals to danger, but it’s too late.

    The goods train has moved no further than its own length, and has only attained the speed of a fast walk, when the express hurtles out of the fog at 60mph. Driver Roland Ewart is leaning out of the cab trying to see his way in the poor visibility, and when he spots the tail lights of the goods train they are so close that he doesn’t even have time to reach the controls. At 4.02, with steam still on and the brakes off, the express piles at full speed into the back of the slow-moving goods train. Nine passengers and the guard of the goods train are killed. Driver Ewart and his fireman Edward Head have lucky escapes. Both are thrown from the engine and injured, Ewart seriously, but both survive.

    But James Holmes’ ordeal is far from over. There will be an enquiry, and who knows what its verdict will be?

    ‘I have no hesitation in saying that [Holmes] ought to have been relieved,’ wrote the chairman of the enquiry, Major F A Marindin, in his report, ‘and I am of the opinion that it was a grave error of judgement on the part of the Otterington stationmaster, Mr Kirby, not to have stated in his telegram to Inspector Pick that Signalman Holmes had said that he was not fit for duty.’ Public opinion was solidly behind him, and the railway company was widely vilified for forcing a grieving, exhausted man to work; but Marindin went on to qualify his statement.

    ‘It must, however, be remembered,’ Marindin wrote, ‘that it is comparatively easy to say after an event what should or should not have been done, that when Signalman Holmes came to the station at about 6 pm, … although he told Mr Kirby he was “in bad fettle for work,” a somewhat less emphatic expression than saying he was “unfit for work,” he voluntarily, and in a very proper spirit, went to make arrangements for going on duty, and made no fresh request to be relieved, and that Mr Kirby formed the deliberate opinion, wrong though it turned out to be, that Signalman Holmes was in a fit state to go on duty.’

    Do I detect a certain amount of hair-splitting here, an effort to exonerate Kirby?

    In the absence of any statement of his motives from Holmes, whose evidence stuck strictly to the facts, we can only speculate on why he consented to go on duty without further argument. We don’t know how overbearing Kirby may have been, and we don’t know Holmes’ character. Maybe he was a conscientious man and went to work out of a sense of duty. Maybe his spirit had been so crushed by grief that he was incapable of making a stand; maybe he resigned himself to what he saw as the inevitable. Most likely it was simply the product of the authoritarian culture of the times, in which people like him were expected to know their place and do as they were told. In other Victorian accident reports I have read, railway workers are often referred to not as employees but as ‘servants.’

    Not that Holmes’ falling into line did him any favours, despite his ‘very proper spirit.’ Major Marindin concluded that Holmes’ fatigue and distress, ‘if they cannot be accepted as a sufficient excuse for his subsequent failure to perform his duty after undertaking to do it, go a very long way towards accounting for it.’ The italics are mine.

    Holmes wasn’t the only one who needed excuses. Marindin held Driver Barnes of the goods train to blame for failing to observe Rule 55. If he had, Holmes would have been roused and the crash wouldn’t have happened. If, as Barnes claimed, it was ‘not customary’ for drivers to sound their whistles when coming to a stand at an adverse signal, then the NER ought to enforce its rules more stringently. Considering the foggy weather, he should also have sent his fireman to the signal-box straight away.

    Though it was ‘a perfectly legitimate act,’ Signalman Eden chose a rather unfortunate time to go to sit by the fire and read: he should have waited until all the signalling procedures for the goods train had been completed. Marindin also thought that if Eden ‘had been quite alive to the importance of his office’ he would have noticed the silence from Holmes’ box and taken steps to find out what had happened to the goods train, especially since he’d seen Holmes just before he went on duty and had some idea of the state he was in. Since Eden had carried out his own duties properly and hadn’t broken any rules, Marindin held that he could ‘hardly be blamed for what occurred,’ but he pointed out that the rule the North Eastern didn’t have, the one forbidding a signalman from offering a train forward until the next signalman had sent him ‘Train out of section’ for the previous train, would probably have prevented the accident. It should be added to the NER rule book at once.

    Marindin also considered that the signalmen’s shifts of twelve hours were too long, and recommended that they be reduced to ten hours (!).

    But none of the mitigating factors was considered enough. Neither was the tragedy of Holmes’ personal life, nor even his having been overwhelmed by circumstances beyond his control while trying to do his best, rather than committing any act of negligence. The fact remained that he had fallen asleep on duty and had failed to carry out the correct signalling procedures, and the deaths of ten people were a direct result of that. Holmes was arrested and charged with manslaughter.

    There was a public outcry, and a campaign for clemency, but the wheels of justice ground remorselessly on. Holmes was tried at York Assizes and found guilty. Only now did a chink of light penetrate the darkness of his personal nightmare. The jury added its own plea for clemency, and the judge gave him an absolute discharge, to cheers from the court-room.

    Among those who campaigned on his behalf was the writer E Nesbit, and an incident in ‘The Railway Children’ where the children wake up a sleeping signalman and avert a disaster was inspired by Holmes’ story, even if the outcome was far happier.

    At least the North Eastern Railway had the grace not to sack James Holmes, and he remained in its employ and that of its successor the London and North Eastern, ending his working life as a sleeping car attendant in the nineteen-thirties. But it is hardly surprising that the grief, the guilt, and the stress of all he had to go through broke him. He never fully recovered from the trauma of those events of 1892, suffering from depression for the rest of his life.

    Techie footnote:

    The signalling procedures for one passing train go like this, if we are in signal-box B.

    The block instrument in our signal-box (there is actually one for each line, but let’s keep this as simple as we can) has two indicators, one for the section of line between signal-box A and ours (A-B), the other for the next section between our signal-box and signal-box C (B-C). The indicators have three positions: ‘normal’, ‘line clear’, and ‘train on line’. The settings on the indicators automatically repeat on the appropriate indicators in the signal-boxes at the other ends of their sections.

    The first we hear of the train is when signal-box A offers it to us by sending us the bell code for ‘Is line clear?’ The codes vary for different kinds of train (goods, stopping passenger, express, etc), so we know what sort of train we are dealing with. If our section is clear we accept it by repeating the code back to A, and by changing our A-B indicator from ‘normal’ to ‘line clear’. This indication will be repeated on the instrument at A, and enables the signalman there to clear his signals. If our section is not clear we simply do nothing.

    If we have accepted the train, the next code we hear from A is ‘Train entering section.’ This means that the train has just passed A and is on its way to us. We repeat the code back to acknowledge it, and set our A-B indicator to ‘train on line’. This is the point at which Holmes fell asleep.

    If we are awake, though, as soon as we’ve done that we send ‘Is line clear?’ to the next signal-box at C. If C accepts the train by repeating our code back to us we will see our B-C indicator move to ‘line clear’ as C sets his indicator. Then, and only then, we can clear our signals for the train. If C doesn’t respond, our signals remain at danger and the train will have to wait at them until we do receive an acceptance.

    Assuming C has accepted the train and we have cleared our signals, when the train passes us we send ‘Train entering section’ to C. C will repeat it back to us, and we will see our B-C indicator change to ‘train on line’. Now we return our signals to danger, send ‘Train out of section’ to A, and reset our A-B indicator to ‘normal’.

    Lastly, we wait to receive ‘Train out of section’ from C and to see our B-C indicator return to ‘normal’. Until we do, we must not offer C another train. This is the rule whose absence from the NER rule book contributed to the Thirsk accident.

    This system is primeval by comparison with the computerised, centralised, remote-control technology of modern signalling, and you might be excused for believing that it is only to be found on heritage lines now. But in fact there are lines in remoter areas of the national rail network where the traffic levels aren’t high enough to justify the cost of the modern bells and whistles, and the old system is still in use, complete with semaphore signals. One such is the main line to Fishguard, west of Llanelli. I know a place – Ferryside, on the estuary of the River Towy a few miles south of Carmarthen – where the signal-box is right beside a level crossing and a footbridge across the tracks, and as you pass it on your way to the beach you may hear the sounds that haven’t changed for well over a century: the ringing of the block bells, the crash and clonk of the signal levers, and the clatter and thunk of the semaphore arms.

    John S Alty

    Another hugely entertaining tale of the rails, and very informative too. Thanks Richard.


    Fascinating as usual, Richard. A wonderful piece of story-telling.

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