Heritage: ‘Want of caution’ blamed for man’s railway accident

In 1907, an astonishing 1,100 people were killed on the railways, including 454 railway employees. M

In 1907, an astonishing 1,100 people were killed on the railways, including 454 railway employees. More than 5,800 railway workers were injured. Picture: Roger Lighterness via iwitness - Credit: Archant

Fortunately these days few railway workers suffer serious injuries, but there was a time when they were quite common. Prof Ged Martin recounts one such tale.

We know little about William Groves. On that dramatic spring evening in 1904, he was aged 53, a labourer lodging near Ardleigh Green.

William Groves was born in Blackmore, ten miles north of Romford, probably in 1851. The village was packed with families called Groves.

At the 1861 census, when he was nine, he shared a cottage with his grandfather, Robert Groves, an agricultural labourer.

A sister, Fanny, only appears in a later census. This suggests that their parents had died, and the youngsters were split up among relatives.

Although Blackmore is an attractive village today, it was backwater then. In 1861, it was described as a place where "pauperism" was "rife". William's next few decades aren't clear.

It seems he left for London, where he got married. Sadly, his wife died giving birth to their only daughter, Eliza.

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In 1891, William Groves, now a policeman in Southwark, was rearing Eliza with the help of his sister Fanny. Both women then disappear from the story.

The Great Eastern Railway operated a factory near Ardleigh Green. It made tarpaulins to cover goods wagons. Converted into the Kidman Close apartments in the 1960s, it's still a trackside landmark.

The "Romford Factory" sidings were used as a marshalling yard for trains on the Liverpool Street line.

By 1901, William Groves had left the police and was working as a railway labourer, part of a track maintenance team. He lodged in nearby Factory Road. Its grim terraces of housing for railway employees were later replaced by Elvet Avenue.

On Friday, April 15, 1904, the gang worked an eleven and a half hour shift at Stratford.

Groves caught the evening train which reached Romford at 6.20. He was allowed to remain on board as it continued to the sidings. This was standard practice.

When the train halted alongside Factory Road, he opened the carriage door and braced himself to jump down beside the track.

But the train hadn't reached its final stop. Suddenly it jolted backwards, throwing him under the wheels.

His right foot was "severely crushed". His left leg was severed.

He must have been rushed - as fast as horse and cart could carry him - either to Romford's Victoria Cottage Hospital in Pettits Lane (now a health centre) or to the workhouse infirmary at Oldchurch - eventually replaced by the Queen's in 2006. I doubt if surgeons could do very much.

An official enquiry followed. The Inspector, Mr A. Ford, reached a bleak verdict. "I attribute the accident to want of caution on the part of the injured man."

He made no safety recommendations.

We often laugh at our over-protective health and safety culture. But Ford might have suggested that nobody should leave a train in sidings until the engine whistle had signalled that it was safe.

It was important for the system to blame William Groves to avoid paying him compensation.

Railways were shockingly dangerous.

Nowadays, apart from the tragic scourge of suicide, few people are killed on Britain's railways - just 23 in 2015, mostly because they trespassed on the tracks.

But in 1907, an astonishing 1,100 people were killed, including 454 railway employees. More than 5,800 railway workers were injured.

William Groves was probably granted a small disability pension, and maybe some cash to pay for crutches.

In 1911, he boarded in Douglas Road, Hornchurch, off Brentwood Road. His landlord was another railwayman, his cousin Thomas Groves.

Six adults shared a small house, half-way down a long street.

Yet, despite his disability and his isolation, William, now 62, was described as "general labourer". It's hard to imagine what work he did.

Gidea Park station opened in December 1910. I picture William hitching a lift to see it, levering himself across the footbridge and reflecting how things might have been different if it had been there a few years earlier.