Wednesday, 21 March 2012

'Calculated to lead to accidents' - The North Midland's Staff Policies, 1842

In the early 1840s the North Midland Railway paid its shareholders very poorly, there being no dividend in 1840 and only 3 per cent being paid in 1841. The shareholders rebelled and a number formed a committee to investigate cuts in the company's working expenditure. Joined by George Hudson, nicknamed 'the Railway King' because of his financial interest in so many lines, the committee recommended dramatically cutting the company's wage bill from £40,600 per annum to £22,800. Yet the directors, concerned with the safety of the travelling public, rejected the committee's report categorically. This put both parties at odds, and matters came to a head at a shareholders meeting in late 1842 where tempers were frayed and accusations made. Six weeks later, somewhat predictably, a number of directors resigned, only to be replaced by members of the committee, including Hudson.

Consequently, the company instigated one of the harshest set of staff reforms found in the early railway. A quarter of the drivers and firemen were fired without warning, and if any of the survivors protested they were dismissed also. Indeed, when in late 1842 one group of footplate staff sent a memorial to the board complaining about the changes, which would require them to work longer hours, they were fired on Christmas Eve. Furthermore, almost all of the staff suffered a reduction in wages.

But for the travelling public another danger loomed, and when drivers and firemen were fired for insubordination they were usually replaced by vastly less experienced men who accepted the company's new terms of employment. One individual who wrote to the Railway Times even argued that the newly employed drivers had been dismissed from other railways because they had found to be incompetent or even drunk. Thus, he had no hesitation in predicting there would be accidents, and there were. In early 1843 one passenger was killed at Cudworth when a luggage train went into the back of passenger train; and two freight trains collided in Derby. There is no doubt that the inexperience of drivers was a factor, and Edward Jenkins, driver of the luggage train, had only been on the footplate for three weeks.

The Board of Trade blamed the directors publicly for the accidents, citing drivers' long hours and poor pay as being a contributory cause. They criticised the fact that footplate crews for thirteen days out of fourteen had to drive nearly a hundred and fifty miles in each, stating that these conditions were 'too harassing for men and calculated to lead to accidents.' The report eventually forced the North Midland to provide drivers and firemen with additional rest periods and employ more experienced staff.


All details from Arnold, A.J. and McCartney, S. The Rise and Fall of the Railway King, (London, 2004), p.83-85

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