University of Portsmouth's History Blog

The sad death of 16-year old James Beck

Dr Mike Esbester, senior lecturer in history at Portsmouth, has written the following blog telling the story of the death, in July 1914, of a teenager working for the Caledonian Railway Company. Mike’s research focuses on the cultural history of safety, risk and accident prevention in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Volunteers working on the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’  project have uncovered the stories of nearly 4,000 individuals who were either injured or killed whilst working on Britain’s railways between January 1911 and June 1915. Amongst the casualties was 16-year old James Beck, a ‘wagon greaser’ (someone responsible for ensuring the axle boxes of freight wagons were topped up with greaser, to make the wheels turn smoothly) for the Caledonian Railway Company. On 16 July 1914, Beck was walking between two railway lines near Shawfield (in Glasgow) when he was hit by a train and killed. His case was later used as a warning to others in the Caledonian Railway’s 1921 accident prevention publication ‘The Vigilance Booklet’, from which the images here are taken.

The investigation attributed the accident to ‘want of care on the part of Beck, who, I am assured, had been specially warned to beware of trains’ when he was walking between the lines – though notably he hadn’t been told not to walk between the lines and to find a safer way to do his work. This was just one of 125 cases featured in the accident reports for the 3 months between July and September 1914, itself a small fraction of the total numbers killed or injured.

The volunteers were based at the National Railway Museum, York, the partner institution working on the project with the History team’s Mike Esbester. Between them, the volunteers put in over 1,000 hours of time, cataloguing what happened, to whom and why, for 3,913 railway worker accidents. All of the details were contained in a series of official investigations undertaken by state inspectors between 1911 and 1915 but which aren’t easily accessible by the public. As a result of this project, people will be able to find out much more about what work on the railways was like – including how dangerous it was. We’re working on getting all of the details into a single searchable format at the moment – as soon as it’s ready we will get it up on the project website (www.railwayaccidents.port.ac.uk) with further stories emerging as we go along.

All images used by kind permission of the author.



  1. The dangers of railway work documented. | - August 30, 2017

    […] injured at work, including 16-year old James Beck, who Mike discussed briefly in an earlier blog (http://history.port.ac.uk/?p=315), is now available online.  Mike’s research focuses on the cultural history of safety, risk and […]

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