Off the rails

Off the rails

In this exclusive book extract, Rosa Matheson introduces the dangerous world of the 19th century railways – and the insurance company which benefited

Rosa Matheson, railway historian, author and speaker

Rosa Matheson

railway historian, author and speaker

In the early days of the railways, everything connected to railways – building and working on them, walking by or crossing them, getting into and travelling on them, even waiting patiently at the station – was fraught with danger. Indeed, it can be said that death and injury on 19th-century British railways occurred so regularly – almost daily in earliest times – as to be regarded as commonplace. So commonplace, in fact, that they offered an entrepreneurial opportunity in the guise of The Railway Passengers’ Assurance Company. While ‘life assurance’ had been around for quite some time, assurance for accidents was unheard of. The Universal Railway Casualty Compensation Company was the brainwave of solicitor HF Holt after a conversation with his clerk. He declared his intention of creating a company, in November 1848, in an advertisement stating,

… for the purpose of insuring the lives of persons travelling in Great Britain and Ireland, against Accidents on Railways and for affording compensation for injuries sustained by such accidents…

The company was officially started in December 1848, and was known only for three days under this initial name, thereafter it became The Railway Passengers Assurance Company.

Hexthorpe railway disaster
25 people were killed and 66 injured in the Hexthorpe railway disaster of September 1887 – this image is from a report in the Illustrated London News. Two trains collided after a misunderstanding over signals, exacerbated by poor brakes

In order for the initiative to be successful, agreement had to be obtained from the railway companies for their booking clerks to sell the insurance for journeys along with the travel tickets. In return for this, the companies would receive commission on the sales, 50 per cent of which would go to the setting up of a Benevolent Fund for railway employees. Premiums varied according to the class of travel, since those sitting in the roofless second and exposed third class coaches were at higher risk than those comfortably ensconced in first class.

By 1850, it was operating on 32 railways and, between January and September of that year, had issued 2,808 periodical tick ets and 110,074 single journey tickets. In June 1852, a new act was passed enabling the company to insure any person against any kind of accident, which it employed somewhat later, in September 1855. The company’s first claimant,William Good of Dunstable, made his claim in November 1849, following an accident between Penrith and Preston, and was awarded a generous £7 6s.

The RPA Company was quick to send its representatives to the scene of any disaster. Just days after the Tay Bridge accident on Sunday 28 December 1879, the Aberdeen Journal reported (on 1 January 1880) that Mr C.H. Dalton, RPA superintendent, had already arrived on the scene to “communicate without delay with the relatives of any passengers… who may have been in possession of the company’s tickets or policies”. It found that one victim, WH Beynon,”held a policy against accidents of all kinds for £1000”. In its early years, the RPA Company dispatched a surgeon to each accident scene to see that the insured received proper attention, and that their claims were settled as speedily as possible. It was also not unknown for the company to advance money to a claimant to go for convalescence, in order to regain their strength before making their claim – service indeed!

The reputation of railway companies in connection with accidents was dismal. One report, for the six-month period ending June 1892, written up in the Great Western Railway Magazine, listed 381 accidents of various kinds: collisions between passenger trains; collision between passenger and goods or mineral trains; passen ger trains leaving the rails; trains or engines travelling in the wrong direction through points; trains running into stations at high speed; failures of axles, couplings, a bridge and the rails themselves; all resulting in eleven passengers and three railway servants killed and 282 passengers and 32 servants injured. These, along with the numerous articles and editorials in the national, local and railway papers, over decades of time, show that associating with the railways was undoubtedly a hazardous affair. Accidents from crossing the rails, whether at level crossings or in stations, were notorious.The numbers of deaths each year were horrific, and time and again the matter was raised in Parliament. In 1886 alone, for example, there were 104 killed and 52 people injured.

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Railway accidents impacted hugely on a Victorian society trying to get to grips with the new world of industrialisation, science and tech nology; a fast-moving and rapidly changing world, one with a constant shifting in society’s values and culture. It was a challenging and exciting time, but full of tensions and anxieties brought about by having to deal with the unknown, and railway accidents became the physical manifes tation of collective anxieties. From the very beginning of the railway age the number and nature of railway accidents was truly shocking, as was the number and nature of deaths and injuries.

For the travel ling public, what was especially worrisome about railway accidents was not just what happened to one at the time of the incident, but what could later happen as a result of it – one could become seriously ill and disabled by ‘shock’ itself. For a society traumatized by such events, the railway accident became an iconic symbol of the nation’s shock.

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