Health and safety ‘gone mad’, as a child narrowly avoids being roasted alive

The Great Western Railway

On the 19 March 1873 The Morning Post reported its daily selection of reports from the Metropolitan Police Courts. At Marylebone there was a complicated ‘health and safety’ case (or at least that is how we would probably describe it today). Nowadays these sorts of cases don’t tend to come up before a magistrate, being dealt with elsewhere, but in the 1800s these were part and parcel of a local justice’s workload.

A summons had been taken out by James Henderson, a factory inspector, who was bringing a charge against the Great Western (Railway) company. He was represented in  court  by a barrister, Mr Henderson, while the company was defended by another lawyer, Mr Thesiger. The case was heard by Mr D’Eyncourt.

The fact were briefly restated: a young lad working for the company during the day had:

‘imprudently crept into the fire-box of a [steam] engine, and whilst asleep the fire was lifted by the fireman in ignorance of the poor boy being there’.

Crucially the report doesn’t say  what happened to the ‘poor boy’ but I am assuming he was fine, or this would have been a very different sort of prosecution. As it was Mr Henderson was attempting prosecute under the terms of the Factory Acts while the company’s counsel argued that these acts didn’t cover the railway company’s premises.

As I suggested, the case was complex and turned on a number of key points of law involving the definition of the engine sheds in the context of the Factory legislation. In the end Mr D’Eyncourt ruled that since the work carried out there involved repairs and maintenance to the rolling stock and locomotives owned by the railway, rather than any manufacturing per se, the acts did not apply and so he dismissed the summons.

I think we would all be more interested in the welfare of the boy and how he came to be sleeping in a fire box but the editor clearly thought his readers would prefer to hear the minutiae of a legal debate. What was more interesting (to me at least) was its remark that exactly a year earlier the Marylebone court had been much busier than it was this week in 1873. In March 1872 there had been 49 charges heard on the corresponding day whereas a year later there were just 23.

The paper listed them:

‘Drunk and incapable, 8; drunk and disorderly, 13; drunk and assault, 1; throwing stones, 1’.

All the offenders that were known to the court were fined 26d or sent to prison for seven days. These types of cases were much more typical of the London Police Courts in the 1800s; and thankfully much more typical than cases involving the accidental roasting of children in locomotive sheds.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 19, 1873]

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