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The Swanwick Tragedy

The Death of James Leslie Taylor at Swanwick Sidings on Saturday 20th July 1935
By David Harris

The story of James Leslie Taylor, or at least that which has been consigned to history, is an unremarkable one. So too, really, is his death. That he is remembered at all is due to the fact that his untimely demise occurred more or less exactly at the spot that the Swanwick to Butterley footpath crosses the line of the Midland Railway Centre. Taylor was employed by the London, Midland Scottish Railway as a platelayer, based at Butterley Station. The 27 year old father of four who hailed from Ashover in Derbyshire had joined the company in 1932 and lived at Buckland Hollow – presumably in railway accommodation?

Described as a conscientious and good worker, in fine health with good eyesight and hearing. Taylor knew his job and, more importantly, he knew the pattern of traffic that travelled along his length. Thus, on the Saturday morning of 20th July 1935, when he set out for work at 7 o’clock, he had a good idea what was in store for him that morning during his 4½ hour shift. He reported to his foreman, John Lee, at 7.30 a.m. at Butterley Station. Although Taylor’s grade was “sub-ganger”, for the last three weeks he’d been acting as “patrol-ganger”, and Lee set him to work. His task that morning was to oil all the points and crossings between Butterley station and Swanwick Sidings. He set out alone for the platelayer’s hut at Swanwick Sidings where he collected a bag of keys and packings, which he slung over his shoulder, a keying hammer, an oil feeder, a scraper and red flags. Having collected his equipment he began to work his way back toward Butterley.

The penultimate person to see Taylor alive was Walter Newcombe, a shunter who was sitting in his cabin when he noticed Taylor walking between the metals of the down line toward Butterley. As he was passing the cabin, Newcombe called “How do you do Jim” and Taylor acknowledged the greeting. Both men then carried on about their business. At 8.37 a.m. the 8.7 a.m. Mansfield to Butterley ‘auto train’ was approaching its destination on the ‘up line’. Driver George Arthur Hancock of Mansfield shed was at the controls in the leading coach with his fireman on the footplate of the propelling locomotive travelling at about 27 miles per hour. As his train passed Swanwick Sidings signal box, which stood more or less opposite today’s Swanwick Junction box, Driver Hancock saw a figure walking in the cess some 220 yards ahead.

By the fact that the man was carrying a hammer, Hancock judged that he was a platelayer and gave him a whistle as warning of his approach. The man was well clear of the line and Hancock barely gave him another thought as he passed out of his line of sight through the driving position’s front window. Besides, Hancock would be looking for Butterley Station’s up distant signal below the Swanwick Sidings starter. Shortly after there was a smash and the front left window of the driving coach was broken. The presence of Taylor must have quickly passed out of Hancock’s mind as he later said that he thought someone had thrown something to cause the window to break. In any event, the train didn’t stop until reaching Butterley in the normal course of events. He reported the broken window to the Butterley stationmaster and on examining the coach found that only one of the panes of glass had been damaged. Later he made a further examination but found nothing more. He had felt no bump and had no idea that a man had been knocked down.

After the passage of the train Walter Newcombe, the shunter, had needed to walk across the line toward Brand’s Sidings. As he did so he glanced toward Butterley and saw something lying in the ‘four foot’ of the up line, about 70 feet away. He walked over and found the body of Taylor lying on his stomach, with his arms at his side and his head toward Ironville. He was bleeding very badly from a head wound. About two yards away were Taylor’s key bag and shoulder strap, both badly damaged. The alarm was raised but Taylor was dead. A local doctor performed a post mortem at Ripley mortuary and told the subsequent inquest that Taylor had received a fractured skull as well as a fracture and abrasions to the left leg.

So how did James Taylor come by his death? In his summing up, the Coroner, Mr. J.R.Pinder, suggested that Taylor had finished oiling the points and for some inexplicable reason was walking near the train. There was no doubt in his own mind that Taylor was struck on the right side of his head and knocked down. The fact that he had a clear view of the oncoming train made the circumstances more mysterious. With regard to the coach windows, there was just a possibility that these were broken in some way by the hammer.

In somewhat of a contradiction, the official report to the Railway Inspectorate stated that Taylor had not cleaned or oiled any points at this junction on the morning in question. No defect was found on either line, which would have called for Taylor’s attention. The report concluded that “in spite of Taylor having heard the whistle warning and seen the train approaching, he some eighteen seconds later, thoughtlessly, stepped on to the four-foot way of the up line, in front of the train, for the purpose of oiling the points.”
The inquest jury, through Mr. T.T.Graves the foreman, brought in a verdict of “Accidental death” and exonerated Driver Hancock from all blame.

James was laid to rest in Heage Parish Churchyard and was mourned by both his own and his widow’s quite large families. His coffin was borne by six members of the Belper St. John Ambulance Brigade, of which he had been an active member. The Ambergate branch of the N.U.R. was well represented along with many (if not all) of his workmates from the Butterley platelayer’s gang.

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