Thursday, 12 June 2014


I took part in a trade union health and safety course recently. The lecturer made the point about how many lives had been saved by the implementation of the legislation since 1974. It made me think of my own ancestors who had died in accidents at work such as Thomas Sherwin killed in an explosion at the pit at Wetley Moor in 1841. I considered when the view was taken that accidents ceased being the result of Acts of God and began to be seen as a consequence of organisational failure. Of course some attitudes persist. Witness the recent remarks of the Nigerian Aviation Minister who blamed a series of plane crashes on God’s displeasure.

By the 17th century for the first time statistical evidence began to be collated on the causes of death. The “Bills of Mortality” for London in 1647 give a death rate of unintended as 2.1 per 100,000. For reference, the rate in Britain was 53.6 per 100,000 in the 19th century. Today it is 0.6. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, accident rates soared with the introduction of unguarded machinery in confined spaces as well as in mining. The state then began to collect data on a more systematic basis and legislated accordingly. The first Factory Acts were passed in the 1840s and inspectors appointed to ensure that laws were enforced. It is difficult to find any suggestion that industrial accidents were caused by divine displeasure, most sought human failing as a reason.

I found in the Oxford Journal of 21st December 1779 a report of a “shocking” accident when “Mr Cooper’s London Waggon from Manchester being left to the care of a boy about 4 miles from Leek when coming to descending ground and the boy not able to stop the horses to lock the wheels the wagon ran down the bridge and there overturned into the river; whereby Serjeant Adkin, his wife( who was pregnant and near delivery) and a little girl of his; all Passengers therein, were instantly all crushed to death; one Horse was killed, and others much hurt, the Waggon broke to pieces”.

A later comment suggested that the boy driver was too young for that level of responsibility.

The accident probably happened on the border of Staffordshire and Cheshire beside the River Dane on the A523.  The road to Macclesfield had been improved and turnpiked in 1762 although the route was later changed by a later road.

The London Waggon was a large cart with benches inside and covered by canvas. It was drawn by 8 horses with the Waggoner walking beside them travelling at 2 miles an hour .It would have taken several days to cover the 200 miles from Manchester to London. The Waggon was an inexpensive form of transport, about half the cost of a stage coach. Travellers could take as much luggage as the vehicle would hold and the horses could draw. The ride was a very uncomfortable and slow experience.

An advert from two years earlier recorded

'This is to acquaint all Gentlemen, Tradesmen, and Others, that Mat. Pickford's Flying Waggons to London Via Leek, Derby, etc in Six days Set out from the Saracen's Head, in Market Street Lane, Manchester, every Wednesday, at Six o'clock in the Evening, and arrive at the Swan Inn, Lad Lane, London, the Tuesday noon following”