The cost of life on the line

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Everything comes with a price – and sometimes that price can be costly – the First World War is a perfect example.

Last week a workman lost part of his leg and sustained serious internal injuries working on the restoration of rail services to the central Borders.

A major health and safety investigation is, quite rightly, under way. There have been other accidents associated with this multi-million pound project – both trackside and off, including one death.

Last year I was taken by the contractors and Network Rail on a tour of works from just outside Edinburgh to its terminus at Tweedbank. And I was mightily impressed by the safety rules that were in place. Hard hats, goggles, high-viz jackets, boots and flashing lights on the top of all trucks, bulldozers and cranes.

But, sadly, for all the precautions that are put in place, accidents do happen.

Everything comes with a price – and that price is not just money. Thankfully, the non-monetary cost of bringing back at least part of the old Waverley Line has not proven as costly as when the original was constructed by navvies with picks, shovels and some pretty dangerous machinery.

This week I was loaned a box of old railway photos. In it was the February 1996 issue of the Borders Family History Society Magazine which recorded incidents during the construction of the Galashiels section of the Waverley Line between June 1848 and July 1849.

It revealed seven fatalities and a host of limb losses, crush injuries and lucky escapes. The Waverley Line came at a cost – but all that cost was lost on the infamous Doctor Beeching.

The article says much of the social life enjoyed by the navvies. The entry for August 11, 1848, stated: “Tomorrow is pay day for railway workers between Tweed Bridge and Bowshank Tunnel. They are at least 1,000 in number, composed of Scots, English and Irish. Some disturbances are likely to take place.”

But it is later recorded: “The day passed more quietly than was anticipated. There were no serious breaches of the peace, though much noise and drunkeness prevailed, especially on the Sabbath.”

The September pay day – a Sunday – saw little rioting, but on Monday and Tuesday they fought among themselves.

It was all a bit different on pay-day Sunday in January 1849 when they commandeered the pub at Clovenfords.

The journal records: “They asked for and received some refreshment, after which they refused to leave the premises when requested to do so, indeed forcibly remaining till the next morning, during which time they compelled the landlord to supply them with both meat and drink, gratis. Not content with this, one of the party knocked the landlady down and also assaulted the landlord. They took their departure about 8 o’clock in the morning.

“Mr McPherson of Galashiels lost no time in tracing the ringleaders and captured them. The scoundrels are now in Selkirk jail.”

Two of those involved in the incident – Irishmen – were found guilty and fined 10/- [50p], which was less than a week’s wages and which was paid on the spot.

Everything comes at a price, but the author of the article thinks they got off lightly. A workman who stole pears from Torwoodlee Estate was jailed for 12 days.