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Tuesday, 12 November 2013

How drunk were late-Victorian train drivers?

Every now and again, when I go looking for such things, I find cases where Victorian engine drivers got drunk and then proceeded to operate their vehicles. A few days ago I discovered one case from 1891 of an express driver who, after leaving Liverpool Street Station, was found to be quite sozzled.  On his journey he had stopped the train at Broxbourne for five minutes, for no apparent reason, after which the Bury and Norwich Post recorded the ride to Bishop Stortford was ‘most uncomfortable.’ On arriving at the station the station master was alerted to the driver’s inebriated state and the latter was, after some wrangling, finally removed from the locomotive. The train continued its journey under the charge of a goods train driver (who likely relished the chance operate an express.)[1]

This and other cases made the newspapers because a train under the charge of an intoxicated individual was clearly an accident risk. But reviewing such reports cannot give me an accurate indication of how frequently late-Victorian engine drivers were found to be drunk. To determine this hard data was required.

While Victorian railway companies kept staff registers which listed their employees’ positions, pay and promotions, most also kept ‘Black Books.’ These ominously titled volumes recorded every instance where an employee disobeyed the rules and was punished. They recorded small transgressions, such as when forms were incorrectly filed, to major offences, for example criminal activity, refusing to follow orders, or drunkenness – the subject of this post. Indeed, from the time of the earliest railways being intoxicated while on duty was a serious offence, and rule 12 of the London and South Western Railway’s (LSWR) 1897 rule book stated: ‘The company may at any time without notice dismiss or suspend from duty any servant of the company for intoxication.’[2]

So, it was to the Black Books (available through that I turned to find out about drunkenness amongst nineteenth century engine drivers. Despite a reluctance to again study the LSWR, it being the company I have done my thesis on, a Black Book dedicated to the misdemeanours of its footplate crew (drivers and firemen) between 1889 and 1896 was available on-line. This volume was the perfect choice for my research.

In total I surveyed the records of 584 LSWR firemen and drivers in the Black Book. Between 1889 and 1896 these individuals collectively transgressed the rules 1,728 times. However, amongst these punishments the number issued for intoxication was small, with only seventeen instances being recorded (0.98 percent of cases). Additionally, these seventeen offences were only committed by fourteen individuals (2.50 percent of the sample), three of the men being repeat offenders.

These findings clearly suggest that for the most part the LSWR’s drivers and firemen were, while at work at least, a temperate group of employees.[3] The supports the commonly held view at the time that railway employees stayed away from alcohol while at work. The South Western Gazette, the company’s staff magazine, reported in 1885 that at the inaugural meeting of the Exeter branch of the United Kingdom Railway Temperance Union, the Bishop of the city had commented that the organisation was ‘very peculiar and very striking’ as ‘it could not be said that railway men as a general rule were tempted to drunkenness.’ Generally they were ‘as a body were as temperate a body as could be found.’[4]

As for the fourteen drivers and firemen found to be under the influence while at work, it is probable that most never got as far as being in control of a train. Usually the ‘Black Book’ recorded that they came ‘to duty the worse for drink’ or they were ‘under the influence of drink whilst on duty’, and only in two cases was it explicitly stated that a driver had been ‘under the influence of drink whilst in charge of an engine’: J. Appleton of the Nine Elms Shed was caught in May 1896, while R. Reid., who was based at Twickenham, was found driving a passenger train while drunk in August 1889.[5]

From this evidence it can therefore be tentatively suggested that instances where drivers ‘under the influence’ actually got onto the footplate of their locomotives, such as the one cited at the start, were exceedingly rare on the late-Victorian railways.


[1] Bury and Norwich Post, 20 January 1891
[2] South Western Circle Collection [SWC], 1897 Rule Book, p.9
[3] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/521, London and South Western Railway Company. STAFF RECORDS. Black Book - fines to drivers and firemen, 01 January 1889 - 31 December 1896. Accessed through
[4] South Western Gazette, January 1885, p.6
[5] TNA, RAIL 411/521, London and South Western Railway Company. STAFF RECORDS. Black Book - fines to drivers and firemen, 01 January 1889 - 31 December 1896, p.11 and p.29. Accessed through
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