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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


  1. Also, the problem was generally known about, & certainly on the LSWR, the both benevolent & fearsome Dugald Drummond was known to be very "hot" on inebriation on the footplate.
    The late C. H. Ellis mentions this point several times, IIRC.

  2. [ Revisiting an earlier comment ] ...
    Dugald Drummond was interesting.
    Apart from his disastrous 4-6-0's his machines were rugged & reliable in the extreme, so maybe not such bad value.
    Of course, a surprising number of supposedly competent designers failed when it came to going form the 4-4-0 to the 4-6-0 layout, including J G Robinson. The usual causes were bad draughting around the firebox & a failure to understand free steam movement at the front-end.

    Totally off-topic.
    I have a question regarding late 19thC train fares.
    As all the world knows, the basic 3rd-class fare was 1d a mile, but what were "Normal" 2nd & 1st-class fares & did it vary (particularly the latter) from company to company?
    Subsidiary to that & quite by accident, twice in the past week, I have come across references to "chartering a special", as also mentioned in Conan Doyle's works - how much did THAT cost?
    I understand there was an up-front fee ( £25 ? ) but was there also a mileage rate on top, as well?

    Rather than put you through the tedium of a long answer, if there is a readily-available on-line source for this information, could you please point me towards it?

  3. Well, with regard to Drummond, I argue in my thesis that fundamentally he was an unsuitable Locomotive Superintendent for the LSWR after 1900, as he was essentially a product of the 19th century. If we look at Drummond on the basis of his ability to perform his job - that of a manager - to a large extent he was not performing it adequately. His larger locomotives after 1905 consumed coal at an excessive rate; especially when compared to some of Urie's larger and more powerful examples which had lower usage of coal per train mile. Drummond also rejected superheating and neglected to engage with developments in locomotive technology outside of the company. He kept an excessively and unnecessarily tight control on staff matters, and seemingly did not trust his head foreman, the running superintendent and district foremen to keep the staff in order - even though the LSWR had around 700 drivers and firemen in the early 1900s. I suspect this as detrimental to the efficient management of the men. He also rejected almost wholesale modern managerial techniques utilised in the British railway industry and ideas coming in from the US. Do not get me wrong, he had some notable achievements; however, in the first decade of the 20th century I argue he did more harm to the LSWR's financial performance than good, as exemplified by the fact that the Locomotive Department's overall costs per train mile were quite high compared with those of other railways.

    With regard to fares precious little research has been done on them after 1870; hence why personally I would even be wary of saying that 3rd class fares were universally 1d per mile. The lack of research is also why I cannot help with regard to a link, or be very helpful at all with the question you asked. That said given the LSWR lowered 2nd class fares in the late 1890s, and a quick glance at 19th century newspapers online does reveal that the residents of High Wycombe complained about high fares in 1877, I suspect that 1st and 2nd did vary throughout the network in this period. Although, by how much is the domain of future research...

  4. Fascinating stuff.

    I do wonder, though, about the distinction between intoxication and impairment. The UK limit is currently set at 80mg/100ml. If a train driver, today, were to be seen to have a pint or two of bitters immediately before boarding his engine, he'd probably be suspended or dismissed. I suppose I have a hard time believing that the same was true of the Victorian Era - or even that an inquest, held after a fatal accident, would've seen occasion to remark upon such relatively mild drink. On the other hand, there's a huge amount of published research to support the notion that even mild impairment slows reflexes and clouds judgment to the point that it can cause accidents. So if Victorian train drivers were seldom intoxicated to the point that they stayed at the platform for five minutes, it may still have been quite common for them to do what so many of their contemporaries did - drink steadily, regularly, and at levels that might well justify a diagnosis of alcoholism today.

    That, I suspect, is the necessary context to understand the success of the Railway Temperance Union, which had nearly twenty-thousand members by the century's end. At its meetings, it regularly circulated pledges of total abstinence, encouraging members to sign. To be sure, much of this was directed at off-duty behavior, and was of a piece with the broader temperance crusade. But there's a huge difference between the number of train drivers so clearly drunk as to be instantly noticed by passengers, colleagues and supervisors, and those who had a little nip to ward off the cold.

  5. Intersting.
    I take your point about DD being, effectively "out-of-date". After all, he became CME (equivalent) of the NBR in 1875. He was born in 1840 - so he should have handed over to D C Urie in 1904-7, really.
    Fares - fascinating lack of information.
    I asked, because I have a reprint of the 1922 "Bradshaw" & apart from supplementary fares on Pullman (etc) trains, I can find no mention of fare tables or charges.
    I suspect that one would have to look to individual train-company publications, such as timetables, or, of course, ask the NRM at York?

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