Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the very real dangers for pedestrians using the railways as a shortcut...
In mid-July 1846 the directors of the North Union railway announced that the Ribble Branch Railway was open to the public.
The branch descended from the main line at the south end of Preston station on a steep gradient. The track on a sharp curve passing through a tunnel at the foot of Fishergate Hill onto a level crossing over Strand Road and then onwards to the New Quay. According to the announcement coal merchants could run their coal directly to the river side to waiting vessels, whilst ships could discharge their cargoes into railway waggons for delivery nationwide.
This branch railway became a busy place and like all Victorian railways was often fraught with danger.
The perils of the railway came to light in mid-November 1865 when coroner Miles Myres held an inquest at the police station into the death of James Miller, aged 57, captain of the schooner Beehive.
On the previous Wednesday afternoon, the deceased was walking on the line from the Preston quay in the direction of the town. According to witness John Foxcroft, Miller was walking in a slanting direction, when an empty waggon struck his side and knocked him down.
One of the wheels running against his thigh, and driving him forward about six yards. The witness and two others rushed to his aid and eventually in severe pain he was taken to his nearby home, where he died on the following Saturday despite constant medical attention.
The engine driver was some 50 yards away upon impact and could not see him, although he was aware of the danger to vision at that point due to a cross wall and had been blowing the whistle continually as his engine shunted the waggons. Mr. Myres commented on the obvious dangers of trespassing on the line and the jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’.
Once more in January 1873 trespassing on the railway led to coroner Miles Myres holding an inquest after another horrific tragedy on the Ribble Branch line when an unknown woman was killed. According to witnesses the woman and a small boy were seen walking up the line from the level crossing at Strand Road towards the Fishergate Hill tunnel.
She appeared to be taking a short cut to the station, although the little lad, who was unknown to her, warned her as they approached the tunnel that a train was coming she was not alert enough to get out of the way and the engine knocked her down and several trucks passed over her body. Her head was severed from her body and was found some 20 yards distance.
The decapitated and horribly mutilated corpse being moved to the railway station for identification that had not yet been confirmed.
Thomas Smith, the engine driver, said that he had been constantly sounding the engine whistle as he approached the tunnel.
The level crossing keeper John Scott explained that the gates are always open in the daytime and he had not seen the woman pass up the line. He believed he must have been in his hut and she had slipped past the blind side of the cabin.
A verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ was returned by the coroner’s jury and they suggested the keeper’s hut should be reconstructed so that the person in charge could see on all sides. A couple of days later the woman was identified as a Mrs. Mary Jane Cookson, aged 40, the wife of a corn dealer from Blackburn. She had not been in good health and had called to see a friend who lived on the Marsh.