Weather and working conditions encountered during the construction of the Settle & Carlisle Railway

The people who surveyed and built the Settle & Carlisle Railway faced a wide range of extreme weather and working conditions. Some of these were vividly described in contemporary accounts and, as & when these accounts are identified and transcribed, they will be added to this page.

General overview

F.S. Williams, "The Midland Railway: its rise and progress. A Narrative of Modern Enterprise" (Strahan & Co London, 1876)

[It was no unusual thing for] snow to fall in darkened flakes or driving showers of powdered ice; for winds to howl and blow with hurricane force, bewildering to man and beast; for frost to bite and benumb both hands and face till feeling was almost gone; and for hail and sleet to blind the traveller's eyes, and to make his face smart as if beaten with a myriad slender cords." And now all these hardships had to be borne by the workmen on the line. "The wet heather, the sinking peat, the miry and uneven pathways, the little rills draining the hills and winding and leaping on the edge of the huts, dark clouds dissolving in showers and drenching everything permeable to water, the wind moaning in the brown heath in sympathy with the people and the place, were sights and things to be remembered in a ramble over the moors.

Even Mr. Sharland, at the commencement of engineering operations in this district, was destined to learn a lesson of the severity of the climate. When he was engaged in staking out the centre line of the then intended Settle and Carlisle, and had taken up his quarters at a little inn on Blea Moor (a bare and bleak hill 1250 feet above the level of the sea, and miles away from any village), he was literally snowed up. For three weeks it snowed continuously. The tops of the walls round the house were hidden. The snow lay eighteen inches above the lintel of the front door, - a door six feet high. Of course all communication with the surrounding country was suspended. The engineer and his half-dozen men, and the landlord and his family, had to live on the eggs and bacon in the house; in another week their stock would have been exhausted; and it was only by making a tunnel, engineer-like, through the snow to the road that they got water from the horse-trough to drink.

Thunderstorm & flash-flooding on 9 July, 1870

Lancaster Gazette, 16 July 1870

On Saturday afternoon last one of the most fearful thunder storms that has taken place in Dent within the memory of the oldest inhabitant in the locality occurred

... The peals of thunder, accompanied by lightning, succeeded each other so rapidly that it could only be compared to successive volleys of artillery, during which the rain descended in perfect torrents, and when seen running down the mountain sides at the higher end of Kirthwaite [the upper part of Dentdale], near to the railway works, seemed as one vast sheet of water, and we regret to say it led to the deaths of two individuals, whilst several others narrowly escaped with their lives.

The water filled one of the tunnels [the north end of Blea Moor Tunnel at Dent Head] in which several men were at work, one of whom was drowned, others contrived to swim out, whilst one poor fellow remained for two hours up to the chin in water, when he was rescued by his fellow-workmen.

In the other fatal case, it appears that a little boy of the name of Squires had with another child been at a neighbouring hut, and on returning home, whilst crossing a gill, was carried down with the torrent of water,

... The damage to property has also been of a most serious nature. A great portion of the timber and railway plant in the contractor's yard at Leayet was washed away, some of which was thrown out of the river below Sedbergh, a distance of 10 or 12 miles, ... Leayet and Ewegales bridges were completely destroyed, and the other stone bridges up to Dale Head most seriously damaged, whilst nearly all the wood bridges between Dent Head and Dent Foot were carried bodily away by the force of the water and the floating timber. The surface of the road from Stone House Marble Mills to Dee Side, a distance of a quarter of a mile, and in several other places, was completely washed to the bare rock, and the stone fences contiguous to the river nearly all thrown down.

... So suddenly did the storm come on that several very narrow escapes occurred, as the inhabitants of the huts had no time given them for the removal of their families and property. We have heard of one instance of a poor fellow near Leayet, who having taken his wife to a place of safety, returned for the purpose of securing his hard earned savings, amounting to £17, which he managed to get hold of, but the hut filled so rapidly that in his hurry to escape with his life he lost it. On the subsidence of the water some three or four sovereigns were found in the sand and mud, but there being two five pound notes in the amount still missing there is but little hope of their recovery. ... The river which, but a few minutes before was quietly wandering through the beautiful valley, was converted into a foaming sea, the waves rolling from three to four yards high, carrying away like chaff, trees and everything which was likely to impede their progress.

... The contractors for making the new railway will also be considerable sufferers from the loss of timber and plant, and some time must necessarily elapse ere they can get fairly to work again by reason of the repairs which will be needed, and the state of the road between their store yard and the works.

- On Tuesday last an inquest was held at the Sportsman Inn, at Cow Dub, before T. P. Brown, Esq., coroner, Skipton, on view of the bodies of the man and little boy, whose deaths were the result of this sad catastrophe, when a verdict of "Accidentally drowned" was returned.

- Another correspondent says: ... So fast did the water come in that the bodies were actually buried in the dirt, and mud washed in by the water. At the same place a man named William Metcalf, from the severity of the flood, had to put his wife and child out of a window, and the water rose so fast that he could not get out, but had to "cling to the window sill" until the water subsided. There was a pig washed out of its stye. All the bridges in the vale of Dent, except the county bridges, are washed down," and it is said that the Settle and Carlisle Company have lost £1000 worth of timber.

Lancaster Guardian, 16 July 1870

Coroner's Inquests.
On the 12th instant T. P. Brown, Esq., deputy coroner, held inquests at the Sportsman's Inn, Dent's Head, on the bodies of Thomas Ball, aged 30 years, and John Squires, aged 7 years - On the 9th instant Thomas Ball was working, in company with six other men, in the tunnel now in course of construction at Dent’s Head on the new line of railway between Settle; and Carlisle. About four o'clock in the afternoon of the day mentioned, in consequence of a heavy fail of thunder rain, the workings became flooded, and before the deceased could be rescued he was drowned. As it was some time before the accumulated waters subsided, the body was not recovered before 7 p.m. on the same day by a miner named Joseph Watson. Thomas Ball was a native, of Northamptonshire, and had been working at Dent's Head about a week. – Verdict “Accidentally drowned in a railway excavation.". . . . An inquest was held; at the same time .and place on the body of John Swires, aged 7 years. The deceased left home on the 9th instant, at 1 p.m., to go to Thomas Parrington's grocer's Shop at Lee Gate, Dent's Head, which was about half-a-mile from, his home. About 7 p.m., on the same day he was seen by Joseph Dennis, of Dent's Head, returning from the shop and going in the direction of home. On his way home he had to pass over Monkey beck, which was much flooded by the heavy rains which had fallen during the thunder storm. The body of Swires was found about eight o'clock the next morning in Monkey beck by Thomas Parrington. The deceased was son of Thomas Swires, labourer, of Lee Gate,. Dent's Head. – Verdict – “Accidentally drowned in Monkey beck."

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