From their lofty perch at Raikeswood Camp the German prisoners could view the hustle and bustle of the small town beneath them, writes Alan Roberts

THEY could see the historic core of castle and church, the fine new villas on Gargrave Road, and the open countryside, but they also noted the mill chimneys belching out smoke and the small terraced houses clustered around them. Fondly they imagined that Skipton’s industrial character would last for hundreds of years. How wrong they were. Today when the high street is packed with visitors, it is hard to imagine those grim old days when half of all deaths in Skipton had been in children aged under five, which was marginally worse than in Bradford.

A later view along Broughton Road presents a very different image from today with a tall mill chimney and a banner reading ‘The super new sewing thread from the makers of Sylko’. A photograph taken from the church tower also reflects Skipton’s industrial past.

Good communications were essential: the railways arrived after the canal and the turnpike roads. Situated on the Midland Railway the third and last main line to Scotland, Skipton became an important railway hub with branch lines to Threshfield and Ilkley and a further route via Colne to the mill towns of Lancashire. Meanwhile expresses and heavy freights toiled up the ‘long drag’ between Settle and Carlisle en route for the North.

Skipton Station has changed. The railway has been electrified and platforms 5 and 6 have disappeared. So too have many sidings and the locomotive shed which housed dozens of grimy steam engines. Today both residents and visitors are blessed with two heritage railways within a bus ride of the town. There is the railway at Embsay with its gleaming tank engines and the magnificent Keighley and Worth Valley Railway.

Steam locomotives and coal belong to a different era. Tough and hard working, they were grossly inefficient and highly polluting. Their crews were a breed apart, having to carry out hard physical work with little protection from the elements at all hours of the day and night. Railways are potentially very dangerous places, as demonstrated by a tragic incident at Skipton Shed when James Moorhouse, a 17-year-old cleaner with two years’ experience was crushed to death.

Cleaner Fred Middleton of Carleton had been working underneath a locomotive in a brick-lined inspection pit along with two other cleaners. James had only recently joined them. A locomotive fireman told them to come out from underneath as the engine needed to be removed from the shed along with the two other engines behind it. The cleaners did not leave immediately but waited until the engine began to move. Middleton immediately crouched down to avoid being hit by any metal parts hanging from the locomotive. When he could look up he saw James stuck between the buffers of two locomotives and ran to get help. James could not have easily left the pit without passing between the buffers. Middleton said the driver usually checked that there was no-one in the pit, but this had not happened.

Another cleaner Albert Eden of Skipton who was also cleaning the engine said that the fireman gave them a warning and James did get out of the pit, but went back to recover his lamp. It was 6.30 in the morning. He passed his lamp to Eden and tried to ease himself out from between the buffers, but became caught.

James Johnson, the foreman cleaner explained that the cleaners should have come out from under the engine as soon as the warning was given. A board was placed on the engine saying that cleaners were at work and this could only be removed by the head cleaner before the engine was moved. Johnson said the intention was not to move the engine, but merely to couple it up to the other two without moving it, so the board had not been removed.

The fireman said that the cleaners had understood the warning and gave the driver the signal to move forward to couple up to another locomotive. It was after this engine had been coupled up that he heard James’s screams and found him trapped between the buffers.

The driver heard the fireman’s warning to the cleaners to get clear before he moved the engine.

Some of the details of the case are not entirely clear, but readers will be starting to form their own views. For the record, a verdict of ‘accidentally crushed to death’ was returned by the coroner and jury.

Safety on the railways had been mainly concerned with passengers. The railway companies considered it to be the workers’ own responsibility to protect themselves, but the rise of trade unions saw a gradual increase in concern for worker safety. According to the National Railway Museum 30,000 railway workers were killed or injured in 1913. The most recent figures show just three workers died in one year including a driver passing between the buffers of a train as it was being coupled. All three deaths were avoidable, but elsewhere the railway today is a much safer place for everyone.