The first ever fatality on the tube occurred one hundred and thirty one years ago this month and this occurred in the very early months of the then new City and South London Railway, which as many know, is now part of London’s Northern Line. (PS if one wants to read about the first ever tube fatality rather than all the prep work that precedes the history of that – please scroll down about halfway down the page to learn of the CSLR passenger who lost their life at the Oval lifts in 1891.)
A recent Hidden London Hangouts programme was interesting that it featured one of the deep level tube’s very early tube stations – Oval – including its erstwhile lift shafts. However what was not mentioned is the station happens to be the location of the tube’s first ever fatality. That wasn’t an accident on the tracks or the platform but rather at its lifts. Thus Oval station has both a distinction of having been the tube’s first ever fatal accident and the first involving a lift.
Even these days despite enhanced safety on the tube nasty incidents can still occur. These range from people getting caught in the train doors and dragged along the platform towards the tunnels, or dropping between train and platform totally unseen by train staff and then the train sets off and does the inevitable thing – as happened at Waterloo in 2020. Given the huge numbers however the use the tube system, the incidence of such things happening is so small as to be almost negligible.
In the first days of the tube (just as it was in the early days of the railways) enhanced safety was a add on. Certainly rules were in place and regulations were practised, but as so often is the case, the most unexpected and unforeseen circumstances would arise. Despite its pioneering status the City and South London Railway has been acknowledged as being somewhat short on safety and in a way it is because of this the following mishap which we will read about in a moment, happened, although the company cannot of course be directly blamed for the very actions the passenger in question had taken which ended his life.
This is a subject (like many others featured on this blog) that receive very little attention or discussion thus it has been very difficult to collate any details of the incidents that are being discussed in these pages. Indeed like other subjects many many hours of research has been necessary. Its all very interesting however because there’s scant mention in the history books on London’s underground system regarding these quite macabre incidents. The interesting aspect of this is that almost as soon as a new line had opened (the Great Northern & City apparently being an exception to the rule) the new tube’s first fatalities were soon being procured.
Hidden London Hangouts Oval Station (7th May 2022.)
It must be said that without the recent Hidden London Hangouts episode that was aired about Oval station, there would have been considerably less to go on in terms of how the incident site in question looks these days and how the present station is so very different in layout.
One result of the Oval accident (and no doubt many observations regarding passenger behaviour) is that Tube system design changed completely. It must be said it was also exceedingly expensive to provide the completely level access the CSLR had offered from platform to street even though other tube lines too used tunnels placed one above the other as the CSLR did for the purposes of wayleave, and as a result stairs instead were used to pass passengers over or under the nearest tunnel sited to the lifts. The advantage of the later designs was also that passenger intent to dash for either a train or a lift was much reduced.
In the Hidden London Hangouts scenes the team are looking at the wonderfully tiled and arched lower level entrance to the Oval lifts, a part of the station that hasn’t been accessible to the public since escalators were installed. It was these that were the scene for the London tube system’s first ever fatality. Although the lift shafts are no longer purposed as such, in line with much of the tube system its now a ventilation shaft.
Composite (merged from several screencaps) scene from Hidden London Hangouts showing the lower level entrance to the Oval lifts. This would have been the very archway and brick wall the person in question and discussed in this article last saw before losing his life.
If one views the Hidden London episode at this point the entrance to a stopped up tunnel with a doorway placed in the middle to give access is evidently the top end of the original sloping passageway from the down platform. It can be surmised that it was at this very point that the person in question we shall be discussing below took that fateful decision at this very spot which cost him his life.
Curiously Oval station was also the site of another more minor lift accident some weeks earlier as well as another, more serious one, some years later – one in which the lift failed and suddenly dropped rapidly. Fortunately the lift had not been too far from the bottom when this happened otherwise things could have been much worse.
It seems the newness of these facilities soon sought to procure their first fatalities in a short period of time. The CSLR’s extension northwards from Borough in February 1900 (abandoning King William Street station in the process) saw a new station opened at London Bridge and almost immediately a disaster, well not just one, but in fact two separate ones, occurred at the lifts there.
The CSLR also had the tube’s first ever rail enthusiast fatality…
Not long after the 1891 Oval lift fatality, the City and South London Railway also produced the tube’s first ever rail enthusiast fatality. I’m not sure there have been any others of this kind in the intervening decades since the CSLR was opened thus it seems this particular incident could well be the tube system’s one and only such instance, thus we have the tube’s first lift and the earliest ever enthusiast fatality listed on this page. The said incident involving an inspection of the locomotive hauling the train the deceased had been on occurred around ten months after that at the Oval.
In that particular instance a young man had been given a rare opportunity to see at close quarters the Mather & Platt locomotive that towed his train at work in the tunnels. There’s not a lot of space on those old underground locomotives to see what is happening – and as the young man tried to get a better view of how the crew operated their locomotive, he suddenly lost his footing and promptly disappeared below the leading carriage. Although the crew stopped the train immediately, it took three hours to retrieve the totally dismembered body from beneath the train.
At the inquest it was found to be a case of death by misadventure and the CSLR was found guilty of having caused great negligence. Further the CSLR was told to change its procedures and one of those would be to prohibit anyone accessing the carriages’ open platforms whilst a train was in motion.
It also meant that those with any interest in the new railway, would not ever again, for example, besides standing on the carriage’s platforms, be unable also to stand on the platform of the rear carriage with a lantern in order to inspect the tunnels for the whole length, and watch as the various iron segments passed by and receded into the distance and also note how the different lengths of line were variously graded. Despite the enormous roar the trains made as they passed through their tunnels, standing on the rear platform of a CSLR train must have undoubtedly been a very enjoyable experience in those very early months of the line.
Some historians noted the CSLR had a shortfall in certain procedures, which is why these alarming incidents occurred. As we have just seen, the death of the aforementioned young man was found to be a result of sloppy procedures on the CSLR. Barely anything has been written on these mishaps however, save for brief mention in T.S. Lascelles’ City and South London Railway (Oakwood Press.) Yet its evident safety was rather lackadaisical in those days – being that ‘regulations were frequently broken to keep an incredibly intense service operating…’
Its clear safety on the CSLR was most questionable. Source: Underground Writing – The London Tube from George Gissing to Virginia Woolf.
As regards to the lifts at the Oval and the fatality that occurred what had happened here? Lift fatalities were quite common in Victorian times, especially in the USA where elevators were in widespread use. In the UK lifts were still somewhat of a novelty however by the mid 1890s its said nine million people a year were using lifts in the UK. That’s a large number and given that amount its somewhat surprising there weren’t far more fatalities in the UK too but this might be due to the fact Britain began using lifts on a widespread scale much later than the US and safety by then had somewhat improved.
Oval was much like all the other new City & South London stations with level boarding from platform to street. Alas as the inquests suggested, its this arrangement that caused some passengers of the day who were in rather a hurry to be somewhat reckless pursuing either trains or lifts that were about to depart. As is revealed later this sort of reckless act was in fact prompted by the CSLR itself in a attempt to keep passenger flows moving quickly. Source: Linda Hall Library.
Looking up the Oval lift shaft, the site of the underground system’s first ever fatality. Source: Hidden London Hangouts.
The London underground’s first ever fatality
Anyway, the tube’s first eve fatality occurred at Oval station on Thursday 23rd July 1891 and involved a smartly dressed, elderly gentleman by the name of **Thomas Partridge, a retired mariner who lived at Telford Avenue in Streatham. He was likely on his way home by way of the new electric tube railway that London had become famous for. Having reached Oval station his plan would have no doubt been to catch a bus from outside the station towards Streatham.
Having alighted from a down train (eg towards Stockwell) at around quarter to four in the afternoon, Mr Partridge had been making his journey up the sloping passageway from the platform to the lifts. When he reached the top of the slope Mr Partridge spotted there was a lift currently present at platform level. The platform porter at that very moment was just closing the iron lattice gates nevertheless Mr Partridge made a mad dash for the lift.
As witnesses in the lift itself testified, Mr Partridge began running for the lift and even though there was this station porter at the lattice iron gates, Mr Partridge pushed the porter aside, saying something like ‘let me in’ or ‘I can sort this.’
Alas the gates hadn’t been fully closed and Mr Partridge tried to force them open. It was at that instant the lift began to ascend. This was because the porter had given the all clear signal as he closed the inner gates. Thus the lift began its journey as soon as Mr Partridge attempted to enter it.
As the lift began to move upward, Mr Partridge’s hands and head became trapped and as a result his body was dragged up with the lift. It got pushed between the wall and the iron supports that framed the lift shaft. Once the body had struck the the first iron cross bar it was decapitated. The lift was stopped after just a few feet of travel. Meanwhile the body and head of the deceased, by now well separated from each other, were found at the bottom of the shaft.
In a nutshell that’s how the tube system’s first ever fatality occurred. It wasn’t of course wholly the fault of the CSLR but rather the passenger himself, however the CSLR had a somewhat sloppy approach towards safety as we will read later. But first here are some photographs of the present day Oval station to try and establish where those 1891 events took place.
The down (Stockwell/Morden direction) platform at Oval in 2022.
The station platforms today (as shown in the image above) are somewhat modified of course but still basically the same location where the tube’s first ever fatality stepped off his train before (as postulated at the subsequent inquiry) had took time to look around the platform before heading off left towards the lifts on that fateful day in 1891.
The view as one comes off the down platform at Oval. Previously the tunnel went straight on and sloped upward towards the lifts. Since 1924 the old route to the surface has not been available, the new one instead being to the right via some stairs and then up the escalators.
The instance where Mr Partridge would have been able to note that the lift was at platform level would have been here (see the Hidden London episode at this point – composite image below) – this spot would have been where Mr Partridge had taken the fatal decision that cost him his life.
Composite image I created from the Hidden London Oval episode showing the now bricked up portal of the passageway from the down (Stockwell direction) platform. The lifts were formerly to the left.
Plan of Oval station 1891/1926. The purple areas are those repurposed – eg the lifts for ventilation, the stairs & entrance lobbies rebuilt, and new staircases/escalators added 1926. The route in grey from the down platform to the lifts is that Mr Partridge took.
The route Mr Partridge took is no longer in use. It was replaced by a flight of stairs that led to the new escalators as part of major changes undertaken to the station in 1926. However the exit off the down platform still remains for a short distance before turning right into a newer passageway and up a flight of stairs to the escalators. The sloping corridor from the down platform towards the lifts is no longer accessible to the public.
Anyway the sloping corridor to the lifts afforded an easy route and certainly it was known for passengers to hurry to the lifts or to the trains, something that did cause the company a certain amount of concern even though it was the CSLR that had originally instigated this. For that is what Mr Partridge apparently did on this fateful day. He ran along the corridors and saw the lift about to depart. He pushed the platform porter aside and attempted to enter the lift. As soon as he had done that he became trapped and the inevitable happened.
If one has watched the Hidden London Hangouts on Oval station, one of the scenes looks at the beautifully tiled entrance to the former lifts and the brick wall structure behind. Its this Mr Partridge would have seen in that very brief instant before his life expired. (Composite image generated from the video.)
One can’t see the lifts at that station generally these days (apart from what can be viewed on Hidden London Hangouts.) However, Borough station, despite two lots of reconstruction, still has its original lift arrangement and here one can at least get an idea of how easy it its to get from the platforms to the lifts. It must be said the down platform is reached by steps however and this is because the site is quite constrained compared to the other stations at Elephant, Kennington, Oval and Stockwell. What can be viewed at Borough is the only such arrangement that remains as it was from CSLR days. That at Elephant does have a level corridor off the northbound platform however its not the arrangement present in 1891.
The entrance to the lifts at Borough – the one and only City and South London Railway station whose layout remains largely as built for the opening of the line in 1890 with direct access off the platform.
The inquest covering Mr Partridge’s demise
In the context of the subsequent inquiry which we look at next it comes as a surprise to find the City and South London Railway absolutely insisted the company’s lifts were safe…
The CSLR devotes a lengthy explanation to the public that its lifts are absolutely safe and ‘have gone up and down two and half million times without the slightest accident or difficulty…’ Source: The Electrician 1895.
When they claim the lifts have gone up and down over two million times without the slightest accident, one must take this with a pinch of salt. As the inquest into Mr Partridge’s misadventure shows, the company clearly had a shortfall in procedures even though it was Mr Partridge himself who brought about his untimely end.
The inquest was held at the Spread Eagle Tavern in Lambeth Road on the 27th July 1891. The coroner was Mr George Percival Wyatt. A number of witnesses were present including those who had been on the lift in question as well as one member of CSLR staff.
There was a liftman who pulled the rope – that is, the kind used to start or stop the lift as was common then. There were no buttons or lever controls in them days. The control rope passed through the lift and was tethered to a regulator either at the top or the bottom of the shaft which controlled the hydraulics. This rope was in fact known as a ‘shipper rope.’ At most times of the day the liftman was the one who closed the lift’s gates. However the liftman’s position was at the other side of the lift well away from the entrance Mr Partridge had attempted to use, thus at busy times the liftman often relied on other staff to ensure the lift was sufficiently prepared and then close the gates in order that it could begin its ascent.
Clearly the liftman’s position was such that when it was busy he was not able to see fully what was happening on the other side of the lift where the gates to the lower landing were. These early CSLR lifts were huge, twenty two feet or so in length and carrying around forty (or fifty) passengers – depending on source. However these were hydraulically operated (as they were at all of the CSLR’s stations excepting an experimental electric lift at Kennington installed during 1897 which soon set the bar.) This meant that sometimes the load was too much and these hydraulic lifts would stall. In the event they would then have to return to the lower level to let some passengers out before being sufficiently light enough to make the full ascent.
In terms of the staff looking after the lifts at the lower landing, this was one of two main station porters whose job it was to look after the station at platform level. In the case of the accident this was **William Mannings. He was the porter whose role was to monitor the down platform, oversee the train arrivals and also ensure that passengers were safely in the lifts. It was his role to call out to passengers ‘this way to the lift’ and then follow the last passenger and ensure they were all safely in the lift.
Mannings explained to the inquiry that he had seen all the passengers into the lift and had nearly closed the inner doors fully and signalled the ascent to begin, when Mr Partridge rushed up behind, pulled Mr Manning’s arm away and tried to enter the lift.
There was the consideration of why Mr Partridge was not with the other passengers to being with. The inquiry heard that he might have been one who had got off a train and chose instead to linger on the platform and ‘inspect the line’ – such things being quite common because this was a new railway and people were enthralled by it.
The only image I could find showing the CSLR lifts in 1890. Location not known. The accuracy leaves a little to be desired especially the very open aspect of the lift shaft at street level. For all one knows this might be a drawing showing work at an uncompleted lift shaft. One of the CSLR’s emergency staircases can be seen slightly further down.
One clear matter that evidently came out of the inquest was the station staff had a habit of signalling its lifts to begin a journey just before the doors had been fully closed. No doubt this was one of those time savers the CSLR employed in order to deal with the huge numbers of passengers using its railway.
The newspapers however revealed there had been an earlier accident some weeks prior also at the Oval, a minor one thankfully, where due to a similar sort of circumstances (again this being a full lift and the doors being closed before it began its ascent) the passenger in question, a woman, suffered nothing more than crushed fingers which needed immediate attention by a surgeon. It was evident the CSLR were somewhat in the habit of hurrying passengers to and from its trains and lifts in order to try and keep the platforms and passageways clear for the next train or lift to arrive. After all the most intense service frequency during busy periods was every three minutes.
The CSLR was advised that it should be policy in future to ‘discontinue the unnecessary hurrying…’ This was of course also tied to the act of hurrying the lift up by signalling for it to begin its journey while its gates were not yet fully closed.
The inquiry recommended that in future the lift doors always be fully closed before the signal to put it in motion was given. The solicitor representing the CSLR said the company fully sympathised with the deceased relatives and it would heed the given recommendations.
In terms of communication between the platform staff and the liftman, it was not until 1897 when the first inter-communication devices began to be employed. Thus at the time of of the CSLR accident the signal was given by either hand or by means of a bell.
As we saw earlier, the CSLR claimed its lifts were absolutely safe and had never suffered any sort of accident! Source: The Electrician 1895.
There were a fair number of other instances of extremely severe lift accidents on the CSLR including one where the lift in question fell a considerable distance and was smashed up completely.
**Names cited in the 1891 incident may not be correct as there were variations in the different newspapers.