Friday, November 16, 2012

The Apocryphal Cow

I find Wikipedia to be a useful jumping off point when looking something up, but, as I've often told students, it really isn't to be treated as a trusted resource, and should never appear in the references section of an academic work. As an example of why this is true I present to you the tale of the apocryphal cow.

When we first moved to Penistone I knew nothing about the areas history. It was clear though from my first commute on the train that there used to be a lot more railway lines and infrastructure than the single remaining line between Barnsley and Huddersfield. After a quick session with Google I'd found quite a lot of interesting information, including this Wikipedia page which details a number of railway accidents that have occurred in and around Penistone.

As with many Wikipedia articles this one doesn't go into lots of details about each accident, mostly just providing a short summary for each one. My interest, however, had been piqued and so I've been slowly looking into each accident to find out more, and there may well be more blog posts on this subject in the future. This post focuses on the first accident which occurred in 1845, the year the first line to Penistone opened. The Wikipedia article currently states that:

In one of the promotional meetings for the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway a local farmer asked George Stephenson "what would happen if one of your locomotives hit one of my cows." Stephenson is reputed to have replied in a very broad, almost incomprehensible Geordie (Newcastle area) accent, "I would'na gi much chance for the coo!" At that time, Penistone Station was set on the line just below the parish church, which was adjacent to the cattle market. (The station was moved to the present site with the opening of the line to Huddersfield).

On 6 October 1845, Stephenson's thoughts were put to the test. The evening train from Dunford Bridge to Sheffield was running down the gradient towards Penistone Station when the train met a cow which had escaped onto the railway track from the cattle market. The drover was unable to move it out of the way and the train hit the cow. The locomotive and coaches were derailed and damaged, the guard injured and passengers shaken but Stephenson was proven right; the cow was almost cut in two and killed on the spot.

The accident took place on the line towards Dunford Bridge, somewhere in the Bullhouse area and was considered to be caused by "Cattle Drover's neglect".
Now while I find this interesting there were a number of things in this short description that started to ring alarm bells.

Firstly I couldn't see how there would be room alongside the old line (the accident occurred on the Woodhead Line which was closed in 1981 with the track being lifted a few years later) for a station building, however small, to have been built. Most of the track bed below the Church is on a narrow raised embankment and includes a bridge. Fortunately I was able to find a map from 1851 which shows the original location as being west of the Church, next to the still existing Penistone showground, which is where I assume the cattle market was held in 1845.

Knowing where the station was doesn't help me pinpoint the site of the accident though. Firstly the article states that the cow ... had escaped onto the railway track from the cattle market and that it happened somewhere in the Bullhouse area. The problem is that Bullhouse is around 2 miles along the line from the old station and cattle market (the old line is now the Trans-Pennine Trail, and on Google Maps this is a cycle way, so you can easily calculate the distance). While I'm sure that cows can roam a long distance, I would assume that if one had escaped from the cattle market it would have been captured well before it had managed to get 2 miles or more up the line.

The second problem with the Wikipedia description is that it mentions George Stephenson being involved with a promotional meeting for the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway (SA&MR). As far as I can tell while Stephenson was involved in the plans for the original Sheffield and Manchester Railway, which was never built, I can't find him being involved with the SA&MR. That isn't to say he wasn't at a promotional meeting but at this point I was beginning to wonder if any of the Wikipedia description was at all accurate.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, while I don't class Wikipedia as a trusted resource I do find it a useful jumping-off-point, and in this case a single reference was given for this accident; page 52 of George Dow's 1959 book Great Central. Volume One: The Progenitors 1813-1863. Working in a University with a good library can be very useful and after wondering around the stacks I eventually located the book. The relevant passage reads as follows:

Nevertheless, the Sheffield--Dunford Bridge section did sustain one series accident during its period of physical isolation from the older part of the SA&M, this nearly disproving George Stephenson's classic observation that in the event of a collision between a train and a cow "it would be very awkward for the coo". Soon after leaving Dunford Bridge on the evening of 6th October 1845 a passenger train ran into a cow which had strayed on the line owing to the negligence of a drover from Penistone market. The locomotive and all the carriages were derailed and damaged, severely injuring the guard and thoroughly shaking up the passengers. The cow was almost cut in two and killed on the spot.
Dow wrote this over 100 years after the accident, but he references a contemporary source; the 11th of October 1845 issue of The Illustrated London News. After a lot of hunting around I managed to get my hands on an electronic copy, and the news article reads as follows:

Accident on the Sheffield and Manchester Railway.--Owing to a cow having negligently been allowed to stray on to the above line, by a drover from Penistone market, after dark, on Monday night, an accident occurred, which had well nigh been the destruction of a whole train of passengers. Shortly after the train had left Dunford bridge, and while it was dark, a shock was received which threw both engine and train off the line, seriously injuring several of the carriages, and almost crushing the guard to death. As soon as the passengers could be got out of the carriages, it was ascertained that a cow had got upon the line, and the engine had come in violent contact with it. The poor animal was nearly cut in two, and, of course, killed on the spot. Information was immediately sent to Sheffield station, and a pilot engine promptly dispatched at ten o'clock at night. It returned at midnight with a portion of the passengers upon the tender, and immediately on setting them down, started again for the remainder, with Sufficient carriages, arriving again at Sheffield about two in the morning. The passengers, who, as might be expected, were much alarmed, bore the inconvenience with considerable fortitude--not a syllable of complaint being uttered by any of them. Happily none of the passengers were injured beyond some slight bruises, and all reached their homes in safety, between midnight and two o'clock on Tuesday morning.
Both of these reports agree on a number of issues. Firstly it would seem that the accident occurred shortly after leaving Dunford Bridge, and neither claim that the cow had escaped from Penistone cattle market. Both of these facts differ from the Wikipedia article, and given the contemporary report are more likely to be correct. I think the escaped cow probably comes from misreading that it was the drover involved who was from Penistone market, and not the cow.

The journey from Dunford Bridge to Penistone is about 5.5 miles, and according to the August 1845 issue of Bradshaw's Monthly Railway and Steam Navigation Guide (the relevant excert is shown on page 53 of Dow's book) took 12 minutes. The 6th of October 1845 was a Monday, and as sunset was at approximately 17:15 (I used to determine sunset for Penistone), then it must have been either the 18:07 or 20:07 departure from Dunford Bridge that was involved in the accident. Given that, according to the timetable, it would normally take 45 minutes for the train to make the entire journey from Dunford Bridge to Sheffield, and the newspaper article states that "and a pilot engine promptly dispatched at ten o'clock at night" then I would assume that it was the 20:07 departure, giving almost two hours after the accident for news to reach Sheffield.

From the original Wikipedia article, the one outstanding issue is George Stephenon's response to the question: what would happen if one of your locomotives hit one of my cows? Interestingly Dow refers to Stephenson's response as a "classic observation" and makes no attempt to link it to the SA&MR.

It would appear that the quote has nothing to do with the SA&MR but was actually from a parliamentary committee investigation into the proposed building of the Liverpool and Manchester railway. In 1884 Grant Allen published a book entitled Biographies of Working Men. Chapter 2 was devoted to George Stephenson and contains the following passage:

A long and severe fight was fought over the Liverpool and Manchester railway, and it was at first doubtful whether the scheme would ever be carried out. ... Stephenson himself was compelled to appear in London as a witness before a parliamentary committee ... One of the members of the committee pressed Stephenson very hard with questions. "Suppose," he said, "a cow were to get upon the line, and the engine were to come into collision with it; wouldn't that be very awkward, now?" George looked up at him with a merry twinkle of the eye, and answered in his broad North Country dialect, "Oo, ay, very awkward for the COO."
A similar story is also reported in Oscar D. Skelton's 1916 book The Railway Builders.

The directors of the new [Liverpool and Manchester] railway had found great difficulty in obtaining a charter from parliament. ... What would become of coachmen and coach-builders and horse-dealers? 'Or suppose a cow were to stray upon the line; would not that be a very awkward circumstance?' queried a committee member, only to give Stephenson an opening for the classic reply in his slow Northumbrian speech: 'Ay, varra awkward for the coo.'
Having finally tracked down the quote, I think I can now safely state the following:

  • the accident occurred just after leaving Dunford Bridge
  • the train hit a cow that a drover from Penistone market hadn't been able to clear from the line
  • the cow was killed instantly, giving proof to George Stephenson's classic answer to a parliamentary committee that such an accident would be "very awkward for the coo"

So with these facts in hand I'm intending to re-write the Wikipedia article as follows:

During a parlimentary committee meeting to debate the building of the Liverpool and Manchester railway, George Stephenson was asked what would happen should a train hit a cow. His now classic reply, given in his broad Northumbrian dialect, was to state "Oo, ay, very awkward for the COO!".

On the evening of the 6th of October 1845 this assumption was dramatically put to the test. Shortly after leaving Dunford Bridge the Sheffield bound train struck a cow, which a drover from Penistone market had been unable to remove from the line. The impact caused the locomotive and carriages to derail and the cow was killed instantly. Such was the force of the accident that the cow was almost entirely cut in half.

None of the passengers suffered any injuries other than some minor bruising, although the guard was more severely injured. A replacement train was dispatched from Sheffield and the passengers all completed their journey by two o'clock the following morning.
I think that this is much more accurate description of the accident and unless anyone points out any obvious mistakes in the next day or so, I'll update the Wikipedia article.

Any well researched article should always end with a list of sources, so here are the full details of the items quoted above:
  • Grant Allen. Biographies of Working Men. 1884.
  • Frederick William Naylor Bayley, editor. The Illustrated London News. William Little, 11 October 1845.
  • George Dow. Great Central, Volume One: The Progenitors, 1813–1863. Ian Allan, 1959.
  • Oscar D. Skelton. The Railway Builders. 1916.


  1. Very interesting. I have always enjoyed history and you've now set me thinking.
    I believe the Woodhead line was unique in that the locomotives running downhill generated electricity for those going uphill. I believe it was shut after a fire in a tunnel.
    Wikipedia here I come.

  2. Oddly I was about to do a post on Wikipedia so these will tie in rather well.

    I, too, have found occasional errors and, on at least one occasion, made a correction (in relation to something on Lewis I seem to recall) so I agree fully with your assessment of Wikipedia.

    I now understand your comment the other day on sleuthing. Very interesting work Mark and, no, I can't point out any obvious errors.