Wednesday, 4 April 2012

D is for Death

As in the Leveller. As in the other certainty in life (after taxes of course). As in the accidental death of "a young man working at Mr. Cameron's sawmills at Wickham". [1]

In times past I think it's fair to generalise that occupational health and safety probably wasn't a priority. Deaths at work for those who relied on their physicality to earn a living were unfortunately all too common: in factories and mines, on building sites and in shipyards. From the gravity of the injury suffered by our Robert  and the nature of work undertaken in sawmills generally, it's clear that this was a risky business. Such deaths, while always tragic, would no doubt have occurred more regularly than they should have and have been reported in the newspaper (if for no other reason than to publicly acknowledge the loss of someone's father / brother / husband). And the seriousness of this awful work-place accident was such that it was always going to be reported and reported widely, but what surprised me when I found it (again, on Trove) was the detail with which it was reported.

The "melancholy and fatal accident" [2] of nineteen year old Andrew Crossley, who was employed as an engine driver at the Wickham sawmill owned by our Robert, occurred on Thursday, 11 May 1871. It was reported that Saturday in the Maitland Mercury [3] and then in the Empire in Sydney on Monday [2]. On Tuesday, by which time there had been an inquest into the incident, the Sydney Morning Herald featured an article which painted as blood-spattered a picture of the event as "the scene of the terrible casualty" was at the time the article's author visited it. It wasn't enough to communicate that poor Andrew Crossley "had been completely cut in two by one of the circular saws" the reporter writes [if you're feeling queasy, probably best not to read on...]:
"the travelling bench, the saw, the adjacent timber, the tie-beams, and even the interior of the roofing thickly be-splattered with blood and portions of the bone and flesh from the body of the unfortunate deceased. The corpse presented a frightful spectacle, a deep gash extended from immediately under the sternum to the vicinity of the right knee, completely severing the chest and laying open the whole of the intestines, and the pallor of the body showed it to be completely emptied of blood." [1]
How exactly he came to be on the saw is a little bit speculative. There is no suggestion that it was anything sinister. In fact, the inquest made a verdict of accidental death with no blame to be attached to anyone connected with the works. But, while many of his workmates were present when the accident happened and in fact helped pull him off the saw, none of them witnessed exactly how he came to be on the saw. They either "heard a noise from the saw, as if it was cutting through a piece of wood, .. turned around and saw deceased lying on the front of the saw", "heard a crash; ... looked up and deceased was across the saw" or "stopped down to put some sawdust into the bag: when [they] looked up [they] saw him fast on the saw; [they] heard no noise".[1][*] What was suggested was that he took a route through the machinery to short-cut a task or caught his heel on the saw and in one short moment of poor judgement, making one tiny mistake - he paid with his life. 

Unidentified sawmill, [NSW, n.d.]
Unidentified sawmill, NSW.
This image was scanned from a negative in the Bert Lovett collection.
It is part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection,
held by Cultural Collections at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia

[1] 1871 'THE FRIGHTFUL SAWMILL ACCIDENT AT NEWCASTLE.', The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 16 May, p. 3, viewed 4 April, 2012,

[2] 1871 'MELANCHOLY AND FATAL ACCIDENT.', Empire(Sydney, NSW : 1850 - 1875), 15 May, p. 3, viewed 4 April, 2012,

[3] 1871 'LOCAL NEWS.', The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW : 1843 - 1893), 13 May, p. 3, viewed 4 April, 2012,

[*] It's always interesting reading witness account as no one person ever remembers the same details (or maybe that's just the lawyer in me?)

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