The safety of unmanned level crossings is frequently in the news. 1863 has thrown up a case of a young man of 12 years being charged with negligently driving 2 horses and a wagon across a level crossing on the Leicester & Hitchin Railway.
Joseph Eckersley was a locomotive engine driver in the service of the Midland Railway Company. On 24 August he left London for Leicester with the 7.20am passenger train. The train as a government train and stopped at all stations on the Midland line between Hitchin and Leicester.
The journey was made without interruption to Sharnbrook. Irchester was the next station from Sharnbrook. It was a distance of about 6 miles and there was a rise in the line from Sharnbrook for about 3 miles and then the gradient went in the other direction. About 2 miles before Irchester station, he saw 2 horses, drawing an empty wagon, coming upon the railway at a distance of about 200 yards from the engine. The team came from the right or East of the line on which they were travelling. He could see the team was in the charge of a boy who appeared to be on the wrong side of the horses. There was private occupation crossing on the level where the wagon was going. The train was running at about 30 miles an hour and he used all his endeavours by reversing the engine and getting breaks put on to stop the train. He whistled. They were unable to stop the train before reaching the place over which the wagon was passing and the wagon was not through the gate posts when the engine came abreast of it. The hind wheels of the wagon were about half way through then gateway. However a collison was just avoided. This was tale of events was supported by his fireman, William Needham, who had been riding on the footplate of the engine. Eckersley stated that if it had been a fast train nothing would have prevented a collision.
The travelling inspector for the south district of the Midland railway, John Jeffery, ascertained that an engine chimney could be seen a mile from the spot and the engine clearly seen from the gate for half a mile. Therefore, the young accused, James Mackness, would have know a train was approaching.
Charles Gilbert also worked for the Midland Company on the railway as a labourer in a local gang. On 24 August he was working about quarter of a mile to the North of the crossing. He saw a wagon and 2 horses crossing the level before a government train came down and heard the train whistle. He witnesses the near miss. On going back to the crossing he met Gilbert Church, a lad in the employment of Mr Lathom, owner of the land on qhich the level crossing was placed. Church was driving a cart and a horse to the same crossing. He stopped Church and asked if he was the boy with the wagon and the 2 horses. Church said it had been young Jem Mackness. He saw Mackness afterwards and asked if he was the boy who had gone through the line with an empty wagon and 2 horses and Mackness replied he was. Church asked Mackness if he went to see if there was a train coming and Mackness replied “No I never thought nothing about it”.
Mackness was lucky on this occasion, both to save his own life and to be found not guilty by the court.