Accessibility navigation

Railway sparks: technological development and the common law

Wilde, M. (2019) Railway sparks: technological development and the common law. American Journal of Legal History, 59 (4). pp. 444-512. ISSN 0002-9319

Text - Accepted Version
· Please see our End User Agreement before downloading.


It is advisable to refer to the publisher's version if you intend to cite from this work. See Guidance on citing.

To link to this item DOI: 10.1093/ajlh/njz024


The railways have been described as Britain's 'gift to the world'. The sheer scale, ambition and audaciousness of the engineering still inspires awe and reshaped the landscape forever. They brought towns and cities closer together and instigated irreversible economic, political and social changes. However, as is often the case with a new technology, the railways also brought negative side effects, one of the most destructive of which was fire damage caused by sparks and lighted coals from steam locomotives. The railway sparks issue has long served as a case study for the economic analysis of tort and the issue of where the loss should fall. Nevertheless, much of the analysis has lacked an appreciation of how the courts actually resolved these disputes. This has attracted some comment from tort scholars and legal historians but has never been the subject of a sustained piece of doctrinal or historical research. This article constitutes the first truly comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the cases (both reported and unreported). The study has yielded new insights into the main arguments (and in particular the need to fit spark arresters to locomotives), the attitude of the railway industry to the problem and the role played by such cases in key doctrinal developments such as strict liability. Moreover, it examines how railway interests in Parliament were able to stymy attempts to replace the common law with a much more onerous strict liability regime under statute. As such it affords important new insights into how law responded to some of the new challenges of the Industrial Age.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Law
ID Code:86390
Publisher:Oxford University Press


Downloads per month over past year

University Staff: Request a correction | Centaur Editors: Update this record

Page navigation