Sheer-Legs — and the Danger that Weighed Heavily with Them

“Current legislation means they can never be used again,” says the Barrow Hill Collections website in regard to an enormous contraption called a sheer-legs (sometimes spelled without the hyphen). This device did various kinds of heavy lifting, but as the old photos on that page show, one kind involved hoisting up a steam engine so that a worker can perform maintenance from below. Yes, people did work below! a! steam engine! weighing I don’t know how many tons! A slip of a chain, and — well, you understand why using them has become illegal.

This illustration of a sheer-legs used for transferring cargo to and from ships comes from an 1897 textbook on engineering.

A sheer-legs figures prominently in this weekend’s episode of Tales Told When the Windows Rattle. I read Henry Tinson’s 1875 ghost story, “Under the Sheer-Legs.” Early in the tale, Tinson establishes the eerie atmosphere of a major Victorian railroad hub: “The long gloomy sheds and empty workshops, with uncouth machinery, and enormous engines imperfectly seen in the dim light, were, after dark, as vague and full of mystery as any old monastery or castle could ever be.” Tinson knew that there were places built in his own era that were as daunting and as ghostly as crumbling, medieval buildings.

The same year that Tinson’s “Under the Sheer-Legs” was published, this article about a man crushed under a sheer-legs appeared in the Warrington Examiner. As in the story, a jury rules the tragedy to be an “Accidental death.”

Those who listen to Tales Tales regularly know that I play with character voices and accents (and sound effects) to tug each episode away from being a “newsreader” narration and to nudge it closer to being an audio drama. I hope I don’t offend the entire population of the United Kingdom with my attempt to give each minor character a different regional British accent. I’m certain I’ve failed in accuracy, but I hope I’ll still earn a “well done, mate” for being a guy who grew up in Illinois — the same state where Dick Van Dyke grew up — and who butchered more regional dialects than a cockney alone. A guy needs a goal, after all.

The Tales Told YouTube channel is found here, and you can choose the video or the audio version on this page.

— Tim

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