HE looked right and left and having ensured no trains were in sight, Charles Silverthorne began strolling over a level crossing - and promptly fell into a hole. Unable to move on a bitterly cold night, he lay there trapped for several minutes in excruciating pain before another pedestrian came along.

Initially, bricklayer Alfred Atkins thought that in the dark he had spotted a bundle of clothes before realising he had stumbled across an injured man.

The scene was recalled months later when in 1875 Silverthorne sued the London and South Western Railway Company over damages to his left leg because he alleged the crossing near his home in St Denys, Southampton, had not been kept in proper order.

"I found the gates were shut but there was access through the wickets," he told jurors. "It was very dark. I stepped into the hole and lay there in agony."

Atkins confirmed he had extricated Silverthorne and took him to the one-legged cobber who doubled up as the gatekeeper but he had not been on duty that night.

The following morning, however, the company launched an investigation into the cause of the cause of the mishap and discovered grating surrounding a drain that had been lowered into the road was missing. A search of the area revealed the missing material had been dumped into a hedge.

Daily Echo: St Denys' level crossing in recent yearsSt Denys' level crossing in recent years (Image: Echo)

However, it soon emerged the company had known of the missing grating for several weeks but had nothing to rectify the fault.

Silverthorne said that a result of his fall, he had suffered a severe strain to his left ankle, had been confined to his home for three months and deprived of his £3 a week earnings.

The company contested his claim, denying they were liable.

James Pinder, the barrister representing the company, accepted such court actions were invariably prejudiced in favour of the claimant but urged the jury to return a verdict according to the facts. He contended the defendants had not negligent in their duty and the grating had been removed as "a mischievous prank" by local youths.

But Charles Cole QC, appearing for Silverthorne, poured scorn on his submission. He asserted the drain had not been properly constructed and the company had failed to keep it in a proper state of repair, underlining the fact that they had known of the deficiency for some time.

Jurors came down in favour of Silverthorne and awarded him £50 in damages.