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By Mike Esbester on

Disability History Month: Of accidents and prosthetics

To mark Disability History Month, Mike Esbester explores what historically happened after a railway accident.

In a previous blog post, we introduced the Railway Work, Life & Death project. This was just as our database of nearly 4,000 railway worker accidents between 1911 and 1915 went live—a tremendous result for the volunteers who spent over 1,000 hours transcribing details from the state Railway Inspectorate reports of worker accidents. The information these reports contain is now vastly more accessible, and is being well-used by researchers across the world—we’ve had downloads from Australia and New Zealand, through North America, and across mainland Europe. Our project blog is updated weekly and pulls out some of the interesting points found in one or more of the cases.

However, while all of this tells us an awful lot about what it was like to work on the railways in the run up to the First World War, and what happened in relation to worker accidents, what it doesn’t say anything about is a crucial human-level question: what happened next, after the accident?

To get at that we need to combine our project’s sources with the huge variety of other material that railway worker accidents generated—things like the railway company paperwork, compensation documents, newspaper reports—or even the physical objects, like prosthetic limbs and glass eyes. Each adds another piece to the puzzle, helping us build a clearer picture of the impact of the railway accident upon individuals, their families and communities.

To contribute to Disability History Month (22 November – 22 December), we’ve been including a number of posts on our project blog, as well as tweeting some of the cases (@RWLDproject). In this guest post, I want to have a brief look at one case of permanent disability and the steps taken after the accident—although only a single example, it is illustrative of the sorts of cases found throughout the railway companies’ files at the National Railway Museum, National Archives and beyond.

On 29 January 1910, coupler F Dolphin was at work at New Street Station, Birmingham, on the London & North Western Railway when he “met with an accident … which necessitated the amputation of his left foot”, according to the minutes of the LNWR’s Locomotive Committee (held in Search Engine at the museum). Unfortunately, this is all the detail we currently have of his accident—it wasn’t one investigated by the Railway Inspectors. I suspect it was a shunting accident of some sort, presumably resulting in a crushed foot that was subsequently removed in a local hospital; had the foot been lost at the site of the accident, it was likely to have been noted that it was severed at the scene.

The Loco Committee’s report notes that in February 1911 Dolphin was supplied with an artificial limb, as agreed at the Committee’s meeting of 16 December 1910. Intriguingly, the fact that the decisions to grant prostheses had to go to a committee (and the LNWR wasn’t alone in that) rather implies it wasn’t always guaranteed that a prosthetic would be supplied by the company—though I’ve not seen any cases where an application was actually turned down. In addition to any compensation that might be due, then, it appears the LNWR (and the same was true of other companies) considered it had some sort of obligation towards at least some injured workers. That was a good thing, given there were 4,963 casualties in 1910 on the LNWR alone, and over 25,000 injuries across the whole industry, including 1,218 from shunting.

A prosthetic limb produced by the Great Western Railway, 1940s
Replacement limb (including shoe and sock), produced by the GWR in the 1940s. National Railway Musuem, object number 2016-7075.

In addition to the prosthesis, Dolphin was found a new role within the Company, in the lamp room at New Street station—no doubt at a lower rate of pay, but arguably at least there was a source of income. Dolphin’s case reappears in the July 1913 minutes, when he reported the replacement limb needed repairs. He was sent to Crewe, to the workshops “for the limb to be examined”—no doubt serving a medical/ technological purpose, but also potentially rather suspicious, as if checking up on a potentially false claim. However, it was decided “that it is very much worn, being too large owing to shrinkage of the stump”: a new limb was recommended, but “in the meantime the present limb has been temporarily repaired to enable the man to get about with more comfort”.

Dolphin’s case was one of two considered in that meeting: the other was John Jones, a carriage cleaner at Holyhead who lost his right leg above the knee following an accident on 20 September 1912. He received an insurance society payout and workmen’s compensation; following a medical examination it was declared that “the stump is in splendid condition and an artificial leg could be put on at once”. Once this was done, he would be found work back at the carriage shed at Holyhead where he lost his leg, as a flagman, which he said he would take.

Although cases such as these are found throughout the Loco Committee’s minutes from at least the 1890s, the final line of both cases gives us a sense of where power lay in the Company and the detail that was considered at the highest level: “The General Manager concurs in my bringing the matter before the Committee for approval.” So much for delegation!

Given the number of injuries involving loss of limbs, it’s perhaps not surprising to find another reminder of work-related disability in the museum’s collections—an engineering diagram, also from the LNWR, for the production of prosthetic legs. This is the subject of an earlier post on the blog, and really indicates the industrial nature of accidents and disability produced by the railways.

We hope that our project will allow people to find out more about work and accidents on the railways, and to consider the impact that accidents had, including on those who had to live with the physical and mental consequences for many years after the event. For more on the Railway Work, Life & Death project, please have a look at our website—we’d love to hear from you!


3 comments on “Disability History Month: Of accidents and prosthetics

  1. My grandfather was a signalman on GNR from 1911 to about 1945/50. My family always stated that he lost his leg after an accident on the railway (he was stationed at Horton Park SB, on Queensbury line, Bradford) resulting in a full leg prosthesis being fitted similar to the picture shown above which I remember seeing many times as a child before his death in 1966. I have been unable to find any details about his accident or his employment history other than his LMS work number confirming how much he was paid/hour as a signalman at Horton Park, and a photo of his long service clock being presented presumably on his retirement. Any help or suggestions would be gratefully received. Thank you

  2. My GG Grandfather John Clements, worked on the GWR from before 1862, He had an accident on Newport Station Feb 1902, which resulted in an amputation. I have been told this and also found a Newspaper account with some details. In another Newspaper account he was still driving trains in 1913 aged 72. It said he was the oldest driver on the Brecon and Merthyr Railway. Also his father-in-law Daniel Gronow another engine driver was crushed and killed in 1874. How would I go about getting more information about their Railway careers? Thank you.

    1. Hi Susan, do you have a picture of your Grandfather at all, I would like to use his name on one of our meeting rooms on a project I am working on and we would like to put a picture of him on the outside of the room. if you would like to contact me on I can tell you more.

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