Skip to content

By Peter Thorpe on

Extending the Railway Work, Life and Death project

Exciting things are on the horizon for our collaborative project on the history of railway safety.

In April, Dr Mike Esbester told you the latest news about Railway Work, Life & Death, the project that aims to make information more accessible about accidents involving railway workers in the first half of the last century. The first part of the project involved creating a database of accidents suffered by workers during the years 1911–1915. Mike explained that it had sparked interest in accidents that happened in later years and we were investigating ways to expand the scope of the project.

Many of the accidents in the reports involved shunting. Here wagons are being prop shunted at Willesden, London, 1915. A wooden prop is used between the locomotive and the wagon to propel it on the adjacent track.. We have found at least 6 accidents involving this method of shunting, and it was later stopped due to the risks involved.  Image ref: 1997-7409_LMS_3200

The fantastic news is that just a couple of months on we have just started the next part of the project, extending the coverage through to the late 1930s.

There are two main sets of data that we are going to use. The quarterly Railway Inspector’s reports into worker accidents start again in 1921 and continue nearly through to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Our archive also holds the Great Eastern Railway’s Benevolent Fund record book, covering the years 1913–23. It records applications for financial support made to the Fund by railway workers injured on the job. If you want to find out more about this book, Mike wrote a blog about it on the RWLD website.


Report on a shunting accident in 1937 at the GWR goods station at Hockley. Warwickshire. This accident just resulted in bruising- not all workers were this fortunate, many fatalities are recorded in the reports.

The project relies greatly on the efforts of some of our dedicated museum volunteers to do the hard work of turning all the data into something usable. Digitally scanned versions of the reports (like the example shown above) are distributed by email to remote volunteers working at home, who transcribe the relevant data into spreadsheets. These are then returned and checked, collated and passed over to Mike to make up the master spreadsheet.

The first part of the project was a little easier as we already had access to scanned versions of the 1911–1915 accident reports. This time we don’t have the same access to pre-scanned material, so there is extra work involved in scanning the material before it can be distributed. Much of the scanning and admin work is being carried out by Craig Shaw, the volunteer administrator for the project. The Great Eastern benevolent fund reports present a further challenge as they are handwritten, so involve a great deal more work in deciphering some of the more unfamiliar words!

As well as adding to our understanding of railway safety during the period, one of the other great aspects of the project is that it’s a way to engage volunteers who may not be able to physically volunteer at the museum. We are always looking to expand the ways in which our existing volunteers can contribute, and indeed attract new types of volunteers. While some of the reports tell a rather harrowing tale of personal injury and death, they provide a fascinating insight into the work and life of railway workers, something that has meant that many of the volunteers from the previous phase expressed an interest in continuing on with the project.

These grim stories are one of the other challenges that we have had to consider from an ethical viewpoint as we start to cover more “recent” accidents. Unlike the earlier series, reports of accidents from the 1930s are more likely to include people who might still be alive, or at least have direct living relatives, so we have had to consider the potential impact of making the material more easily available. The accident reports have always been in the public domain as they were published at the time, but not everyone might appreciate reading details of how a close relative met their death.

The feedback we have received so far about the initial project leads us to feel that the new information will be welcomed and we can’t wait to get it out there so people can make use of it. The volunteers have been keen to get working again, but we will have to wait a while longer as the two new sources include around 8,000 names and their work requires care and accuracy!

If you want to see the results of the first part of the project or find out more, visit the project website.


3 comments on “Extending the Railway Work, Life and Death project

  1. Hello,
    My great grandad was killed on the Metropolitan railway in 1900. I believe it was the Chorleywood / Little Chalfont area. On his tombstone it says, ‘ He turned and fell and did not have time to say fond farewell. I would love to know more about what happened and where.
    His death certificate was registered in Paddington. His name was Walter Wearing and he lived in Chorleywood, Herts. I would love to hear if there is any information about him. Many thanks.

    1. Hi, my great grandfather was also a Walter Wearing who lived in Chorley wood around then. I am in Australia.

  2. Found you by chance,this i going to be enthralling for me as i am a wagonphile who takes a great interest of the social aspecytof the railway.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *