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By Mike Esbester on

Prevention is better than cure: promoting safety on the railways and beyond

Senior Lecturer in History Mike Esbester explores safety on the railways since 1913.

Nearly 15 years ago I was doing some research at what was then the National Railway Museum Library – as it had yet to be improved into Search Engine – reading the Great Western Railway Magazine, the staff journal of the Great Western Railway (GWR). I was looking for something specific, but starting from the August 1913 issue, one thing kept attracting my eye, month after month – articles featuring posed photographs, perhaps funny by our standards today, showing workers doing unsafe things. It seems employees were forever standing in front of trains, falling off wagons, getting their fingers caught in machinery or their feet crushed by buffers.

Image of article from 1914
Great Western Railway Magazine safety article, March 1914


I was intrigued: why did these articles suddenly start in August 1913? Where had they come from? And what happened next? My research took off from here, as I discovered the booklets, songs, competitions and other radically new methods the GWR used to try to show its employees what to do and what not to do. And that was even before I realised that the other railway companies followed the GWR’s lead and introduced their own versions of the magazine articles and booklets – and went beyond, issuing posters and even making films. They started targeting passengers; and the idea of safety education went national – used in other workplaces, for road safety and even for home safety.

Poster depicting railway worker with his back to traffic
British Railways (London Midland Region) poster, 1960

It’s these items that are showcased in the new virtual exhibition looking at safety and accident prevention on the railways over the last 100 years. Most of the items come from the National Railway Museum’s collections, and show some of the amazingly diverse ways in which British railway companies have struggled to reduce deaths and injuries on the railways. You’ll find posters of accidents about to happen, leaping tigers and bikini-clad women; safety booklets you can download – and even a ‘safety charm’.

Picture of a safety 'pocket token' from 1922
Great Western Railway ‘pocket token’, 1922

I wanted to use the virtual exhibition to show that this was yet another area in which the railway industry had a huge impact on British society – so it was important not just to feature railway safety. You’ll find items like matchbox labels, bookmarks, beermats and medals, all used to promote safety on the roads, at play or at home.

Picture of a Central Council of Health Education bookmark about burns
Central Council of Health Education bookmarks, c.1940s

So, the Great Western Railway Magazine has a lot to answer for! From a personal perspective, that chance find nearly 15 years ago proved to be the starting point for my career, starting with my PhD research into the GWR’s safety campaign, carried out at the Institute of Railway Studies (based at the National Railway Museum  in conjunction with the University of York) and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It’s also given me a life-long interest in the history of health, safety, risk and accident prevention in twentieth-century Britain, the focus of my research since my time in York.

I always retain a particular interest in railway employees, however, and this is reflected in the book I’m currently writing on the history of railway worker safety between 1871 and 1948, and in this exhibit put together with the National Railway Museum – I hope you’ll enjoy it.

To find out more, visit ‘Caution! Railway safety since 1913‘.

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