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By Mike Esbester on

Railway Work, Life and Death project releases 16,000 new records

Mike Esbester shares fantastic news from the Railway Work, Life and Death project, which has 16,000 new records.

We probably all have some strong images in our mind’s eye of Britain and Ireland’s railways in the steam era—the long-distance express, cutting through towns, cities and countryside; the rural stopping service, trundling from village to village; the bustle of the station; goods being moved…

All of that tells some of the story, but it also hides parts of the story, too: in particular, the people who worked our railways and the dangers they faced.

That’s where the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project has been helping. Started in 2016, the project has been finding out more about the working lives and accidents of railway workers before 1939. A joint initiative of the National Railway Museum, the University of Portsmouth and the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick, project volunteers have been transcribing records of accidents to railway employees.

Their hard work has just paid off, too, as we’ve made available another 16,000 records—all free, via our project website.

Those cases tell you who was involved, what they were doing, when, where and why. They focus on the accidents, but in doing so tell us lots about what work on the railways actually involved—as opposed to the idealised pictures we might have in our minds. They cover cases investigated by the state railway inspectors between 1900 and 1939 across the UK (before 1921 including Ireland).

Posed image from 1930s staff safety booklet, warning of the risks of passing between wagons. Courtesy Railway Work, Life & Death project.

We see, for example, the death of 12-year-old EB Harding, a temporary lad picker for the Southern Railway at Swanwick in Hampshire, England. On 22 June 1936 he was helping load strawberries onto a goods train at 21.00 when he was caught between buffers and crushed, dying of his injuries. And the case of 79-year-old shunter Charles Smith, who on 23 December 1937 had been making his way between buildings at Stratford Market, London, England, on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. He stepped foul of the tracks when shunting was going on, and was fatally crushed between wagon buffers.

Women appear in the cases, too, though only in limited numbers—34, to be precise. This might be because there were, relatively, fewer women employed, and then in roles that exposed them to less danger—but even so it looks like a significant under-representation. Why that might be isn’t clear. Still, it means we can find out more about women like Ellen Logan, a gate keeper at Cavanagh crossing in Ballyconnell, County Cavan, Ireland. On 7 November 1903 a train was given the signal to proceed through the crossing, but as it approached Logan was still moving one of the crossing gates out of the way. The train struck it—and her, dislocating her left arm. The investigation thought Logan had been ‘remiss’ in not opening the gates in ‘reasonable time’ before the train was due—but also that the signalling system needed improving, to interlock the signal and the gates to prevent the signal from allowing trains to pass unless both gates were clear of the line.

Warnings about the dangers of capstan use, from a 1930s staff safety booklet. Courtesy Railway Work, Life & Death project.

A huge variety of grades of railway employee are found in the accident cases. They are clustered around staff doing goods work or at work on and around the lines, as this is where most danger was focused. They also show some of the breadth of railway operations—including at ports. On 20 June 1924, Great Western Railway coal tipper Alfred Cooke, 25, was at work at Barry Docks, Glamorganshire, Wales. He was towing a wagon using a capstan when the rope became detached and struck him on the legs. Fortunately it only bruised him, but it could have been a lot worse. Capstan working was a frequent source of casualty on the railway. In this case the accident investigation noted that capstan hooks should be made more uniform in shape.

Whilst most incidents involved one or two workers, some involved more. That included the case at Kelvinside goods yard, in Lanarkshire, Scotland, on 16 April 1933. At a bit past midnight, track workers John Haggerty, Robert McColl and John Neil, along with wireman (someone dealing with signalling and telegraph work involving wiring) Andrew Blackstock were going to install some wiring in a tunnel. They were in a wagon, along with the cable drum; during the movement the wagon derailed and all four men were injured: Blackstock had a wrist fractured, Neil’s head was cut, McColl’s legs were bruised and Haggerty’s arm was fractured.

1923 image showing railway staff at work on the permanent way. National Railway Museum.

As a project, we’ve already marked the centenaries of two bad accidents involving multiple casualties, including blogging about them: Stapleton Road, in September 1921, and Wilmcote in March 1922. These cases really demonstrate the possibilities offered by the project—including to help descendants and local communities remember those affected by accidents in the past. We’d love to see more of this kind of initiative in the future, especially being led by others and using project data. We’re very happy to share thoughts on this if anyone does want to do it.

We find plenty of other aspects of railway operation and social history revealed in the database, too numerous to explore in detail here (though watch out for more blog posts from us in the future!). There are cases in which individuals suffered more than one incident; we see staff disabled from earlier accidents being hurt again; cases with family members involved in the same incident; people who weren’t railway staff, but who had access to the railway, having accidents; and many other aspects.

We can’t cover all the accidents to railway staff—only around 3% of all cases were investigated by the state officials who produced the reports we’re making available. Still, an additional 16,000 cases is a big run of data. We want you to explore the project and the database, and find the cases and people of relevance and interest to you.

Taken together, all of the cases give us a much better picture of what was actually happening on the ground—rather than what the rule books or railway management said ought to be happening. We find the intricacies of railway operation explored—through the men, women and children who did the work. And most importantly, we see those people as individuals, about whom we’d like to know more.

All of this wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers who did the hard work making these records available to you—so we’d like to recognise and thank them all. Collectively, they’ve put in thousands of hours of effort. This is a team effort, and all their hard work is much appreciated. We’d particularly like to mention one of the stalwarts of the project, Craig Shaw, who did so much but who sadly died last year. This new data release wouldn’t be possible without him.

We’re delighted that the NRM volunteers keep on working with the project. Clearly they want to help and share their interest in the railways—and it’s great that there are other benefits to the volunteers for their involvement. One comment, from Peter Robinson, sums it up nicely: ‘I didn’t know much about the railway and the project has taught me a great deal about different jobs, tools, the track and most of all about the workers … When transcribing some of the accident reports I felt I got to know some of the workers’.

Now that these new cases are available to you, does the project stop?

Of course not! In fact, the NRM’s volunteer team have been hard at work already on the next data release. They’ve joined efforts with the volunteers based at one of the other project partners, the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick. Together, they’re working on records from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants/ National Union of Railwaymen, from the 1880s through to the 1920s. But more of that in the future!

All that’s left to do now is to encourage you to make the most of the project resources, including the amazing new dataset. Have a look, see what you find—and please let us know what you make of it!

Your thoughts are essential, in three ways. Firstly, we feed them back to our volunteers, to let them know their hard work is being used and appreciated. Secondly, we’re keen to know how people are using the project resources, so we can see what you want from us as we keep going with more records. Finally, we always want to find out more about the individuals named in the database. We know about their accidents—but what about the rest of their lives, and their families? We’ve had some wonderful experiences with people getting in touch to tell us more (see these guest blog posts on the project website, for example). Could you help us in that way, too?

Please feel free to get in touch with us, via the project website or Twitter—we’re always happy to hear from you, and especially if you are thinking of a guest blog post. It all helps us improve the project for the future.

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