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The cost of working on the railways?

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On November 10 1913, at 7.30 in the evening, casual porter Herbert French was putting sheets on wagons in the North Eastern Railway’s goods warehouse in York. The wagons moved unexpectedly, catching French – though, fortunately for him, he was injured rather than killed; his left thumb was pinched. Although a relatively minor injury, there was a state-sponsored investigation by the Railway Inspectorate, which amongst its conclusions found that the foreman ‘fully admits that not only immediately following this mishap, but frequently, he has given the shunters instructions to move waggons in the warehouse without knowing that his men were clear. … it is very evident that [the] foreman … has not exercised the care for the safety of his men that he should have done’: a rather damning finding. French’s injury was one of nearly 30,000 that railway employees suffered in 1913 alone, including over 460 deaths. This was the cost of keeping the railway system running, but the scale of the safety problem was largely unknown by the public – then, as now.

1909 railway accident postcard. Courtesy Mike Esbester.

Aiming to recover some of these cases of work-related injury and death, ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ is a new collaborative project, between the National Railway Museum and the University of Portsmouth. We’re using accident investigation reports such as that into French’s accident, produced by the Board of Trade’s railway inspectors between 1911 and 1915. These reports detail the circumstances surrounding accidents to railway workers, and tell us a fantastic amount about what it was like to work on the railways in the early years of the 20th century – including how dangerous it was. They tell us what really happened to ordinary men and women responsible for keeping a key national industry running, how the railway companies viewed workplace deaths and injuries, and what role the state played in this area.

Board of Trade accident report. Courtesy National Railway Museum

Until now these accident reports have been an underused resource. Although Search Engine has an excellent run of the reports in hardcopy, if it’s not possible to visit the National Railway Museum it can be very hard to get hold of them. In addition, the quantity is overwhelming: over the four-and-a-half-year period we’ve covered, there were nearly 4,000 named individuals who suffered accidents. To get through all of these reports we’ve been working with a team of volunteers at the museum – the project is an experiment in crowdsourcing, harnessing the power and interest of the volunteers to work through material that would otherwise remain unexplored. As always, they’ve done sterling work, and it really wouldn’t be possible to do this without them or Craig Shaw, the Administration Volunteer who has done so much to support the volunteers: hearty thanks are due to all of them.

The project, which started at the end of 2016, has already attracted considerable interest from a range of audiences looking to make use of the data – family historians, rail enthusiasts, the current railway industry as well as academic historians. The volunteers have done brilliantly and been through all of the accident reports, pulling out key details, which we’re now compiling into a spreadsheet. This will be made public as soon as possible, via the project website – this will provide a huge boost to making the worker accidents and those involved in them better known and understood. We’re also expecting it to feed into the National Railway Museum’s work, both in terms of providing content for displays and in terms of helping Search Engine staff with the enquiries they receive about railway accidents.

Great Western Railway accident prevention image, 1913. Courtesy Mike Esbester.

Whilst this is a relatively small-scale starting point, once we’ve demonstrated the potential we’re hoping that bigger things will flow from it. We’re currently investigating a bigger project, covering a much longer period, encompassing a huge variety of records relating to railway worker accidents, and covering tens of thousands of cases. This has huge potential to get large numbers of people involved in and shaping the direction of important research. At an individual level, as the work progresses this means that ordinary people like Herbert French, who were injured or killed in the course of their employment on the railways, will once again be remembered. We’ll keep you updated on this as the project goes on.

Do come and visit the project website.

This is a guest contribution by Mike Esbester of the University of Portsmouth, introducing the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project he is currently co-leading with National Railway Museum Librarian Karen Baker.

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