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‘danger may arise in the employment of a man with defective sight’

Continuing our look at both disability in railway service and our forthcoming new dataset, this week our blog focuses on a case in which sight loss probably had a role to play.

This is another case from next week’s data release: around 17,000 more cases, investigated by the railway inspectors between 1900-1910 and 1921-1939. Today we find J Watkins, employed by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company (LMS). He was an ‘underman’: part of a team of men maintaining the tracks (the ‘permanent way’), doing general labouring duties as needed.

He was injured on 21 June 1923, at Abergavenny Junction – but his backstory is important, if elusive. The report noted that he had lost the sight in his right eye ‘about 17 years ago,’ though didn’t go into further details – and alas, we’ve not got any more information from within our project at this stage. We might presume that this was incurred in the course of railway employment, and that the then-employing railway company (which predated the formation of the LMS in 1923) found a new role for Watkins.

The report went on that about a year ago Watkins requested to be moved from Brynmawr ‘to a more sheltered district.’ He was moved – no doubt at the convenience of the company (believed to be the London and North Western Railway) – to Abergavenny Junction ‘where he has spent most of his time loading ashes.’ When he wasn’t needed to do that, he joined the permanent way gang ‘on their ordinary maintenance work’ in the yard.

On the morning of his accident, the gang had been ensuring that the rails were level, with Watkins filling in ballast ‘a short distance behind the gang.’ Just after 8am, the gang had finished their work on that line and moved to a nearly track ‘leaving Watkins alone to complete the filling in.’ At 8.25 a ‘light engine’ (a locomotive not pulling a train) ran along the track on which Watkins was working. He didn’t see it coming and it hit him; fortunately rather than a fatality he ‘only’ had his thigh injured.

The driver had seen the gang and Watkins, and had (as he was required to) sounded his whistle to warn them to move out of the way. They all did this, including Watkins; when asked by inspector JPS Main what had happened Watkins ‘appears to have very little recollection of his actual position at the time he was struck, and does not remember hearing the engine whistle.’ Main believed that this was because there were several other engines at work nearby, no doubt creating confusion over which had sounded the whistle.

Main put the accident down to Watkins’ failure to ensure he was in a safe position. Importantly, he also commented on Watkins’ sight loss: ‘I am of opinion, however, that a man with such a disability should not in any case have been allowed to work on the permanent-way without a look-out man, and particularly at such a place.’ Since the accident, he noted, a look-out man was ordered to work with the gang, but even with this in place there was the possibility that ‘danger may arise in the employment of a man with defective sight amongst moving traffic’. This was specifically noted as being the belief of Watkins and those he worked with in the gang. Main left it that ‘the desirability of his employment in such a position in future is for the serious consideration of the Company’ (1923 Quarter 2, Appendix B).

Watkins doesn’t appear again in our records, so perhaps he was kept on safer work, in light of Main’s comments. Possibly, though, he did have further accidents that weren’t investigated (as only c.3% of all staff accidents were formally investigated by the state-appointed inspectors). And the rider that Main added to the report was clearly only addressed to the personal circumstances of Watkins, rather than more generally. We know that there are other cases within the new dataset of accidents involving workers with pre-existing sight loss.

As in last week’s blog, about hearing loss, it is clear that workers with a range of disabilities were employed on Britain and Ireland’s railways. Whilst they may not appear visible at first glance, there are traces we can find to explore their lives and the ways in which occupational disability was present in society – so long as we look.

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