Did illiteracy kill James Coughlin?

We might tend to question the extent to which many of the working classes – for it is the working classes who are largely the subject of these accident reports – could read or write. For the railway industry the indications are actually that the workforce was highly literate, but the ability to read certainly wasn’t universal. One such case that appears in the accident reports concerns 53-year old platelayer James Coughlin, an employee of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway.

On 13 November 1914 Coughlin was working with another platelayer, J. Wood, near Bradley Fold (midway between Bury and Bolton). They were at work under a bridge when another colleague spotted an approaching train: ‘He shouted, and Wood threw himself clear … Coughlin stepped the other way, but was too late, and he was struck and killed by the engine.’ The men had a clear sightline to the train which meant that ‘under ordinary circumstances a look-out man would not be required.’ However, as Coughlin’s hearing was ‘somewhat defective’ one of his colleague’s ‘should have devoted more attention to looking after his safety … [though] had Coughlin exercised ordinary care, the accident should not have taken place.’

I suspect we’ll return to the idea of ‘ordinary care’ on another occasion, so for now I want to focus on the literacy issue. The train that struck Coughlin was a race special, so didn’t appear in the standard timetable. However, the gang of platelayers had been given a written notice about the extra train, with which they ‘are supposed to make themselves aquainted’. But as inspector JPS Main noted, as Coughlin couldn’t read ‘the supply of a special notice to him would have had no value.’ As a result, for those workers who couldn’t read, Main concluded that ‘it would appear to be desirable that gangers and foremen should be instructed to read over those portions affecting the men, day by day’ [i.e. read the notice to those who couldn’t read for themselves]. At the same time, Main’s report (1914 Quarter 4, Appendix B) also concluded that Coughlin was well aware that a race special was being run; he also noted in passing that Coughlin had been working that stretch of line for 30 year – the implication being he was well used to specials such as these and the precise dangers of the location.

So, the answer to the question of whether or not illiteracy lead to the death of James Coughlin is: probably not in this case – but perhaps in other cases it did.

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