Disability History Month – how many disabled workers were on the books? The Great Eastern Railway’s Accident Benevolent Fund 1913-23

In our previous post we looked at a few of the details we’d found about how some employees were given prosthetics to aid their adaptation to post-accident life. They were only a few of the cases in any given year, and whilst they help us start to appreciate the individual impacts of accidents and changes in employment that followed, a look at the bigger picture might be helpful. In this, our final blog post for Disability History Month, we’re going to try to set the individual cases in context – and then take it back down to the personal level and have a look at one example case.

To do this we’ll be making use of the Great Eastern Railway’s Employee Accident Benevolent Fund index book, covering the years 1913-23 and held at the NRM’s Search Engine. It gives only the barest factual details of the cases – no doubt somewhere else an accident report book would have recorded details of the accidents themselves. This certainly isn’t a comprehensive exploration of the book – that’s something for the future – but we’re aiming to pick out some interesting points about work-related disability in the early 20th century.

The book includes details of around 580 individuals, though a number of those names appear more than once – typically as the aid with which they’d been supplied initially wore out and they requested a replacement. So, for example, H Drury, a porter employed in the Goods Department and based at Bishopsgate Station in London suffered a rupture on 16 June 1917; his case came before the Benevolent Fund’s Committee on 13 August 1917, where the cost of a truss (6 shillings) was granted. He was back again 14 August 1919 for a replacement, this time at a cost of 15 shillings (that’s inflation for you…). Further trusses were supplied in 1922 and 1923 – and presumably on, after the Grouping in 1923, but here the GER book stops.

GER Accident Benevolent Fund index book (courtesy NRM).

Another intriguing repeat case is that of W Mixer or Mixen – hard to tell which, as the writing is indistinct to my eye (but please correct me, eagle-eyed readers – see image above!). A gateman at Wymondham in Norfolk, in ‘about 1896’ he incurred an accident which injured his knee. What happened between the accident and 1914 is unknown, but in March of that year his case came before the Committee, and they granted £2 ‘to buy kneecaps as required’. Presuming this was an artificial kneecap and not some sort of knee support/ kneepad, then I found this surprising early for this sort of prosthesis – though that probably reflects my own lack of knowledge of the history of disability. The grant in 1914 wasn’t the end, however. As you’d expect, the kneecap gets a lot of wear and tear – sufficient that a new one was purchased between every 4-6 months, ticking down through that £2 granted, initially at 3 shillings a go but rising by 1922 to 4 shillings sixpence. Mixer’s claim appears 10 times in total.

So, what sort of cases are typically found in the book? The only details given are about the nature of the injury – in the broadest possible terms, meaning the part of the body affected – and the adaptive aid applied for, along with its cost. There are plenty of cases of rupture or hernia, with associated requests for trusses to support. Artificial limbs are relatively frequent also, and artificial eyes also appear.

There are some more unusual cases, too. Occasionally you’ll find payment of doctor’s bills or even funeral costs. In 1917 RW Bailey was granted £3 for the repair of his false teeth; other cases of shoulder injury have payments for massage. Not all requests were accepted, of course. Fitter F Dowey of the Loco Department at Stratford injured his eye on 27 September 1912, but the Committee meeting on 20 March 1913 refused his claim. The precise nature of this claim wasn’t specified, as all that appears in the ‘remarks’ column is the dry word ‘Declined’ – I’d love to know more about this and the other cases of refusal.

The distance between injury and claim was often in the months, but sometimes it might extend to years, especially for rupture or hernia cases. Scattered throughout the book there are a number of claims from the 19th century; the oldest spotted so far is that of C Ambrose, who had been based at Stratford (the Great Eastern’s major workshops) and in January 1921 claimed for a rupture resulting from an accident on 4 September 1857; the ‘appliance’ was purchased at a cost of 42/6 (quite why it was phrased this way rather than as £2.2.6 I’m not sure).

We’ll be returning to this index book in the future, as there are plenty more details it contains that are of interest – and we’re able to cross-reference 3 of the cases it contains with our database of worker accidents, so we’ll be blogging about those cases and the benefits of the database as a means of making these connections.

Occupational disability and how workers adapted to post-injury life, on the railways and beyond, is a topic that has huge potential – we’ve not even scratched the surface in our posts for Disability History Month, and this is an important area we need to return to. There’s an additional post on this topic which we’ve contributed to the NRM’s blog, available here, but for the time being we’re returning to our ‘bread and butter’ of the worker accidents themselves, but we’ll be coming back to disabled railway staff when we can. Our next post – planned for Christmas Eve – will focus on Christmas Day accidents found in our project database, so be sure to check it to find out what happened to railway workers over the holiday period…

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