Disability History Month: ‘very nervous and trembling a good deal’

Wednesday marks the start of 2020’s Disability History Month, something that our project speaks closely too, given the large numbers of railway staff who were made disabled in the course of their work. Over the years we’ve blogged about a number of cases involving disabled staff, detailed here, and over the coming month we’ll highlight a few more.

Greenock map, 1912

Greenock engine shed and surrounds, 1912.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

Today we start with the death of Charles Cochrane, on the Glasgow and South Western Railway (GSWR). He started work at 10am on 25 March 1914 – literally, in the sense that this was his first day. Previously he had been employed by Greenock Corporation as a stair lamplighter. Why he left that post was not disclosed, but he joined the GSWR as an ashpit and sand-kiln man, at their Greenock loco shed. This was dirty work – particularly the ashpit part of the role, which involved removing ashes from pits between the rails, where it had been emptied out of engines as they finished that day’s duty.

For the first 4 hours or so of his first shift, he was supervised and helped by hammerman John Maither ‘who had frequently performed these duties.’ After 3pm Cochrane was left alone to perform his duties and ‘at about 4.10pm he was run over and fatally injured by an engine while he was attempting to climb out of the ash-pit.’ The driver and fireman of the engine that hit Cochrane did not see him, and Cochrane had been warned by both Maither and Robert Kerr, the shed foreman, ‘to keep a good look-out for engines coming on to the ash-pit.’

As part of the investigation, undertaken by Inspector JH Armytage, Maither stated that ‘Cochrane appeared to be very nervous and was trembling a good deal during his work, and was particularly slow in descending the short ladder at the sand-kiln.’ Armytage concluded ‘Cochrane should not have been allowed to work at this point by himself, apart from this apparent physical disability which was not noticed by the shed-foreman.’ Presumably Kerr, the foreman, would have been involved in the hiring process.

Armytage recommended that a signal ‘should be provided for the protection of the ash-pit men’ and called the Company’s attention to the issue (1914 Quarter 1, Appendix B). Nothing more was said about the possibility of Cochrane’s having a disability which might have affected either his work or his accident. Albeit this might be an ambiguous case as to Cochrane’s disability, but was the presence of disabled staff on the railways simply unremarkable? Possibly so, given the numbers of workers who suffered life-changing injuries on the railways, at least some of whom came back to work, usually in different roles. As Disability History Month goes on, we’ll examine a few more cases where disability of some sort played a role.


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