So far our project has only focused on the accidents railway workers suffered: what happened after that, for them, their families and their communities has been largely left unspoken. That’s a product of the sources we’ve been using: the accident investigation reports cover the incident only and don’t go into the aftermath. But in other records we’ve seen, the story continues – whether it be the recommendations that the company pays out under the Workmen’s Compensation Acts, the existence of railway orphanages to take care of children who had lost one or both parents, the accident clubs that employees might pay in to as a form of insurance against death or injury, or discussions about providing prosthesis for injured workers and ‘suitable’ further employment.
As it’s Disability History Month, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to go into a few more details about some of the cases we’d seen. We’ll be focusing on the cases of injury that produced lasting disabilities, rather than the cases in which workers were killed outright, tragic though they were.
The railways were, by the end of the 19th century, one of the largest employers in Britain; they were also one of the most dangerous workplaces, comparable (for some grades at least) to mining or shipping in terms of exposure to danger. With so many workers being killed or injured – in 1911 alone 446 died and 27,848 were injured – the companies needed to figure out how to deal with the impact of railway work upon the body. Many of those nearly 28,000 injures were, of course, relatively minor – sprains or similar, though it should be noted that in this pre-penicillin age, a tiny scratch or cut could still lead to blood poisoning and death. And this still left a large number of life-changing cases, in which the worker had to live on with some form of disability.
How were accidental injuries treated? Railway workers were encouraged to learn first aid (see item 5 here), to be rendered immediately in the event of accident (whether to passengers or colleagues). Survivors would be carted off to hospital – and in these pre-NHS days, this meant a local hospital, whether a cottage hospital or a bigger facility. As an example of the latter, following an 1897 accident at the London & North Western Railway’s oil gas works in Willesden, London, cleaner William Palmer was transferred to the University College London hospital. Despite medical intervention, he died and his relatives received ‘the usual death allowance £80’. This is presumably separate to monies which might have been due under the Workmen’s Compensation Act, though this isn’t specified in the minutes of the Wolverton Locomotive Committee (held at Search Engine, NRM). Where companies did put workers into external hospitals, they seem to have made an attempt at contributing to costs by making donations.
Several of the bigger companies were hospitalising employees in sufficient numbers to warrant building their own railway hospitals: there were facilities at Crewe (see item 6 here) and Swindon, for example. There’s plenty more research to be done on this area, for anyone who’s interested. The bigger companies also ran specific workshops at their main plants to meet the demand for artificial limbs and the like. Post-accident care, particularly involving prostheses, is the topic of our next post on this blog, later this week, so look out for more in the coming days.
And for those of you who follow us on Twitter (@RWLDproject), watch out as we tweet a few more cases during the rest of Disability History Month!