Improvising to work with a disability

In the course of looking for something else in our database of British and Irish railway worker accidents, I recently stumbled across a fascinating case that gives us a little glimpse of the ways in which disability was a common part of everyday life on the railways. We could read this as a positive: in this case, why shouldn’t a man with only one arm be a station master? The improvisation he’d put in place to enable him to carry out his work was ingenious – if unauthorised and, as it turned out, the source of the accident in question. However, this case also hints at a more a more negative point: the railways were maiming vast numbers of staff, and something had to be done to support those employees who’d been disabled.

This case took place on the Cambrian Railways, in a relatively rural part of Wales, on 17 August 1911. Fireman Price Harris, age 29, was bringing his passenger train along the line that passed through Pontdolgoch station in Montgomeryshire. As it was a single line track a particular safety protocol was in place, in keeping with the rest of the UK industry, to ensure that whilst trains might be able to use the line in either direction, they couldn’t meet. In this, the loco crew of a train had to have a ‘token’ which would give them permission to occupy the line (see this film). Only one token could be issued at a time, meaning only one train could be moving along the line – and at the designated point (typically a station), the crew would exchange tokens, to allow them on to the next section of line and (if there was a passing loop) to allow a train going in the opposite direction to carry on past them.

(It should be noted, of course, that this system wasn’t infallible – tragically demonstrated in 1921 at Abermule, also on the Cambrian and close to Pontdolgoch. An error with the single line token led to a head-on collision between two trains, killing 2 locomotive crew and injuring 2 more, as well as killing 15 passengers.)

So – exchanging tokens was a routine part of railway working (and, indeed, the cause of a number of accidents in our database: see one case here). On this occasion fireman Harris and his driver were passing through the station at 10.40pm – crucially, after dark. They were running quite fast, too, at 20miles per hour. As Harris was taking the single line tablet from station master RH Stanbury, ‘his right hand came in contact with a lighted hand lamp’ which Stanbury had put on a stool, near the centre of the platform.

Why had he done this, instead of holding the lamp? Inspector JJ Hornby noted that ‘having lost his right arm, [Stanbury] was not able to hold both the tablet and his hand lamp’. Now, presumably the Company knew – or could reasonably have foreseen – this was the case. In which case, we might ask, why was Stanbury expected to perform this task? Possibly as Pontdolgoch was a small station, Stanbury was a jack-of-all-trades (and station master of none?). He might therefore have undertaken all necessary tasks, particularly late at night, including signalling related.

Map of the station.

Pontdolgoch station, 1901.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

Regardless, to ensure he could exchange the token at night with a moving train, Stanbury had been enterprising. Hornby’s report notes that (perhaps conveniently?) ‘unknown to the Company’ Stanbury ‘had a four-legged stool made […] on which he placed his hand lamp’ near the centre of the station platform. Stanbury had clearly found a work-around, to enable him to do what was required with one arm. Unfortunately Hornby believed that on this occasion ‘Stanbury having unintentionally placed the stool too near the edge of the platform’, fireman Harris’ right hand hit the lamp, causing an unspecified injury. Hornby also noted that ‘Stanbury had used the stool for a similar purpose previously, but since this accident the practice has been forbidden.’

The loco crew were, effectively, censured for their speed, as Hornby recommended that in future a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour be observed. Hornby suggested that the Company ought to issue ‘and enforce’ this as a regulation ‘for the prevention of accidents’ (1911 Quarter 3, Appendix C). The ‘and enforce’ is an interesting addition, implying a suspicion that where they existed such regulations were honoured more in the breach than the observance.

All of this leaves a key question: how did Stanbury lose his arm? Was it in a workplace accident? This report doesn’t relate.

However, all is not lost! Thanks to some of the preliminary data that we’ve had in from one of our volunteer teams and will be making public – as soon as it’s ready – we have another piece of the puzzle, albeit we still can’t see the full picture. Nevertheless, this is a very real demonstration of the power of the project’s work (with a huge thanks to the volunteers that have made this possible, of course). It means we can take records from different sources and connect them, to gain a fuller picture of stories like Price and Stanbury’s.

Coming into the project from The National Archives team are records relating to the Cambrian Railways. They show that, on 11 May 1904 station master RH Stanbury of Pontdolgoch station was involved in an accident. He wanted to move a wagon down to the coal wharf (presumably the siding to rear of the yard at Pontdolgoch, as shown on the map) to unload it. To do so – and again, a presumption here, but probably without a loco to make the move – he released the brake of the wagon which was standing on a slight falling gradient. However, he was caught between the wagon and the wharf ‘which he failed to notice.’ Sadly the report doesn’t relate the outcome of the accident. Might this have been where he lost his arm?

It’s unlikely. What this set of records is good at is giving details of compensation. We therefore know that Stanbury was off duty for only 11 days – fairly improbable for the loss of a limb. He didn’t claim any compensation, either. So, presumably Stanbury was either already disabled at this time or to have his accident later.

That’s also not the end of the story. Stanbury appears again in the next volume of Cambrian Railways accident records. On 4 November 1920, he was still at Pontdolgoch as station master. Whilst standing on the platform as a passenger train was running through – possibly to exchange tokens? – a spark or some grit entered his right eye. This time he was off work for 10 days, receiving compensation of full pay of his weekly wage of £4.1.2. It looks like the Ministry of Transport held an investigation – there’s a note in the file which suggests this – but those reports weren’t published at the time and haven’t survived in the archives. So, no further detail there.

We’ve seen several cases in our first run of data, covering 1911-15, where staff had 2 accidents (see this post). We know there are cases coming in where staff had 3 accidents, possibly more. All of this serves to highlight just how dangerous work on the railways could be – and as a longer run of data becomes available, it’s likely that we’ll see more such cases, as Stanbury demonstrates.

Do we know any more about Stanbury the man? He was at Pontdolgoch station in some form in 1893. As it was a small station, it was likely to have relatively few staff: station master, signalman and porter, perhaps others. Stanbury was named in a short note in the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard of 13 October 1893 (freely available through the brilliant National Library of Wales digitisation of Welsh newspapers). Pontdolgoch station received a prize in the third grade of the Cambrian’s best kept station competition – indeed, it appears Stanbury kept an impressive station, as he appears in the pages of several of the local papers between 1893 and 1917 with similar accolades. From these we learn that his first name was Robert.

When we first put the post up, we ended with the comment that ‘We’ve only had the time to undertake a preliminary search into Stanbury’s wider life, so no doubt there is much more information out there.’ We were right – and with thanks to one of our brilliant Twitter followers, David Hughes, we now know more. He responded to our call for more information and was able to dig out some valuable biographical detail.

We now know that Robert Henry Stanbury’s father was a baker originating in Surrey; our Stanbury was born in Bideford in 1848. By 1871 he was a clerk in Neath, and his younger brother, an engine cleaner, was lodging with him. This seems to be the first connection with the railways, so how it came about is unknown – but we’re already seeing a fair degree of occupational and familial mobility. By 1881 Stanbury was station master at Tylwch, which won a best kept station award in 1888. By 1891 Stanbury was station master at Pontdolgoch, where it looks likely he remained until retirement at some point after 1921. He died in 1933.

As our data becomes available, the hope is that it will enable anyone who is interested to put the pieces together – and, of course, we’d be keen to know more, especially about Stanbury’s disability!

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