More women – same accidents

Happy International Women’s Day 2021!

This seems like a good moment to look forward to some of the data we’re working on behind the scenes, to see whether it’ll bring more women into the project records. We’ve written in the past about the seeming absence of women in accident records, as well as about some of those cases where women do feature.

As we extend our coverage both earlier and later than the records currently publicly available (covering around 6,500 cases from c.1901-1923) we’d hope that more women featured – and they do. As we work our way through around 30,000 more cases it looks like there will be 100s more cases to come involving women in some way. That’s still a small proportion, of course. This perhaps reflects two things. Firstly, contemporary perceptions of women and their work which meant they tended to be employed in roles on the railways which involved, relatively speaking, less exposure to risk. Secondly, so far as the state accident inspectors go, which accidents were understood to need an investigation.

On the second point, we’re working on state accident investigation data from two periods, 1900-1910 and 1921-1939. For the first of these, of the 8,049 individuals named, only 6 were women. For the latter period, of the 9,009 individuals, 28 were women. These are small proportions, given by the mid-1920s women were consistently reaching around 3.5% of the workforce. There are more cases involving women recorded in one of the other major data sources we’re working with – the railway company records. Here there are 100s of cases, albeit very often the women involved are not employees – it might be that their employment meant they had access to railway spaces, or that they were passengers or trespassers. So far it is too early to tell what the information from the trade union records will bring – though given women weren’t allowed to join the National Union of Railwaymen until the First World War, it’s likely that the place women will appear most strongly will be as dependents supported by the Widows and Orphans Fund.

Where women do appear in the various records as workers, they range in age from 19 to 70. Most cases appear as injuries, though there are a number of fatalities – again, probably reflecting where women were expected to work on the railways before 1939. The roles undertaken were gendered, too – outside the war years women appeared as carriage cleaners, shorthand typists, charwomen, gatekeepers and as wagon sheet machinists or repairers. The First World War years added a few additional roles (in which accidents were involved): loco cleaners, conductors and labourers. The accidents which appear seem to be very much in keeping with those we’ve already seen happen to women in the project records, too.

Kinneil seen in c.1913. The close relationship between railways, timber and coal is seen here in the rail links for the sawmill and stackyard and the colliery.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

As noted, women in our records weren’t always employed by the railway companies. They might have had reason to be working on railway property – like 19-year old Janet Hewitt, employed by James Kennedy and Co. On 24 August 1923 she was working as part of a gang unloading pit props at Kinneil in Scotland, served by the North British Railway. The accident report noted that she was one of ‘a number of men and women’ so employed. Hewitt was moving the props from between the rails (had they been thrown there by someone ‘unloading’ from in the wagon?). Unfortunately for her, goods guard John Garrow ordered a movement involving some empty wagons around 10 feet further up the siding. They were duly moved, closing up on Hewitt who ‘was caught between  […] the leading empty wagon and several props that were standing against the end of the stationary wagon.’

The end result could have been a lot worse than it was – an arm and chest bruised. No doubt this was painful enough, of course, but such cases frequently resulted in death. Inspector Charles Campbell determined that Garrow was responsible for the accident, as he didn’t give appropriate warning before the wagons were moved (1923 Quarter 3, Appendix C).

As we clean the new data we will look at further cases involving women – though in the awareness that this data is only as good as the society in which it was originally recorded. This means that the vast majority of women’s accidents will have been left out of the official record. Nevertheless, what remains is important in opening up a new window on women’s experiences of accidents and work on the railways.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Women and the Barry Railway - Railway Work, Life & Death - March 25, 2021

    […] comments on where women do – and don’t – feature in the accident records. This builds upon this recent blog post for Women’s History […]

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