Mrs Jane Horner and the illicit lift

It may perhaps surprise us to find women amongst the list of casualties the project has catalogued – but it shouldn’t. Plenty of women worked, including on the railways, where even before the First World War they numbered in their thousands. Though precise figures are difficult to come by, around 13,000 has been suggested, out of a workforce of around 643,000. As we might expect of the time, they were clustered in roles deemed suited to women: clerical jobs, cooking, laundry work and cleaning, amongst others.

On the North Eastern Railway, in July 1914 there around 1,500 women employed – possibly including Mrs Jane Horner, if she remained at work following her accident on 9 September 1913. Horner was employed at Stockton station as a ‘station cleaner’ – presumably to distinguish her from the carriage cleaners, who were also sometimes women. She had been on duty since 5am, when at around 7.30am she wanted to cross the lines from one side of the station to the other. Fortunately, she followed the practice – whether the rules or custom, the report doesn’t relate – of using the hydraulic lift to access the subway between platforms.

Unfortunately, she didn’t follow best practice. As the report notes, ‘A postman named Thomas Smith brought some mail bags from the up platform to the down platform by way of the hoist [lift]. He did not see Mrs Horner and pulled the chain to send the empty hoist down. Just as the hoist started to go down, Mrs Horner attempted to get on to it and fell’, injuring her back.

The Inspector, JH Armytage, was quite clear: ‘Mrs Horner should not have attempted to get on the hoist without telling Smith that she intended to do so, and she must take the responsibility for the accident’ (1913 Quarter 3, Appendix B).

Presumably Horner didn’t want to wait for the lift to go down and come back up again, so tried to save time – as it turned out, an error of judgement. Why she might have felt she needed to save time isn’t related in the report.

What should surprise us is about this case is that it includes one of only three women featuring in the accident reports (at least as casualties), amongst the total of 3,911 cases. If women formed about 2% of the workforce at this time, then we might expect – even allowing for the fact that social conventions meant they were concentrated in roles that exposed them to less danger than men – a few more women to appear amongst the reports.

Of course, what we have today represents only those cases that the Railway Inspectors investigated, so no doubt many more women were injured or killed at work on the railways – it would be fascinating to know more about these cases and their working lives, as well as about the process by which the Inspectors (presumably) chose to investigate one case but not another.

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