New data – new disabilities, old ‘solutions’

Earlier this week we launched our third set of data about accidents to railway staff (see here). It comes from a record of legal cases kept by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants trade union, between 1901 and 1905. As you’d expect, those records reveal all sorts of things about railway work – including where disability featured.

As we’d expect, those grades which involved working around the railway lines – shunters, goods guards – appear to have suffered the most accidents, including those which led to a lasting disability. For example, loss of body parts appears in around about 10% of all accident cases. So what happened to staff after an accident which in some way led to a disability?

‘Light employment found’ or ‘on light duties’ are common entries. Goods guard E Parry, of the Cambrian Railways, was injured at Marchwiel on 24 September 1901. One of his legs was amputated, after which he was paid full wages ‘and promised light employment.’ Probably as a result of this, the volume notes that the ‘member would not claim’ formal compensation (via the route safeguarded and set down at law, the Workmen’s Compensation Act).

Similarly, goods guard James Green’s accident at Laisterdyke, Yorkshire, on 10 August 1901 resulted in life-changing injuries. He was kept on by the Great Northern Railway, but on light employment – as a lavatory attendant, paid 18 shillings a week, with 12/4 compensation on top.

In at least one case the direction of travel looks surprising. On 24 February 1902, brakesman W Roberts was injured in Cheshire, including a cut head and fractured arm. He was awarded 15 shillings per week compensation, resuming work again on 28 July. However, the volume records that he had to give up work again on 5 October 1902 – was this a lasting impact of that arm fracture? The next step is the unusual one: the volume notes, rather plainly, that he ‘commenced as station master Nov 1st 1902’ – rather a different role and grade!

We shouldn’t allow our judgement to be clouded by this apparent social contract between staff and employer: you do dangerous work, but if you’re injured we the company will provide for you. The railway companies would try to shirk responsibility for occupational disability. Sometimes this appears in the ASRS volume.

Yardsman McRobbie of the Caledonian Railway looks to have fallen foul of this. On 20 December 1905 he was injured at Scotstoun West; his hand was run over and amputated. He was awarded 16/6 per week compensation, with the Company making a physical change to the work environment that had led to the accident. McRobbie resumed work on 19 February 1906, but the volume records only that he was dismissed on 7 October 1906. The Caledonian stopped the compensation payments and took steps to recover what they saw as an overpayment. The case went up to the courts, being heard in Paisley on 10 March 1907, with compensation being ended from 23 February 1907. Quite what happened to McRobbie isn’t known – and neither did the Company see it as their problem.

There’s enormous potential in this new dataset – particularly when combined with the existing and coming data – to help us explore the nature of occupational disability on the railways. The picture is growing of a workforce in which the chances of accident were, for some grades, high, and the visibility of disability perhaps more common than we might have expected.

All of the cases in the ASRS legal book are now freely available, integrated into the other datasets making up around 6,500 cases so far – with more to come. Find them all here, make use of them, and do please tell us what you think of the project and its data!

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