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New dataset! ASRS legal cases, 1901-1905

From Tralee and Belfast to Inverness, and Wrexham to Ashford and Penzance, our newest data release shows the impact of staff railway accidents in the early 20th century – and the ways in which one of the major trade unions, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), defended workers.

The cases come from a record of legal cases which the Union, the ASRS – now known as the RMT – was involved in, between 1901 and 1905. It shows us how core staff accidents were – sadly – to the day to day business of the Union.

This data came from the excellent ‘Transcription Tuesday’ event, hosted by Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine in February 2019. On one day volunteers from across the world logged in to transcribe the entire 119 volume, page by page, line by line. You can read more about it here. The original volume is held at our project partner, the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick.

We’d like to thank everyone who was involved in Transcription Tuesday – particularly the transcribers, some of who went the extra mile and helped after the event to clean the data. We wouldn’t be able to get this new data out to you now without their generosity.

1905 Cudworth railway disaster, which appears in our new dataset.
Postcard of the 1905 Cudworth railway disaster.

So what’s in the new data? All sorts. It varies from case to case, but will generally include dates, locations, names, grade, employing company, the ASRS branch to which the member belonged (though not all cases are Union members), a brief note about the outcome of the accident, details of any inquest or Board of Trade enquiry (if either were undertaken), details of dependents and any compensation awarded, and any other details the original record thought relevant.

The cases cover all nations of the UK, including the whole of Ireland, then part of the UK. The preponderance is very much towards English cases – was Union membership and the railway network denser there, perhaps?

From the volume we see where the railway companies appeared generous. On 11 March 1901 pilot driver J Walters was killed at West Hartlepool. Whilst he was oiling his engine, he was caught by the crooked end of a shunting pole and then caught by moving wagons. He left a widow & 3 children. The railway company awarded them £300, with the note recorded in the volume that “Although not legally liable the company took into consideration the sad circumstances of the case and paid the full amount”.

On the other hand, the volume clearly shows how hard the railway companies – which were businesses, after all – might be. Signalman Alfred Hanley was injured in October 1900 at Pocklington signal box and subsequently died, leaving a widow & 5 children. The North Eastern Railway denied liability and ‘gifted’ the family £20. Read more about this case here, in a guest post.

We can also see what happened to injured staff after their accident. Some cases record how long staff were off work; others show how they returned to work. On 24 July 1905, a guard on the Rhymney Railway lost his right leg in an accident at Llanbradach. He was awarded 16 shillings per week compensation, resuming duty on 6 February 1906 as a signalman, paid 32 shillings per week. (Intriguingly the volume isn’t sure of his surname. Which of ‘Thorneycroft or Smith’ was it?

The volume covers accidents from before 1901, too, where they resulted in legal action. Platelayer Lucas was knocked down by a train at Rugby in July 1897, losing an arm. In September 1905 his case was taken up the ASRS legal team, when he applied for disablement benefit from the London & North Western Railway’s Provident Society. Unfortunately for Lucas, his claim was turned down. Working on the railway could lead to life-long disability and insecurity.

There are accidents to passenger trains, too – so the Cudworth crash of 1905 features (because of the 4 staff who were hurt, including fireman RW Paddison, who died). So too does the Caledonian Railway crash at Milnwood Junction on 27 December 1905, in which 14 passengers and 3 staff were injured. The ASRS seems to have played two roles here: defending the driver and signalman, as well as securing compensation for the driver, who was 1 of the staff injured.


What use is all of this? It tells us more about a number of things. This includes the impact of railway work on staff and their families, and the ways in which the companies treated injured staff (including what is by today’s standards a sometimes cavalier disregard!). Hopefully it will add another piece to several puzzles: in particular the experience of railway work, understanding of staff accidents, and family history.

One example of the potential for the latter is seen in this guest blog post, which used one of the cases from the volume as a starting point for research which put the accident in its wider family context. Similarly, we can combine the data from the ASRS volume with other records, to learn more about railway work and the accidents – as we’ve done here, for mineral guard William Mercer.


Of the 2,152 cases in the volume, around half relate to accidents. The other half set out anything where the ASRS got involved and needed to look after the interests of its members. So, that might be defending workers against charges of pilfering or furious driving (on the roads!), taking action for slander, assault or defamation, fighting unjustified dismissals, or making claims for lost earnings. We can learn about the legal profession too: which solicitors the Union worked with and how much they charged (a lot, it seems!).

And it’s not just railway staff who appear. Sometimes cases involved members of the public or others who had some reason to be on or about railway property. So, J Fletcher, an employee of R Clough & Co, Keighley, had an accident at Keighley on 15 September 1905. He suffered a rupture, and was awarded a lump sum of £7.10.0. What did he do? He was a ‘lap breaker’: someone who moved wool from one preparing box to another.

There’s more to come from Transcription Tuesday, too. Volunteers on the day managed to finish the legal volume AND make strong headway with a set of ASRS records from 1908. We’re finishing those off and cleaning that data, to get it ready to release to you as soon as possible.

That’s not all. Our volunteers at the Modern Records Centre are working on transcribing 10s of 1000s of cases from the ASRS records; there will be another data release from them in 2020. Our team at The National Archives have made great progress on the records produced by the railway companies – we’re hoping to be able to release the start of that data in 2020. And our original team at the National Railway Museum, working on the state accident reports, have just completed the interwar period (around 9,000 cases, currently being cleaned). Brilliantly, they’re soon to start on 1900-1910. So – there’s lots more to come!


The new dataset is available here. It appears as a tab in the existing dataset.


We’ll be blogging a bit more about some of the cases in the coming days.

For now, whatever your interest, there’s a huge amount in this volume – we invite you to explore it, make use of it – and do tell us what you think and what you’re doing with it!


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  8. TW

    So, if I’m understanding this right, the appearance of a case in the files does not inherently mean that there were necessarily any legal issues, or that the company made any attempt to refuse to pay? There are cases, as mentioned above, where the company paid out despite not having liability (presumably their liability was not decided in court, since if it went to court it would imply that the company was trying to not pay out), as well as cases, often ones unrelated to accidents, where solicitors were asked if there was a case and said there wasn’t.

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