Spidery scrawl and good eyesight

Back in November we released our second set of project data – details of around 500 Great Eastern Railway (GER) staff and former staff, between them making about 600 applications to the GER Benevolent Fund for support following an accident at work. The applications were made between 1913 and 1923, but as the data showed, some of the accidents to which they referred went back into the 19th century, demonstrating the long-lasting impacts of occupational accidents.

Page 3 of the book, including details of RC Banks’ case.
Courtesy National Railway Museum

During 2018 the Benevolent Fund ledger book, held at the NRM, was transcribed in its entirety by our NRM volunteers. Between them they did brilliant work, interpreting the sometimes hard-to-read manuscript, now mostly over 100 years old. However, there were a few cases – six – where some detail just couldn’t be figured out, whether by original transcriber, the NRM’s volunteer coordinator Craig Shaw or Mike Esbester.

Parkeston Quay, 1923
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps

One case was that of RC Banks, who was injured at work on 24 April 1921. We could see that he was a Foreman Fitter – a fitter being something of a jack-of-all-trades, who would carry out running repairs to stock or equipment to keep it going until more substantial attention was needed. The station was given as Parkeston – meaning Parkeston Quay, or the continental station on the way to Harwich, in Essex. And we knew that his eye was injured, though not to what extent or how.

On 11 August 1921, nearly 4 months after the accident, the Fund Committee allowed Banks’ claim of £5.0.0, simply noting under the ‘purpose’ column that it was a ‘grant’, rather than any more detailed description of what the money was to be spent on. We know from other cases in the book that an artificial (glass) eye cost anything between 7/6 and £1.7.6 – quite some variation anyway (what made one of those eyes worth a whole pound more?). But that’s still quite a lot less than the £5 Banks was awarded.

The offending section of the book . The Department is on the left; the location, Parkeston, is on the right.
Courtesy National Railway Museum.

However, it was proving difficult to work out to which Department Banks’ had belonged. What to do about this and the other so-far impossible to interpret squiggles? We could have left it, noting the uncertainty in the database in some way. However, no-one was really content with that. Instead, we decided to harness the power of Twitter – and it really worked!

On 15 August 2018 the project account (@RWLDproject) tweeted about the book and the images needing deciphering. The response was fairly much instant, and phenomenal – replies, retweets and lots of suggestions from people with more patience and/or better eyesight than us! We received our greatest number of impressions to date – 16,748. It seems people like a good challenge. More importantly, 2 of the 6 queries were wrapped up within the hour, and we soon had credible suggestions for the other 4, including Banks’ Department: Marine Engineers’. Hard to make out, but it fits with the location. So, first and foremost here – we’d like to thank everyone who got involved and helped us.

RC Banks, close up (below), from the original (above).
Great Eastern Railway Magazine (June 1921).

 

That wasn’t all, however. One of our followers, Ken Wheatley (an even bigger thanks!), very helpfully supplied an image of Banks! It came from the staff journal, the Great Eastern Railway Magazine, and seems to have been taken after his accident: he doesn’t appear to have a visible injury and presumably he was able to take part in the competition – rather suggesting whatever the injury was, it either wasn’t lasting or it didn’t manifest until after this point. This might tally with the later application to the Benevolent Fund for support (not an uncommon occurrence). As the photo shows, Banks was a member of the Parkeston & Harwich Ambulance Team – that is, first aiders. Which leads us to wonder: when Banks had his accident, did his colleagues in the ambulance team tend to him?

The company magazines are excellent sources all round, but particularly useful when they provide photos of workers. One of the things we’re most lacking in this project is images of the staff named in the database – a great shame, as this really helps to connect with those who otherwise might remain a line on the page, hard to make fully tangible. We’ve been doing a bit more searching, and so have now located some more images of workers who had accidents – some who feature in our data and some who don’t. We’ll be posting on this in the future.

For sake of completeness, below are the images we couldn’t get a conclusive answer on, along with what we think are the most likely interpretations – do get in touch if you have any further ideas!

T Chipping’s occupation: but what was it? (Above, a detail from the overall entry, below: 3rd line down).
Courtesy National Railway Museum

 

The entry for G Orman (above): but what Department did he belong to? As he appears to have been a stationmaster, the Superintendent’s Department would be likely – but can it be seen in the entry?
Courtesy National Railway Museum

 

J Price’s occupation: unclear in the extract (above) and larger image (below: 2nd line down). What do you think it might be?
Courtesy National Railway Museum

 

To return to Banks, unfortunately we’re short on details of the rest of his railway and wider life, and also of his accident. His case falls just outside the coverage of the Ministry of Transport Railway Inspectors’ reports which will be coming into our database via the next project extension currently underway with our National Railway Museum volunteers. Those reports were the resumption of the Board of Trade reports which ended in June 1915 as a result of the First World War; they didn’t re-start until July 1921. So, precisely what happened to RC Banks isn’t clear. If he was a member of the National Union of Railwaymen his case may appear in the data that’s being transcribed at the Modern Records Centre at the moment, so we may yet find out more – fingers crossed!

In the meantime, we’d like to thank all our volunteer transcribers once again, and our followers and all on Twitter who got involved in working out the possible solutions to our mystery manuscript!

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