Transcription Tuesday themes

Following up on last week’s blog post which looked at some cases from our newest data release, we thought it would be worth looking at a few themes that appear in the data. This comes ahead of 2020’s Transcription Tuesday – hopefully it’ll turn out as well for all involved this year as it did for us last year.

What follows is admittedly some very rough-and-ready number crunching. It gives absolute numbers found in the data – where the relevant details were recorded at the time (which they weren’t always!). It doesn’t establish cause and effect, and will reflect very much where the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) recruited its members – geographically and in terms of the grades of employment. It might also reflect where members felt willing and able to come forward and request the Union’s help – and no doubt a host of other factors not mentioned here. So, the warning is: take this with a pinch of salt, or, better yet, have a look at the data yourself and see what you think is going on!

The cases recorded in the volume are heavily slanted towards England – where locations are known (or relevant). Of the approximately 2000 cases listed between 1901 and 1905, 1288 appear to be accidents. Of these 99 occurred in Wales, 112 in Scotland, 2 in what would become Northern Ireland, and 34 in Ireland. That leaves 1041 in England. Contrast that with the distribution of cases in our first run of data (from state accident investigations, 1911-1915), below, and the ASRS looks rather England-heavy. Why should this have been? Were the English railway companies more likely to contest cases and therefore greater Union involvement was necessary?

Distribution of cases in the 1911-15 state accident investigation data.

Where state investigations of some sort took place, the ASRS supplied some form of representation in 140 instances, varying from one of the Organising Secretaries (one of the Union officials) to a Union solicitor – or some combination of both, if warranted. Given the large number of accidents, this looks like Union representation only took place in about 11% of cases. That would still add up to a big workload for the Union, of course; and it also slightly misrepresents the situation, as this type of Union support was only given in cases where the Board of Trade’s railway inspectors undertook an investigation. As a whole we know they only did this in about 3% of all cases of worker accidents.

This begs an interesting question: are Union accidents statistically over-represented in the Board of Trade inquiries? Might the inspectors have – for some reason – chosen to investigate cases where a trade union was involved? It seems unlikely; the unions would likely be the ones to pose challenging questions about the cultures of work inculcated by the railway companies which helped produce accidents. More likely is that, for the ASRS certainly, their membership was clustered in grades likely to have accidents – and likely to be more serious accidents, possibly increasing the chance that they would be investigated.

A quick look at the grades featured in the ASRS volume shows that, where known, approximately 14% of staff were goods guards, 13% drivers, 8% each shunters and firemen, and 5% platelayers. Between them, therefore, these 5 grades – all particularly dangerous – accounted for 48% of cases in the volume for which we have a grade. That certainly suggests that they might be more likely to appear in Board of Trade investigations.

Of the accident outcome, the most numerous category (which we asked our transcribers to select, from a pre-determined list, as is the case with our other data) was ‘injury – other’ – a catch-all category reflecting the variety of work undertaken on the railways at this time. Next most frequent was ‘fatal’, with 287, and crush injuries, with 142 cases.

Casualties in the ASRS volume

We were expecting to find a large number of cases where compensation was obtained for the dependents of a Union member killed at work (or, occasionally, injured). Intriguingly dependents are only explicitly mentioned in a few of the cases – 30. Typically those comments amount to a note of those to be supported: ‘widow and 2 children’, ‘widow and son’, ‘father and mother’, and in one particularly sad case, ‘wife of 6 children and 1 partially.’ However, the true numbers may be a lot greater. The amounts of compensation awarded took into account dependents, and so even where no mention is made in the ‘dependents’ column of the original volume, it might be that a compensation amount awarded in the hundreds of pounds was intended to support surviving family members.

Finally for this blog post – though there are plenty more themes that could be drawn out – it appears that there are a number of cases in which an individual had more than one accident which made it into the ASRS’ volume. An admittedly simple comparison of the transcriptions shows 15 individuals who feature in more than one accident – including J Robinson, who might have had 3 accidents that required Union help between 1901 and 1905.

We have reasonable confidence that these three cases are the same individual: in each case, he was a member of the Goole branch of the ASRS, and a loco driver, in two cases listed as employed by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (in the final case, no company is given). The first instance is curious, as it looks like Robinson might have been involved in the accident, but not the person hurt. Presumably the ASRS provided support for Robinson at the inquest into the unnamed worker who had been hit by an engine and killed on 27 November 1901 at Goole engine shed. The next time round it was Robinson who was hurt. On 8 February 1904 he injured his left shoulder, again at Goole shed. He was off work for 9 weeks and 4 days, receiving £1 per week in compensation. Finally, on 30 June 1905 at Knottingley he suffered some sort of injury to one of his eyes. This kept him off work for 20 weeks, but curiously the volume records ‘did not press for com[pensation]. Made formal claim.’ Presumably this was through the Workmen’s Compensation Act, a standardised route to compensation – but understanding the mechanics of compensation and post-accident procedure is definitely an area where we need to know more.

It will be particularly interesting to cross-reference these multiple accident cases by grade, and to compare against the other data we will be bringing into the project, from the railway companies and the state accident reports for this period, to see if we can uncover more detail about these cases. We might also be able to start thinking about how common it was to have more than one accident at work.

What all this shows is that there’s an awful lot that can be gleaned from the Transcription Tuesday data – both at an individual level, but also by looking for themes and trends. There’s plenty more analysis to do, and we look forward both to hearing from you and to sharing our thoughts in the future.

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