In January 2021 we received a comment on one of our blog posts. Sid Harbour had contacted us, saying ‘I have just discovered your website. Could you please tell me if the info is searchable. My Grandfather lost his leg while working on the railway possibly 1900. We know the Family story how it happened but no other details.’
Well … of course, the ears pricked up. We are working on a new run of data, covering 1900-1910, so we replied to Sid. That reference to the family story was particularly interesting – the official sources that we’re able to use at the moment are great, and tell us lots: from the official side. What we don’t get so much from them is the personal or family side – hence these discussions with descendants and family historians are so revealing.
It also happened to be a well-timed enquiry. For those particularly interested in one-place studies, a form of local history that focuses on a single location over time, the focus of attention for February 2021 is ‘One Place Tragedies.’ Whilst as we’ll see we don’t have certainty about the place, what we do have in the accident to Sid’s grandfather is a sad event with tragic consequences. If and when it’s possible to pin down the location of the accident at the heart of this case we can return to our database to see what other accidents occurred there over the years. This will give us that longer chronology focused on a single location that works so well with one-place studies.
Whilst ultimately we couldn’t find Sid’s Grandfather, William Watson, what Sid was able to tell us was very interesting. Sid wrote:
Very little is known about the accident. The Family story is that he fell under a moving wagon at the age of 19 while playing football in his dinner break. Time and place is difficult, it would be about 1900 possibly at Swaffham on the GER [Great Eastern Railway], as he was born at Saham Toney in 1881.
Obviously a nasty accident to befall anyone, and no doubt first aid was rendered at the scene. The railway companies were strong supporters of the first aid movement, and staff were encouraged to learn first aid skills – a testament to the likely need to put them into action, sadly. We were intrigued to hear that insight into the practices on company property – playing football in the dinner break. No doubt officially this wasn’t supposed to happen, but presumably by local convention or out of sight of local officials it occurred. Sid went on, though:
Another part of the Family story about the accident was very sad if it is true. His friend with whom he was playing football, was so distressed and felt himself responsible that he later committed suicide.
Very sad if that was the case; I wonder what William felt about his friend’s suicide? It must have been terrible. Again, we really see the importance of the collective family memory, bringing out connections and feelings that might not otherwise be captured. Sid continued:
In the 1911 census he is single (married in July) and his occupation is railway pointsman in Peterborough. I believe that he worked in the New England shunting cabin ‘B’. I have found on Ancestry his ‘Return of Staff Employed’ for 1939. Rate of pay £2 15s 6d. p w. That is all that I have found.
Upon reflection, Sid felt that raised another possibility in terms of William’s employment: ‘As I have been unable to find him with certainly in the 1901 census and knowing that he was in Peterborough in 1911, did the accident take place in the GNR [Great Northern Railway] New England Marshalling Yard?’ Impossible to say without any further evidence, of course, but it’s certainly a possibility.
If William was employed as a pointsman before the accident, he might have been working in a goods yard/ around sidings and able to carry on in the role after his accident. Alternatively if he had before his accident been employed in a role that involved more strenuous activity – as a shunter, for example – the physicality of the former role might have been impossible having lost a leg. In which case, in line with ideas about railway paternalism, the railway company might have found him a new role, as a pointsman.
Sid confirmed: ‘My Grandfather did stay on the railway. When I knew him he was called “peg leg Watson” and he worked in a signal box in Peterborough.’ Again, this little snippet opens up some important bigger questions: he had a prosthetic leg. Where did it come from? Was it paid for by the Company, or by William? How did William find the prosthetic – comfortable, inconvenient, ill-fitting, enabling? How often was the prosthetic replaced – and who covered the costs associated?
I put these questions to Sid, as he’d not initially mentioned anything more than the prosthetic. He came back: ‘In my Grandfather’s case, he had two limbs; one in use and one as a spare. I know that he found them most uncomfortable. Just who supplied them is an interesting question.’ How common was the provision of a limb for use and a spare? This isn’t something I’d considered before; all the references I’d seen to the provision of prostheses by railway companies seemed to suggest a single prosthetic – though that does beg the question of what the individual did when the prosthetic was sufficient worn to need replacement?
At the time of William’s accident, the GER wasn’t manufacturing prosthetic limbs itself, but in 1915 it opened up a workshop at its Stratford works (London) that produced limbs. This saved the Company from paying external manufacturers to do the job. You can find more on what provisions were made by the GER for members of its Benevolent Fund who’d had an accident in this blog post – with a run of data covering 1913-23 available from our database).
Finally, Sid added a more personal note, giving us a bit of insight into William’s character:
Another fond memory was that he used to stand at the front of his house handing sweets to the children as they were on their way home from school. Unfortunately there is no one else in the Family that will remember him as he died in 1951.
We share this – with Sid’s permission – as it tells us more about one individual, William Watson; but also wider things – about his family life, about railway workplace culture and practices, about accidents and their after-effects. We’re keen to see more of this, for other railway staff, in our database and beyond, and we welcome contact like Sid’s. It all helps us build a bigger picture of railway work, railway accidents and life as part of a railway family.
Finally, if you’re able to find out any more about William Watson’s life, accident or railway career, then we’d happily hear from you and get the details about to Sid.