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A year of trade union data

A year ago today we made public a huge new dataset – around 25,000 cases involving trade union members. They belonged to the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) – after a merger in 1913, the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). There’s more detail on the release and what’s contained in the dataset here. The data is available in the Railway Work, Life & Death project database, free to access here.

For now, it’s probably sufficient to say that the data contains a huge amount of detail about how the Union supported its members and their dependents, particularly after an accident. Much of that support was financial; some was about advocacy for individuals as well as for collective improvements to health and safety. In some cases the support was long-lasting: the Orphan Fund (more on that here) provided financial assistance to fatherless children until the were 14.

Responses to the data

Over the last year we’ve seen a brilliant response to the data. The RMT Union (the successor to the ASRS/NUR) has been very supportive, spreading the word and encouraging members and the public alike to make use of the database. We’ve been working with the RMT to bring the project and the Union’s history into its day-to-day work, including with current Health and Safety Reps. We’ve delivered one training session and spoken at the Union’s annual Health and Safety Advisory Conference, and we’re working on further collaboration. It’s excellent to see the Union so engaged with its past.

Worldwide, over 4,000 people have downloaded the database (available here!), to use in their own research. The project website has had over 50,000 views during the year. We regularly hear from people finding things of interest in the database and the project.

The one thing we’ve haven’t – yet! – had happen is a current RMT member come forward to say they’ve found an ancestor in the database. Clearly on one level we hope they won’t – as if they do, it means something unpleasant has happened to someone in their family. But given the tendency in the rail industry for generations to follow in their footsteps of their parents, there’s a reasonable chance we might find someone with a direct connection.

We’re still keen to hear from anyone if this is the case for you. There’s more on that in this blog post.

Emily Ackland, Porter Guard, 1918

It’s helpful to see what a case in the Union records might look like. Of course, there’s no such thing as a typical case. If we’ve learnt anything from our work, it’s that each case and each person is unique. As it’s Women’s History Month, we’ve taken one of the accidents involving a woman from the trade union records: Emily Ackland.

Emily was born in 1893, in Staplegrove, Somerset – near Taunton. She had two siblings, and her father was an agricultural labourer. By 1911 Emily was a domestic servant in Wellington, Somerset.

However, she joined the Great Western Railway (GWR)in September 1917. On 16 December 1917 she became a member of the NUR, as a porter guard. She joined via the Pontnewynydd branch in Monmouthshire, Wales – up the valley from Newport.

Looking across a railway station and houses from the side of the valley.
Pontypool Crane Street Station, from People’s Collection Wales.

We don’t know how she came to move from Somerset to south Wales. Possibly she joined the GWR in Taunton and was reallocated to south Wales, as there was greater need for staff there.

‘Taunton Girl’s Sad End’

The Taunton Courier carried a report of the inquest into Emily’s ‘sad end’ on 17 April 1918 – as unfortunately Emily died on 11 April. She died in her lodgings in Pontypool, close to her workplace at Crane Street station. Fortunately her mother, Harriet, was able to be with her when she died.

Harriet reported that Emily had visited the family home in Taunton over Easter ‘and was very poorly when she arrived.’ Emily had complained about her left hand, which was swollen with a black mark across the back. Emily was treated with a poultice, and in due course was sufficiently well to return to south Wales.

However, Harriet was summonsed as Emily’s condition worsened – and soon after Harriet’s arrival, Emily died. Her landlady, Mrs Killy, said that before Easter Emily had returned home after work and ‘said she had had some bother with a woman who would insist on riding in the vestibule of the car, and also said that whilst putting a parcel or a box into the car she knocked her hand.’ This scratch clearly became infected; without penicillin to treat it, blood poisoning took hold.

The jury’s verdict was ‘death from blood poisoning due to a blow received whilst in the course of her employment.’ A vote of sympathy was extended to Emily’s family. The press report noted that the funeral took place ‘and was attended by the railway staff, both male and female.’

Emily in the Union records

Emily’s NUR membership record survives at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick. It’s also available via FindMyPast. It tells she was excluded in June 1918 for being in arrears of her membership dues. However, that’s not the full story.

Emily also appears in two places in the Union records in the Railway Work, Life & Death project’s work.  In the Inquests dataset, it’s recorded that she had an accident on 25 March 1918, dying of blood poisoning. It tells us she worked at Pontypool Crane Street Station. At the inquest, her interests were protected by an NUR representative. Curiously in this record her grade was given as a ‘Conductor’ – though the context of what this job involved wasn’t specified.

Ordnance Survey map of the northern part of Pontypool, including Crane Street station. Housing and railway on a valley side.
1917 Ordnance Survey map of Pontypool around Crane Street station. Sadly the southern area doesn’t feature in the otherwise excellent content provided by National Library of Scotland maps.

Emily also appears in the Fatal Compensation dataset – though again, there’s some confusion over the presentation of information. This most likely reflects dominant social understandings of the time as well as the challenges of recording information accurately. She appears as ‘W Ackland’ – though all of the other details match her case, so we believe it to be the same person. Here she appears as a porter guard, age 25, who scratched the back of her hand. Her family received £30 (c.£1750 now) compensation for her death, from the GWR. This was probably so low as she hadn’t been working for the Company for long, and as she had no financial dependents.

Clearly, putting the Union records found in the Railway Work, Life & Death project together with wider records means we can gain a fuller picture of individuals, and their work and their accidents on Britain and Ireland’s railways. We welcome more personal insight from the descendants of the people found in the database. Descendants can tell us much more about the person and the impacts of the accidents on their families.


As ever – we invite you to explore the Railway Work, Life & Death project and its database. Do make use of it, and let us know what you find – particularly amongst the trade union dataset!

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