Accident, mental health & possible learning disability in railway service

In this guest post, project volunteer Stephen Lamb looks at one of the cases he’s transcribed from the records of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, held at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick. It highlights just one of the many sad cases, and appropriately enough deals with occupational disability – this week marks the start of Disability History Month.

It also demonstrates the wealth of detail that might be found in the records – we’re working to make the data available, but with many tens of thousands of cases, there’s a lot to do!

We welcome guest posts, so if you have an idea, please contact us!


Occasionally, the records of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants reveal that one of their members had taken his own life.  Usually, little information is given but there is one case dating from 1904 which is recorded in more detail than normal.  This is a particularly tragic case and gives some insight into how issues of mental health and learning disability were viewed in the early twentieth century.  The physical injuries that someone suffered could be treated but little consideration seems to have been given to the effect of a traumatic incident on the employee’s mental health and wellbeing.  Some employees had a learning disability and there appears to have been no adjustments made to their work to take account of this.  This case also gives some insight into the consequences for the deceased’s family when the link between the death and the original incident is disputed.

Map of Newton Heath site, c.1915.

The Newton Heath site as it appeared in 1915.

Mr. Schofield was employed as a labourer in the upholstery department at Newton Heath Carriage Works, Greater Manchester, on the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway.  On 18 November 1903, while passing along inside the works, he was struck on the back of the head and neck by a ball of hair seating weighing about fifteen pounds which was being hoisted by a crane to an upper floor.  He seems to have been rendered unconscious or incapable as he lay where he was struck until found by some fellow workmen.

It is fairly common in these records to find that someone was injured in a workplace incident but that no one saw it happen or noticed that the person was missing for some time.  This perhaps emphasises that many employees were working in relative isolation from each other – and this might have been particularly difficult for someone with mental health problems or a learning disability.

It is reported that soon after the accident, Mr. Schofield’s mind became affected and he was very depressed.  There is no information to suggest that he received any treatment or therapy for this condition.  However, the gravity of it was eventually recognised because when it became acute, he was removed to the Oldham Workhouse to prevent him from doing an injury to himself.  Whilst there he seized an opportunity and made an unsuccessful attempt at suicide by cutting his throat.

He was then taken to Prestwich Asylum where he died on 25 April 1904.  His age when he died is not recorded.  Death was certified as being from acute pneumonia and melancholia.  Doctors disagreed about whether Mr. Schofield’s body showed any sign of injury.  A post-mortem was said to find no trace of an injury but on the other hand, doctors who had examined him at Oldham contended that the skull was fractured.  It is not possible to ascertain if this fracture was a result of the accident at the Carriage Works, but it seems likely that it was.

The company denied liability on the grounds that the death did not result from the injury.  They also said that mentally considered, Mr. Schofield had a very bad family history.  They said that his fellow workmen considered him to be of weak intellect and inclined to melancholia.  It seems that Mr. Schofield may have had a mental health problem for which there was no appropriate treatment.  The reference to weak intellect also suggests that he may have had a learning disability.  Again, little support would have been available to people with this condition.

Mr. Schofield left a widow, but they appear to have had no dependent children.  The company argued that as Mrs. Schofield was earning eighteen shillings a week in a cotton mill, she could not be considered to be wholly dependent.  The maximum sum that could be claimed was £150.  The company offered £75 which the union and their solicitors advised her to accept.


Stephen Lamb

Since Stephen retired from a career in the Probation Service and in Social Care working with people with mental health and learning disability issues, he has been able to pursue his interest in history.  He is a volunteer transcriber working on the Railway Work, Life & Death Project at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.  He is also involved in a local history project in his home town of Nuneaton where he is scanning and cataloguing old photographs of the area.

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