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Accidents and the ordinary (railway)women of the past

March is Women’s History Month – and so an ideal opportunity for us to return to the women who have so far appeared in our project. This is something we’ve blogged about before, most recently here, including noting a relative absence of women in the cases formally investigated by the state – only 3 cases from our database of over 3,900 accidents. Given women made up about 2% of the railway workforce at this time, in absolute numbers they appear under-represented in the accident reports and hence also in our database. That said, it may be that the attention of the state inspectors was focused on the roles exposed to greater levels of danger, or in which deaths and more serious injuries were more likely to occur – and typically these were jobs not open to women at the time: shunting, track work, firing and driving the engines and so on. So – accidents and their investigation appear to have been gendered in some quite particular ways, and it’s useful for us to be aware of this as we explore the data.

As a result, in trying to think about the ‘ordinary’ railwaywomen of the past – at least in terms of accidents and the surviving sources we’ve found in the project – we have to take what little we’ve got. As we’ve discussed in previous blog posts, these reports and sources are valuable, though we need to be careful in terms of how representative they might be. Given they only capture a tiny fraction of the cases, and we know little about how they were selected, we don’t know if we are getting ‘typical’ cases, or those at an extreme end of the accident spectrum. How far do they capture a range of experiences of women workers?

It’s worth adding some new insight from our most recent dataset, covering claims made to the Great Eastern Railway (GER) Benevolent Fund between 1913 and 1923, for support after an accident at work. Of approximately 500 individuals listed in the volume, 3 women feature – a rather better ratio than the state accident data. Here we want to comment on just one case, and what it might reveal about railwaywomen’s work.

Bishopsgate goods station, London, 1947, seen centre left (with the large white roof, tracks heading towards the top of the image).
Courtesy Britain From Above.
Bishopsgate goods station, 1915.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

On 24 January 1918, porter ET Kime was injured – probably at Bishopsgate goods station in London (close to Liverpool Street station). Certainly by the time she made her claim to the Benevolent Fund, on 5 April 1918, Kime was based at Bishopsgate. The volume only gives bald details of the case, noting that the injury was a strain but nothing more. She was awarded 14 shillings and sixpence to cover the cost of a belt – that is, a truss, to support the strain. This evidently didn’t fix the problem – presumably as she had to keep on working – as she appears on the Benevolent Fund’s books a further 2 times, both dated 6 February 1919.

By this time she was based at Ipswich – occupational mobility was a feature of railway service, with staff being ‘removed’ to other parts of a Company’s system as was needed (by the Company). In these latter entries, Kime was no longer a porter, but a ‘carwoman’: someone who would have been involved in delivering goods from the station out to their final destination. Might she have been a driver? Or was it more likely that she was accompanying a male driver? This was probably still a horse and cart – the railways did invest in motor vehicles, from an early age, but they also remained important users of horse-drawn vehicles. In the entries in the book, she was first granted £1.10.0 for the cost of another belt – was the old one worn out? Or insufficient, and a new model required? The second of the later entries allocated £2.2.0 for a belt – again, the timing isn’t clear, so it’s difficult to understand what was going on in Kime’s case. She was still working, so presumably the Company were willing to cover their debts in order to keep her in post.

The 3 women’s cases featured in the GER data occurred in wartime – had the women been employed before then? It is certainly possible, as thousands of women worked on the railways before the war. Indeed, the 3 accidents that appear in our database of state-investigated cases all occurred before the First World War started.

It might also be useful to add a preliminary thought from our ‘Transcription Tuesday’ data, which focused in particular on a volume relating to legal cases in which the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) trade union had an interest between 1901 and 1905. In the volume, women don’t appear in their own right as workers – because at this time they were not permitted to join the ASRS. Instead, they appear as dependents: wives and mothers of railwaymen’s children, for whom compensation was secured in the event of a Union member’s death. This reinforces a particular politics of the era, belying the fact that many women – around 13,000 in 1913 – worked on the railways in some role, carrying out essential work and contributing to making the system run.

It remains to be seen how many female cases will come in through our project extensions (detailed at the end of the post about the GER data), expected to bring as many as 70,000 new cases into the database. The suspicion is, as with so much else in the past, that women’s contributions and sacrifices have been obscured by the values and expectations of past societies, ensuring their place in the railway workforce accident record is not as prominent as it should be.


    • Mike Esbester

      Fascinating! Didn’t think it was allowed under the regs of the time, so this is a welcome surprise – would like to know more. Thanks for sharing this!

  1. Helena Wojtczak

    ASRS records are on

    Three women appear within the ASRS register, of whom two were in Northern Ireland. Jane Hand, gatewoman at Clones Junction on the Dundalk to Eniskillen line, was a member between 1893 and 1898. Elizabeth Parsons joined in 1901, aged twenty-one, at Toton 1 Branch, Midland Railway. Jane Maguire, gatekeeper at Newtownbutler, GMSR, joined in June 1911. I also found a couple of female members of the GRWU.

  2. Mike Esbester

    Thanks, very helpful!

    Will have to do some more digging, esp to see if they were involved in any accidents …

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