Coalman cum crossing keeper

It’s been a while since we blogged a case from our Great Eastern Railway benevolent fund dataset, so we thought we’d return to it to give it a bit more prominence in the project. In amongst the 500 or so individuals who applied to the fund for support we can find all sort of injuries, locations, and types of jobs – and quite a few multiple applications. Those multiple applications give us more insight into how workers lived with the consequences of their accidents, via the assistive technologies, medical treatment or financial support they received.

They might also tell us how the injured employee’s career was affected. In many cases it seems that staff were able to continue in their existing role; in some cases they were forced to retire. And in still other cases, injury meant they couldn’t continue in the old role, but were instead found employment in a new role. This was a common practice amongst the railway companies, who saw it as part of their paternalism (though sadly that paternalism rarely stretched to preventing the accidents in the first place). Typically the new role was less physically demanding, but also paid at a lower rate; to some degree, the companies had their employees over a barrel, and there was little choice but for the staff member to accept what was proposed.

Coaling safety, as seen in the Caledonian Railway’s 1921 accident prevention booklet.

One of these cases was that of JH Watson. At the time of his accident, on 18 November 1919, he was a coalman in the Chief Mechanical Engineer’s department – that is, someone who would have loaded coal into loco tenders/ bunkers. He was based at Lincoln station, and in whatever happened (as the details of the accident aren’t recorded in the benevolent fund book) his foot was injured sufficient to require a replacement limb be made by the Company. This was agreed by the benevolent fund on 12 August 1920.

Magdalen Road station in 1905.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

Watson made an application for repairs to the limb on 8 April 1921 – again, unfortunately the details of the repairs aren’t recorded, as it would be interesting to know what needed attention after a relatively short period. Possibly the repairs were necessary as the limb was in use in Watson’s new role, which was recorded: he was given as a crossing keeper at Magdalen Road station in Norfolk (now known as Watlington Street station). Presumably he was moved to the new station, in a new county – something that was at the Company’s behest, regardless of injury – as this was where the vacancy was. It does seem to be the case that finding work for injured staff as crossing keepers was a relatively common means for railway companies to discharge what might have been seen as their moral responsibilities.

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  1. Robert Johnson – visualising disability - Railway Work, Life & Death - December 14, 2020

    […] The piece reports that Robert was ‘a well-known personality in the neighbourhood’ and had been employed by the North Staffordshire Railway for nearly 40 years. It says he joined the Company as a goods guard, though it is likely that he would have started in a lower rank and worked his way up. The newspaper puts his accident at around 1873, after which ‘he has held positions as gatekeeper and signalman’ at Consall and from 1891 at Froghall ‘a position that he has held ever since.’ The gatekeeper role was a typical one for staff disabled at work and unable to perform their original role (see this post). […]

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