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Crewe, railway works & railway workers

180 years ago the Grand Junction Railway moved its major locomotive construction workshops to Crewe, in Cheshire. Whilst the town of Crewe had been growing for some time before this – thanks to the location of the railway junction and station – moving the works led to a big expansion of the town. This is currently being marked in Crewe with an exhibition (more here; until 10 September 2023) and a series of events.

On 14 September we’ve co-organised and are taking part in one of those events – Crewe: Your Railway, Your Family. This is part of Heritage Open Days, a brilliant initiative with a series of free events over a week to engage people in the heritage that surrounds them. Hosted by Crewe Town Council and working with the Family History Society of Cheshire and the London and North Western Railway Society, the event will focus on Crewe’s railway history and how attendees can trace their railway ancestors.

It features a series of short talks in the afternoon and again in the evening, alongside the chance to talk with experts before and after their talks, to get advice and help on your interests and research. The first talks start at 14.00, with the evening talks starting at 19.00. It takes place at the Crewe Engineering & Design University Technical College, 13.30-20.45, and all are welcome.

Ahead of that, we thought we’d look at some ways in which Crewe and its people appear in our project database of accidents to railway staff before 1939. Given the railway has been so significant to Crewe, it’s no surprise that it’s known as a ‘railway town.’ It’s a great demonstration of the importance of understanding the connections between particular places and the railway systems.

Ordnance Survey map of Crewe, showing railway station, works and associated space, dominating the town.
c.1908 Ordnance Survey map of Crewe, showing railway and town.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

The railway created the modern town of Crewe, and many thousands who lived in Crewe were employed in the town itself, at the Works. Yet as we’ll see, there were also a great many other railway employees who worked from Crewe, out at all sorts of other locations on the railway network. The railways clearly had important impacts on individual places, but the railway network also linked different places and produced particular types of occupational mobility. There were much wider impacts, too, as other trades and roles existed to serve the railways (where the railways were the dominant employer) and/or were facilitated by the railway.

Our project allows anyone interested in a particular place to focus in on how one industry appeared in that place, via the railway workers. It also shows how one aspect of work within the rail industry affected the workforce: staff accidents. Combining this with other sources and information allows us to build a picture of how individuals and their families in an area lived, worked, played a part in their communities, and died.

Railway Clearing House schematic map of Crewe and surrounding areas, showing different railway companies' lines in different colours, and marked up with numbers of accidents at each location.
Railway Clearing House map of the Crewe area, to which we’ve added numbers of accidents recorded in the Railway Inspectorate dataset. Trade union cases increase the total by around another 200 cases.

Thinking about Crewe, we find around 320 people linked to Crewe in the database – though there will be more to come in future data releases. Of the cases featuring Crewe Works staff, we see strikers, machinists, forgemen, metallers, a roller, a chain tester and a chair dresser. A number of cases included labourers, though without further detail if they were employed inside the Works or beyond. There would have been a great many other roles and workers exposed to danger, of course, so we’re very much looking at an incomplete picture. Some roles in railway works, as in railway operation, involved greater exposure to danger than other roles.

Crewe railway works, c.1913: black and white photo, showing men working at machines driven by belts from overhead mechanical power lines.
Crewe Railway Works – Fitting Shop – 1913.
Courtesy National Railway Museum.

Inside railway workshops, machinery was run from revolving power shafts, linked by unguarded belts. Guards on machines and belting to prevent people or clothing from being caught in rapidly moving machinery weren’t always available, or used (for a variety of reasons). Working with hot metal posed particular challenges, too.

Six workmen pouring hot metal from a ladle into casting moulds, in busy workshop environment.
Iron foundry at Crewe railway works, 1913.
Courtesy National Railway Museum.

In amongst the various datasets in our database, the most detailed run of accident reports, produced by the Railway Inspectorate between 1900 and 1939, don’t feature many cases from within Crewe Works itself. (Why they don’t is explained here.) We see a few more cases from the Works in the recently-released trade union dataset. The majority of the accidents recorded, then, focus on operational staff – the women and men keeping the system running and based outside the Works.

Of the staff employed inside the Works, we see the case of A Dale. He was a ‘striker’ – he would have worked with hot metal, as the name suggests hitting it to shape it into the required piece. He appears in the ‘Union Inquests’ dataset – as a member of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), his interests were represented by the secretary his at the coroner’s inquest. He had an accident at work for the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) on 30 December 1918, in which he fell over an iron block. We know from other sources that he cut his leg in the drop hammer shop. Despite immediate first aid treatment and subsequent doctor and hospital care, it led to fatal blood poisoning and he died in mid-January 1919.

Group shot of 14 men, sat and stood on the far side of railway tracks.
Crewe ambulance team, c.1936. They would have offered first aid to those who needed it.
Courtesy National Railway Museum.

Some of the records we’ve been able to bring into the project are less revealing than others. We know from the ‘Union Disablement’ dataset that LNWR forgeman J Parry, 63, had an accident on 15 June 1907 – but not much else about it. As a member of one of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS; the forerunner of the NUR) Crewe branches he was entitled to a payment from the Union’s disablement fund. These varied from £20-30, typically; he received £20 (around £2250 now). He might well also have received compensation from his employer, depending on the nature of the injury and incapacity.

On 17 December 1917 machinist A Ball, 68, had his left foot crushed at work. As he belonged to one of the Crewe branches of the NUR, it secured him £1.3.0 per week in compensation (around £68 now) until his return to work on 12 April 1918.

In addition to the information about railway staff accidents within our database, several of the trade union datasets contain important detail about the health of workers. The death fund, disablement fund and orphan fund all recorded awards made on grounds of incapacity or death through a health condition or old age. This means we start to be able to understand more about the living and working conditions of railway workers. Within the ‘Union Death Claims’ data, for example, at present there are 59 cases – 55 of which clearly relate to health conditions. In the ‘Disablement’ data, the 39 Crewe cases contain 28 payments due to old age.

In the Orphan Fund data, 16 individuals are listed as belonging to one of the Crewe branches. Only two of them died from an accident; 13 died for physical health reasons, including from ‘flu, TB and heart disease. One cause of death that appears is the rather ambiguous ‘natural causes’ – more so in the 19th-century records, but also in the case of LNWR metaller CH Higgs. He died, aged 34, on 26 October 1918, leaving behind four children. As he’d paid into the NUR’s Orphan Fund, as a supplementary contribution above the normal membership cost, it paid 5/6 per week (around £14 now) to help support the children until each turned 14.

There are so many aspects that need more research and their own blog posts, but it’s worth noting here three further things. Firstly, the LNWR killed sufficient employees, across its (large) system, that it felt it necessary to build its own, Company-specific orphanage in Crewe – the Webb Orphanage. This provided care for children left without a father and for whom there was either no mother or the mother and wider family were unable to support the children. Secondly, the LNWR built a small hospital wing as part of the Works at Crewe, sufficient to care for some of the employees injured in the course of their duties.

Interior of hospital ward, showing 6 or 7 beds in an open plan room.
Crewe works hospital, 1913
Courtesy National Railway Museum.

Finally, for those employees who were injured seriously and lost body parts, the LNWR – in keeping with other large railway companies – had at least one worker dedicated to making artificial limbs. There’s more on one diagram of an artificial limb he might have produced here. He might have made the protheses for the nine Crewe cases in our database so far. They include LNWR brakesman G Thompson, who appears in the ‘Non-Fatal Compensation’ trade union data. The ASRS/NUR would help secure members any compensation due under the 1897 Workmen’s Compensation Act. In Thompson’s case, on 21 May 1905 he was travelling on an engine but somehow sustained an injury which resulted in the loss of his left leg. The records show that he did manage to resume work – over five years later, on 6 June 1910. Until that point, he’d received compensation of 16/6 per week (around £94 at today’s prices).

Railway tracks diverging around the camera, in the middle distance a signalbox and a signal gantry over the tracks.
Crewe South Junction, c.1916.
Courtesy National Railway Museum.

As a railway location, Crewe encompassed more than the Works. It was a very significant junction and station in its own right. This meant large numbers of railway workers at the station and environs, and passing through – and operational accidents to reflect this. They involved drivers, firemen, cleaners, shunters, porters, track workers and more. For reasons of space, here we take only one operational case at Crewe – and in some ways an atypical one.

The only case so far recorded in our database of an accident to a railwaywoman at Crewe is that to goods porter E Auton. She appears as a member of the NUR in the ‘Non-Fatal Compensation’ data, following an accident on 28 October 1918. She would almost certainly have been a temporary railway worker, employed as a result of the First World War. Again, the precise details of the incident aren’t given, but we know that she injured her foot and ankle. Off work until 30 November 1918, she received 18/- per week in compensation (about £46 now).

And the mobility of Crewe’s railway workers meant that they were the connections between the particularity of a place (Crewe, where they lived) and a national network (the railway system, on which they worked). In the ‘Fatal Compensation’ data we therefore see cases like LNWR fireman A Simpson. He belonged to the Crewe 2 branch of the ASRS when, on 5 September 1908, he was knocked down and killed by an express – not in Crewe, but at Stafford, where his work that day had taken him. Compensation was secured by the ASRS, to the tune of £75 per dependent (around £8,300 today) – though we don’t know how many dependents he had. He was 23 at the time of his death, so it’s possible that he only left behind his parents. Likewise, goods guard G Ord’s work took him out of Crewe, though his Union branch was based there. On 2 March 1915, age 42, he fell from his guard’s van at Moreton-on-Lugg and was run over. The NUR secured his dependents £300 in compensation (about £25,500 now).

It’s clear to see the relationships between railway work, place and railway workers were complex. In this look at Crewe, its Works and its railway workers, we’ve only focused on some of the details found in our database. To really connect people and place we’d like to explore the community and local history connections in more detail, working out where people lived, who they worked with, where else they fitted into their local communities and more. That’s a bigger task than we’ve had time for in this blog post – and one for which we’d need to call on the expertise of local and family historians. What we hope this post has done is give a flavour of the potential that our project offers, to help inform place- and community-based research.

We’re looking forward to doing more of this in person, at the Crewe: Your Railway, Your Family event on 14 September 2023: do come along and talk with us!

1 Comment

  1. Margaret Elizabeth Jackson

    My family of Moody were Platelayers…who also lived on the station platform in Holmes Chapel and Charles born 1873 Holmes Chapel, in The Big Box..

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