In the UK, Disability History Month runs from 16 November – 16 December annually. It’s an important initiative, helping to highlight disabled people and their experiences in the past and the present. It’s been a very helpful spur for our project to foreground occupational disability – something the railways had a great part in producing. We’ve already blogged about some cases, here. This year we’ll aim to contribute some more posts – including this one.
We know from our database of accidents to pre-1939 railway employees that railway work produced large numbers of injuries – some of them life-changing. Amputations feature frequently, particularly amongst staff who worked amongst moving trains. What happened next, though, is perhaps less clear.
Many of the larger companies produced artificial limbs for their injured employees at their workshops. The North Eastern Railway was one, at its Darlington works, discussed in this blog post. It also included the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), at its Crewe works. Artificial limb maker Edwin Flockton was based at Crewe since the 1880s, retiring in 1924. He was lauded at that point as having made 17,000 artificial limbs for railway staff – a bold public claim reflecting the dangers of railway work. In the earlier period, Flockton might well have been a specialist limb maker employed outside the LNWR, effectively contracted to do this work. He appears on the 1891 and 1901 census only as ‘artificial limb maker’, with no direct mention of the railway company until 1911. (With thanks to Ant Dawson for raising this question.)
At least ten of those artificial limbs produced by Flockton might have been for railwaymen found in our database. Tragically, two might have been for Frederick Nixon. Margaret Roberts has previously blogged about his life and accident, here. Given the theme for this year’s Disability History Month focuses on disability, childhood and youth, Nixon’s accident is worth highlighting, given we was only 15 at the time.
On 17 May 1923 he was injured. At that point the LNWR had just been absorbed into the newly-formed London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company (LMS). He was working as an apprentice fitter – a fitter being someone who would put components together to make an item, like a wagon, carriage or locomotive. At just after 3pm Nixon was crossing a line at the engine works when he was struck by the first of three locomotive tenders being moved into one of the workshops. He fell, and the wheels passed over his legs, amputating them both. This was only his second day working in this location. The investigation, by Railway Inspector William Worthy Cooke, concluded that Nixon didn’t exercise sufficient care crossing the line – though his view had been obstructed by an engine. Two men had been walking on either side of the leading tender, and the engine pushing the tenders had sounded its whistle constantly (Railway Inspectorate, 1923 Quarter 2, Appendix C).
We don’t know if Nixon received artificial limbs from the Company, but it would have been possible. Similarly, from our trade union data, we know about LNWR brakesman George Thompson, age 40. Member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS; now the RMT) trade union’s Crewe 1 branch, he had an accident on 21 May 1905. His role was to assist in shunting operations, applying the brakes on wagons. On the day in question he was recorded as ‘travelling on engine; left leg taken off’. The ASRS secured him compensation of 16/6 per week (equivalent to around £94 today) until he returned to work – on 6 June 1910. Clearly this was a long-term recovery from such a traumatic injury.
Again, whether or not he received an artificial limb from Flockton at the Crewe Works is unknown, but it must be likely. Perhaps surprisingly, Thompson is recorded on the 1911 Census as a brakesman. Given the physical nature of this work, was it likely that Thompson returned to the role he had previously occupied, now with a prosthetic leg? It wouldn’t have been impossible – but it must have been difficult.
By the 1921 Census Thompson is listed as a lost property clerk for the LNWR. Had he perhaps tried to return to his old role and found it impossible? Or had he moved straight into the lost property role upon his return to work in 1910, but not wanted to admit the change of circumstances on his 1911 Census return?
We know so very little about the history of disability in railway work that when we find cases, they generally raise more questions than answers. How railway employees, and their families and communities, were affected by life-changing injuries is a vast topic, which really needs more research.