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Disability on & caused by Welsh railways

This week’s blog post looks at where disability appears in our project database for Welsh railway workers. It’s one of our posts marking Disability History Month. It’s hard to say, from current evidence, whether Welsh railways were any the more or less dangerous than their English, Scottish and Irish counterparts – or whether or not they were more or less open to employing staff with pre-existing disabilities. Instead, we can use the Railway Work, Life & Death project data to see where disabled people appeared within one occupational community – and where that same sector produced life-changing injuries.

All too often disabled people in past have become written out of the historical record – but they were there. In an industry like rail, the dangers of some of the jobs meant that the workplace was responsible for disabling significant numbers of people. Because of the nature of the work, and of societal conventions in our period (before 1939), the most dangerous roles – those most likely to injure and disable staff – were largely occupied by men. In the Welsh cases within our project this means that, so far, no women appear – though as we’ll note at the end of this post, that will change in the future.


Cultural heritage

One of the virtues of our project’s work and the dataset of occupational accidents and ill-health that we’re producing is that we can start to locate and appreciate individuals who worked in the rail industry in the past. Frequently they have been reduced to numbers – mere statistics, without any real appreciation of them as people, or of the work they did, their experience or their wider lives. The records now available through our project means that we can identify individuals and start to investigate them in more detail – including aspects of their lives, like disability.

This contributes to a huge variety of areas, including within the current rail industry. For some time the focus of understanding and working with the industry’s heritage has been on physical heritage. That’s understandable, given so much of that physical heritage is still in active service – the buildings and engineering structures of the railways.  However, understanding the ‘softer’ aspects of heritage – cultural heritage – has been less well handled, not least because it’s harder to do. This might be understanding people’s experiences or the meanings given to railways and railway work, as well as things like working practices.

It’s therefore pleasing to see the rail industry recognising the importance of cultural heritage, and actively engaging with communities in this. The recent RSSB Sustainable Rail Blueprint acknowledges cultural heritage’s significance for the industry (see particularly pp. 33-34), and initiatives are emerging elsewhere to help uncover and record the industry’s cultural heritage. This is something that our project is ideally placed to contribute towards – and indeed, is doing so! Our database and work is a fabulously rich resource, with huge insight to offer into individuals and their working lives on the railways. Our collaborative method of working is also significant, not least the central role of the excellent volunteers who have been transcribing records and researching people’s lives.

So – what does the project database have to offer if we’re looking at something specific: disability and the railways of Wales?


Working with a disability

Disability appears in a number of ways in the Railway Work, Life & Death project. One of these is where there were accidents in which someone involved had a pre-existing disability.

In some of these cases, the disability might have been occupationally-induced. This was the case for Robert Stanbury, who lost an arm in a shunting accident on the Neath and Brecon Railway in 1868, and went on to become a station master, involved in a subsequent accident. Similarly, James Waring lost an arm in an accident in Wrexham in 1925, returning to work in the same role – though sadly dying in another accident in 1928.

In other cases, the disability might have arisen from other causes, including natural causes like aging. We know, for example, that underman (track worker) J Watkins of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) was employed in that role but only had sight in one eye. He had an accident in 1923 in Monmouthshire, discussed in this blog post.

Steamship in Holyhead harbour.
SS “Scotia” at Holyhead, about 1927.
Courtesy National Railway Museum.

In at least four cases within the database, hearing loss was noted. This included the accident to London and North Western Railway (LNWR) fireman William Hughes on 31 August 1905. He was at work at Holyhead loco shed, on Anglesey. Working underneath a steam engine, he was using his right hand; he placed his left hand on one of the rails to support his weight. Shed turner John Chambers was on duty that day – his role was to move engines around the shed area, as part of the process of preparing them for duty. He moved the engine Hughes was working under without first checking it was safe to do so. Hughes’ left hand was crushed under a wheel, later being amputated. The accident investigation noted that Chambers was ‘decidedly hard of hearing’, and that ‘owing to the nature of the duties, it is important that the position of engine turner should only be held by thoroughly efficient men’. The Company’s attention ‘should be drawn to this point’ (Railway Inspectorate 1905, Quarter 3, Appendix B). We’ve seen this elsewhere – a potential disability was noted, though not directly implicated.

Ordnance Survey map of Holyhead, showing dock, station and railway lines, as well as the town.
1923 Ordnance Survey map of Holyhead.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.
Close-up on the Holyhead shed area, on the Ordnance Survey map.
Detail of the shed area at Holyhead, on the 1923 map.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

If we look at both Chambers and Hughes’ career trajectories, we can see how particular disabilities were reflected in their roles. On the 1901 Census, Chambers was an engine driver, based in Holyhead. By the time of the accident in 1905 he was a shed turner – very much a lower grade. This might well be because his hearing loss meant he failed the medical inspection which footplate crews periodically underwent (including eyesight tests) and he might have been seen as unfit to drive trains. Following the accident, the LNWR seems to have responded to the report – at least so far as Chambers’ role was concerned. On the 1911 Census he appears as a fitter’s assistant. This means he was no longer moving engines around the shed, but helping out with general maintenance tasks to keep the engines running. Here we see the impact of disability – possibly age-related – on one man’s working life.

Photograph showing cattle being unloaded from a ferry to the dockside at Holyhead.
Cattle being unloaded from an Irish ferry at Holyhead, about 1909

For Hughes the implications of the loss of his hand were also profound. He was no longer able to fire an engine. That career was closed to him. He was found a different role by the LNWR – often railway companies would find what were seen as ‘appropriate’ roles for those with occupationally-caused disabilities. In Hughes’ case this was as a cattle loader, as he appears on the 1911 Census, very much a lesser grade as it would have been understood at the time. It would also have come with a lower wage – though the difference might have been made up via a weekly payment, through the Workmen’s Compensation Act. The career progression would have been very different of course – from fireman, Hughes might have expected to have become a driver, with consequent increase in pay and status. It’s unclear where he would have gone from cattle loader, in career terms. On the 1921 Census he was a ‘cattle porter’, and on the 1939 Register he was ‘chief loader’ for the LMS (the LNWR’s successor company), so a very similar role. From this single case in our database, then, it’s possible to see how disabilities – existing and newly-caused – might impact on people’s working lives.

What we can see, via Hughes’ case and the others linked to via our existing blog posts, is that Welsh railways employed a number of people with pre-existing or developing disabilities. Whilst certainly not suggesting discrimination didn’t happen, it’s important to note that having some form of disability, as it was seen at the time, didn’t automatically preclude people from railway work.


Occupationally-induced disabilities: Railway Inspectorate records

We’ve already seen in the joined cases of John Chambers and William Hughes that some disabilities were caused by railway work. Within our database, two sets of records lend themselves most clearly to identifying occupationally-induced disabilities in Welsh railway service. Firstly, the records of accident investigations undertaken by the Railway Inspectorate (state-appointed accident investigators). Secondly, the records of compensation secured from the employing railway company by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants/ National Union of Railwaymen (ASRS/NUR) trade union for non-fatal accidents.

Taking the Railway Inspectorate records, the clearest indication of disability caused by work comes in the cases which involved the loss of some part of the body. This is a proxy for disability, but the most straightforward substitute, bearing in mind the ways the accidents were recorded at the time. For Wales, covering the period 1900-1939, this produces 62 incidents, of the 1140 Welsh accidents recorded – around 5% of all cases. These all involved the limbs in some way.

This included Barry Railway guard Thomas Manners. He was injured on 24 March 1905 at Barry Docks. Riding on the buffers of wagons being shunted, he uncoupled a wagon using his foot. As he was about to jump down to apply the brakes he fell and his left leg was run over, later being amputated. The investigation determined that Manners had an uncoupling pole and was at fault for not having used it (Railway Inspectorate 1905, Quarter 1, Appendix B).

Barry Docks seen from the air in 1929. Strings of railway sidings surrounding docks.
Barry docks, 1929.
Courtesy Britain from Above.

Once again, by linking our project’s railway industry-produced sources with wider records we can start to see the impact of accidents and occupational disability. Having lost a leg, he would not have been able to continue as a guard. This was a role which involved a lot of moving, including climbing up and down and walking and running over uneven surfaces, alongside moving trains. This would have been challenging on an artificial leg, with which he would likely have been issued by the Company. Sure enough, the 1911 Census shows Manners had changed role. No longer a guard, whilst still employed by the Barry Railway Company, he was a telephone operator – much less physically demanding.

The accident investigation also noted that guards and brakesmen commonly rode on wagon buffers at the docks. The investigating Inspector, JH Armytage, hoped the Barry Railway would ‘take steps to abolish the dangerous practice of riding on buffers’ (Railway Inspectorate 1905, Quarter 1, Appendix B). Perhaps they did – though there is at least one further case of limb loss in our database at this location arising from riding on wagon buffers, in 1914: Melchisedeck Harris, to whom we’ll return.

Clearly there are many other cases within the Railway Inspectorate dataset which show the dangers of railway work in Wales, including how they produced disabilities amongst railway workers. Many of these occurred in spaces and ways that might have been found on the way network outside Wales. However, the nature of many of the railways in Wales – including the focus in south Wales on movement of minerals from colliery to dock – meant that some of the most dangerous types of railway work were concentrated here. The particularly included freight movement. We’d invite you to explore the Railway Inspectorate dataset for what it shows us about railway work in Wales, and about railway-caused disability.


Occupationally-induced disabilities: Trade Union records

In our trade union dataset (discussed in more detail here), the focus of attention changes. It’s less about the moment of the accident, and more about the support offered by the ASRS/NUR to its members. It therefore gives us insight into how accidents, ill-health and old age affected railway workers, including of course the impacts of occupationally-caused disability. It’s also worth noting that we’ll be adding to the trade union data in the future, so there will be more cases to come.

Many of the key details about the ‘what next’ of railway worker disability in Wales come from the Union ‘Non-Fatal Compensation’ dataset. We’ll be discussing this dataset further in next week’s blog post, the final for Disability History Month 2023. For our Welsh focus, we’ll combine those records, where possible, with information in the Union ‘Disablement Fund’ dataset. Sometimes we find the same workers in both (and other) project datasets, helping give a more rounded picture.

Again, taking the loss of a body part as a means of finding cases in the Non-Fatal Compensation which might have involved a life-changing impact is a useful starting point. Of the 32 Welsh cases so far in the data, 15 involved the loss of an eye or of a significant portion of a limb. The remaining cases typically involved the loss of a finger/ fingers or a toe/ toes – potentially a significant impact, of course, but less likely to result in major changes to life circumstances.

John Lane’s record gives us an interesting look at how the railway companies took a keen economic interest in the compensation they were paying out. He was a fireman with the Taff Vale Railway (TVR), and a member of the Cardiff branch of the ASRS. On 7 May 1905 he fell between a platform and a train, losing an arm as a result. He was recorded as receiving 17/5 per week (today around £100) in compensation from the Company until October 1908 – an indication of the lasting effects of severe injury. It was also noted that the TVR was paying Lane 18/- per week in wages and 8/5 in compensation – unpicking some of the details is challenging. The TVR clearly wanted to stop the regular outlay, as it took Lane’s case to court, to reduce compensation. However, this backfired: the judge increased the compensation payment to 13/- per week!

We can, via the census, see the long-term impact that the loss of his arm had on Lane. In 1901 he was recorded as an engine driver (a mismatch to the grade recorded against his name in 1908 in the Union records, but this kind of issue is not uncommon). However, on the 1911 Census he had left railway service, and was manager of the Castle Hotel on Bute Street in Treherbert. Presumably he found his former profession, on the footplate, impossible with only one arm. His wife, Maria, and their three daughters all helped in the hotel. By 1921 he and Maria, along with one of their daughters and her family, had returned to John’s birth county, Gloucestershire. John was a licensed victualler, with the rest of the adult family working for and with him. How all of this affected John and his family emotionally as well as financially isn’t clear, but we can imagine they were significant changes.

The loss of an arm didn’t necessarily mean the end of railway work – though it likely did mean a change of role. This was the case for Port Talbot Railway and Docks Company goods guard Frederick Dixon. In October 1903 he was applying wagon brakes when he slipped; his arm was run over, later being amputated. The Non-Fatal Compensation records show that he was paid 16/4 compensation per week until he resumed work on 24 April 1904. He also received a standard £20 payment (now c.£2300) from the Union’s Disablement Fund (discussed here).

For such a severe and potential traumatic injury, this seems a relatively short convalescence. However, in the absence of a social security system, it become more comprehensible. Without any support from the state, if no money was being earned, you and your family were in trouble. Crucially, the records don’t show in what role he returned to work. It was unlikely to be as a goods guard, which involved heavy physical activity and the use of two hands. The 1911 Census identifies Dixon as a signalman – still a physical role, but possible with only one arm. This was not least the case as ‘signalman’ covered a range of roles and activities, and might include aspects which were relatively lighter to do.

We see this disability-induced role change in one final case – Evan Isaac. He came to our attention as he appears in the Non-Fatal Compensation records for an accident on 11 January 1909. He was employed as a goods guard for the Great Western Railway (GWR). Whilst testing detonators (a safety device containing a small explosive charge, used to protect trains that had stopped unexpectedly) something went wrong and he lost an eye. He resumed work on 19 July 1909, having received 16/- per week in compensation (around £89 now), as well as £20 from the Union’s Disablement Fund.

Isaac’s GWR staff record has survived, and adds to our picture. It notes his progression through various roles from 1894 until 1909: porter, shunter, brakesman, goods guard … until ‘Jan 09 Away ill (injured)’ – how much is hidden in those innocuous words! The last wage increment before his accident shows he was earning 30/- per week. When he returned to work in July 1909, marked in red against his record, was the wage 25/-, so it seems his accident cost him financially as well as physically. His record also notes that he ‘resumed as foreman, Neath loco shed’ – a role understood as in keeping with someone with a physical disability.


The future

There are plenty of Welsh railway workers in our database and our project. Beyond these records, though, the individual lives of the workers are often a blank. Whilst we’ve blogged about a few of them already, here, there is plenty of scope to find out more. We’re keen to see that happen – and to see wider community involvement in this.

And then there are the records we’re bringing into the project database in the future. Held at The National Archives of the UK, there is an amazing run of railway worker accident reports produced by south Wales companies – many of which have been transcribed and will be added to the database. This is ongoing, and will amount to tens of thousands of records, covering the period from c.1897-1923. We already know it will give us more on some of the people found in our database at the moment via other records. This includes people like Melchisedeck Harris, mentioned earlier and whose Barry Railway company accident records will be added. We might also expect to find Thomas Manners, John Lane – and many others.

There are further significant possibilities, too – picking up on the importance of cultural heritage we noted earlier. Details about all of the individuals we’ve looked at in this blog post have come from official sources – whether produced within the rail industry (from our database) or through civil registration documents (particularly the census). They’re valuable – but can only give us the ‘official’ story: what the creators were interested in. Very often they don’t give us the personal insight into the individual’s life. We know from our existing work that it is possible to get some of this, through working with family and community groups. This will help engage people with their immediate areas, understanding the railways and their people, potentially reconnecting people now with their community heritage. We’re keen to see more of this taking place – and to be involved in it – for Wales and beyond!

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