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Do as I say, not as I do!

How did railway employees learn their craft in the late 19th century and on into the 20th? For most grades it was by learning on the job, from more experienced colleagues. That created all sorts of things – not least a sense of craft identity, and an understanding of what was necessary in order to get the job done, keeping trains moving and the foremen and inspectors off your back.

Often this involved taking what could – in the event of an accident – be cast as shortcuts that weren’t endorsed by the management or were even contrary to the rules. Plenty of these cases are found in our database. Staff found it necessary to take these shortcuts to keep to time, so to some degree the system was predicated upon rule-breaking: hence the effectiveness of the unions threat to ‘work to rule.’ This could have the effect of bringing the system to a halt, hence it was a feared weapon.

Map of the Cowlairs railway area in 1910.
Cowlairs, including station and the railway works, c.1910.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

One case of an accident resulting from instruction between colleagues occurred on 26 November 1912, at Cowlairs station in Glasgow, on the North British Railway. At just past 6am fireman J McCulloch was waiting on board his locomotive at a signal when he spotted another engine approaching behind them. McCulloch realised that the 2 engines were to be coupled, so he left the footplate to remove the tail lamp from his loco. The fireman from the other engine, W Mackay, went between the engines to join them. We might expect that this is where the injury arises, and usually it probably would be.

However, in this case it wasn’t to be. Inspector Charles Campbell notes in his report that ‘whilst instructing Mackay to remove a [coupling from its resting position] McCulloch put out his hand and pointed at the coupling. In doing so he unconsciously put his arm between the buffers’. It was then caught as the engines came together. Fortunately it only resulted in bruising. Campbell put the case down to ‘misadventure’ (1912 Quarter 4, Appendix C), though we might wonder what the lighting was like at this location at this time of the morning in November. The situation might have been rather more complex than the report made out.

Whether this was a case of a junior fireman being instructed by a more experienced colleague, as it appears, or simply two equals working together isn’t entirely clear. Either way, the end result was the same: an accident whilst showing another employee what to do – and inadvertently demonstrating what not to do!


    • Mike Esbester

      Yes, absolutely – hence the companies’ concern when it was threatened. If all of the rules in the rule book were followed precisely then the system wouldn’t have been able to operate effectively, as things would (at best) have been slowed down to an unworkable pace. The demands of day-to-day operation forced staff into shortcuts, to meet the companies’ expected levels of efficiency/ speed, but often at the cost of personal safety. So, work to rule wasn’t simply about not taking shortcuts, but about literally following the rule book and seeing what would happen …

  1. TW

    This is perhaps an over-generous reading of “work to rule”. Frequently it involved more than merely following the rules precisely as written, as that can be a matter of debate all on its own, but rather examining the rules carefully to discover any form of loophole that allowed work (frequently not work that technically broke the rules) not to be performed or to find ways of performing it as slowly as possible (this is more often where safety rules were followed rigidly) – key points in the 1972 court case involving ASLEF that ended up declaring it a form of strike action involved refusing to work overtime and rest days; these undoubtedly had a impact on safety but it definitely wasn’t a case where they were deliberately performing safety obligations where they usually didn’t – rather it was a case where they worked out what they weren’t obliged to do by the rules and then didn’t do it. They may have followed the rules precisely (at least in theory) but someone who followed the rules precisely without the intention of deliberately slowing work would probably come to a different conclusion. There is a difference between the letter and the spirit of the law, and work to rule involves reading the letter with a specific spirit in mind (one only need look at originalism in the US to see how contentious the law’s “spirit” can be). Reading “work to rule” solely through a safety lens is probably overnarrow.

    • Mike Esbester

      Thanks, that’s very helpful – hadn’t run across the 1972 strike & its implementation of work to rule. Very happy to accept what you say here – certainly recognise the comments about the spirit of interpretation of the rules (and the US exampe is a great one too!). In that way there was discussion arond the 1910s about slow-downs which would seem to mirror your later example. It’s interesting to see how safety might be conflated with other issues and used (by both sides, albeit in different ways) as part of a bargaining process.

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