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Heath & Safety in York – then & now

This week the RMT Union held its annual health and safety advisory conference in York. Focused on improving health and safety for those in all sectors the RMT covers – rail, maritime and bus – there were training sessions for health and safety representatives as well as more traditional sessions themed around particular issues. Given this year sees the 50th anniversary of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, there was a particular focus on the relatively recent past. Our project was pleased to be able to contribute in a number of ways. We provided a training session, took part in a debate on the Health and Safety at Work Act, and took an information stand.

As in our previous work with the RMT, we were really impressed with how seriously the Union and its members take the past, and support they’re giving our work. Though the events the project and its dataset explore are long ago, the connections with the present were clearly seen. We’ll be saying more about this in a future blog post, as there were some really good ideas about how our work can make a useful contribution to improving health and safety on the railway today.

For now, this short blog post looks at where York appears in our database of accidents, and highlights two cases which involved trade union members.


Railway Inspectorate records

At the moment there are two core datasets which making up the database. The first are the records of the Railway Inspectorate investigations into worker accidents – around 21,000 cases between 1900 and 1939. In these, York appears 157 times, via a large number of railway locations across the city and its outskirts. All bar one of these cases are men; we’ve blogged about two of them here, and here. Due to the cases the Railway Inspectorate covered, none of the cases come from the carriage and wagon works. These were classed as workshop accidents, and as a result were reported to and investigated by the Factory Inspectorate. There’s more on that division of responsibility, here.


Trade Union records

The other major record set in the database comes from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS)/ National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) – the predecessor unions of the RMT. It actually comprises several different runs of information about how the Union protected its members and their interests (discussed in this blog post). So far it covers some of the years in the period 1889-1920. In future we’re bringing more records in, to fill in the existing gaps and extend the covering to c.1876-1921.

As a prolific railway centre, York had large numbers of railway workers – sufficient for at least four union branches: York Central, 1, 2 and 3. (Clearly as the industry grew and contracted, and union membership fluctuated, the number of branches in any one location followed the fortunes of employment and union membership.)

In the database so far there are 56 people listed as having died and their dependents received the standard, automatic £5 pay out from the Death Fund. We believe this was to help with immediate costs after death – whether paying bills or funeral costs. Of those 56 cases, the majority were related to age or health, but seven were men who had died from accidents.

The Disablement Fund (more on that here) includes 20 York workers. The majority of them – 16 – were related to old age (ranging anyway from 60 up to 74, as it was understood in the fund). Three were related to accidents. The dependents of ten York workers received compensation from their employers following a fatal accident. Monies awarded ranged from £50 to £300 (the maximum it was possible to receive at that time). The Union represented its members’ interests at three coroner’s inquests, to ensure those involved were treated fairly.

Non-fatal accidents were more common, with 91 cases recorded for York-based workers, including three women. Finally, there were 30 members who had joined the Orphan Fund and whose children went on to receive financial support from the Union after they had died.

So that’s the broad picture for York – but what about the specifics?


Nellie Lamb

Ellen Lamb was born on 6 July 1888, in the village of Patrick Brompton, about 40 miles north-west of York. Her father was a farmer; her mother ran the household and looked after the family – Nellie, as she was known, was the eldest child of five. She remained at home on the 1901 and 1911 Census. In 1916, she joined the NUR, aged 27.  She was a North Eastern Railway (NER) goods porter, and joined via the York No. 2 branch.

She would have been one of the many women employed due to the First World War. Indeed, on her page of the NUR membership register, there are 14 other female goods porters listed as joining the York Central or York No. 2 branches at the same time as her. One of those others – Isabella Davill – also appears in the project database, as she too had an accident.

In both cases the information we have is relatively limited. For Nellie, we know that on 22 March 1919 her right thumb was injured. She was off work until 19 April 1919. Whilst she was off she received £1.2.0 per week from the NER under the Workmen’s Compensation Act (equivalent to around £60 today).

It appears Nellie married before the 1921 Census – possibly in March 1918, to Gregory Harrison. If that was the case, they had a son in 1922 and were living in Wath, near Ripon. The NUR membership register gives her date of leaving the Union as March 1925, for being in arrears. This length of membership seems incompatible with living in Wath with a family, so the suspicion is that she had functionally left some time before 1925.


Thomas Cobb (1869-1915)

Where Union members were killed, there tends to be a little more detail given. Thomas Cobb’s accident and subsequent death tells us a little about after-care for accident. Thomas was born in 1869 in York. In 1891 he married Sarah (nee Schofield). At some point between this and the 1901 Census he started working as a wood turner and sawyer, probably for the NER. They certainly employed him by 1911 – no doubt at the extensive carriage and wagon works. At this point he and Sarah had three children.

Posed staff safety photograph showing the 'safe' way of using a timber saw.
Posed image from c.1914.

He joined the NUR in 1913, at its York No. 3 branch. On 24 October 1914 he had an accident at work which crushed his left hand. It appears that in 1915 he underwent an operation, with a view to amputating the third and fourth fingers. However, though the inquest determined the anaesthetic was ‘properly and duly administered’, Thomas died on the operating table. His family was represented at the inquest by an NUR official. In due course they received £175.10.0 in compensation from the NER (around £20,000 at 2024 prices). This was rather on the lower end of compensation for a fatality. It might be that account was taken of any monies already paid to Cobb between his accident and his death.

On the time of the 1921 Census, Sarah is listed as widowed and head of household. Their eldest son and their daughter both worked at Rowntree’s chocolate factory. However, their youngest son, Frederick, had followed in his father’s footsteps. He was a wagon builder at the NER’s wagon works in York. In 1925 he joined the York No. 3 branch of the NUR – his father’s old branch.


Through these records we gain insight into the working lives, accidents and life after the accident for railway workers, union members and their families. Each individual case may only bring us a little bit more understanding. However, as there are tens of thousands of cases to consider (with similar numbers to come), cumulatively we start to gain a much better picture. Sadly we see many of the same issues are present today – this was certainly a strong message from the RMT conference earlier this week. There’s going to be more to come from this in the future as we continue our work with the RMT – watch this space!

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