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Hidden traumas

Around 20% of the accidents that were investigated by the railway inspectors and featured in this project were, tragically, fatalities. No question, then, that work was stopped for that individual. The remaining 80% of investigated accidents were, then, injuries; many of them were serious, involving amputations or other life-changing wounds, and no doubt stopping work for that individual, at least for some time. But some cases involved less devastating physical impacts – bruises, a crushed finger or similar – and after which the individual concerned was expected to continue at work. Where the psychological impact of accident sits in the official reports is usually unclear.

One case that captures both ends of the physical spectrum, and which I can only imagine must have involved the psychological, occurred on 4 June 1913, near Earlsfield on the London and South Western Railway. It involved two men working on the tracks – platelayers have already appeared a number of times in this blog and will continue to reappear. Their occupation was one of the most dangerous on the railways, as they frequently worked in amongst moving trains, so when something went wrong, it tended to go badly wrong.

In this case George Collins, ‘relaying foreman’, was measuring rails waiting to be used and which were lying between the running lines. He was assisted by Platelayer Russell (whose first name isn’t recorded, being only incidental to the case, it seems). At around 11.25am Russell spotted a train approaching on the ‘local’ (slow) line, so both men stepped into the adjacent fast line – but, crucially, without keeping a watch out for anything that might be approaching on the fast line. The predictable happened, as the report, by Inspector John Main, recorded: the express train on the fast line ‘was not observed until the engine was within a few feet of Collins, when Russell saw it and shouted to Collins, but it was then too late, and he was struck with fatal results.’

However, all was not over. Whilst Russell was able to jump clear ‘he was knocked down by Collins’s body, which was thrown against him’. I cannot imagine how horrific an experience that must have been for Russell, yet as the report continues, ‘he sustained some scratches and minor bruises, which, however, were not sufficiently serious to entail his going off duty’ (1913 Quarter 2, Appendix B). So, presumably, having completed nearly five hours of his shift, he had another seven hours to go, despite having witnessed the death of his colleague at close quarters.

Inspector Main had little sympathy – though my reading of the report is that he was angry that he was investigating yet another death from such a cause. He attributed blame – his word – to both men, noting ‘the fact of the men standing in the four-foot way [between the rails of the running line] without apparently taking any steps to see whether they could do so in safety, is unaccountable. A more dangerous position could hardly have been chosen.’ Main listed all of the steps the company took to ‘impress upon the men engaged upon the permanent way the paramount necessity of continual watchfulness’ – rules and circulars outlining previous instances, but not, of course, changing the work so that trains were stopped.

Ultimately Main concluded that the accident ‘can only be attributed to a thoughtless disregard for their own safety’ – though perhaps one can see why the two men stayed close to their work instead of taking the extra time and effort to move across all the tracks to the side of the lines and back again. There may well have been ‘ample time and opportunity’ to do this, as Main noted – but it would have slowed down their work, which would have displeased the company, which expected a certain amount to be achieved in the working day.

Of course, one of the things that rarely appears in the reports in direct terms is the psychological impact of an accident. ‘Shock’ is sometimes seen – though often, I suspect, with a quite different meaning to that in 2017, and something to be explored in a future post. This isn’t to downplay the impact upon mental health that any of these accidents might have had – more, it reflects the ways in which physical trauma was more visible and how society, and particularly men, at this time were (and weren’t) able to speak about psychological trauma. How this case truly affected Platelayer Russell isn’t recorded, but one can only think it must have had a serious impact – even if he wasn’t able to stop work and recover.

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