Histories of medical humanities and attitudes: Examining class and shock via the accident reports

The accidents and reports from which our database draws reveal much about all sorts of aspects of British and Irish society around the time of the First World War. Plenty of this relates directly to the lives – and sometimes deaths – of railway workers. But underlying this we might find other aspects that speak more widely to prevailing assumptions and attitudes. Sometimes this might touch upon things like gender and class, and sometimes to debates in related fields of enquiry, like the history of medicine. One case that draws two of these threads together – class and the history of medical humanities – is the subject of today’s post, looking at the history of shock.

In a previous post we’ve mentioned a case of what was recorded as ‘shock’, in which a platelayer working on the tracks near Earlsfield in 1913 was hit by a train and killed, and his body flung against a colleague. Rather understandably, the survivor was said to be suffering from shock – though quite what this might have meant is unclear from the report at the time.

It becomes slightly clearer in a report of a similar accident that took place around 2 years earlier. In this case it was on the London and North Western Railway, near Wolverton (perhaps better known today as a suburb of Milton Keynes), on 11 May 1911. Once again, it involved 2 platelayers, underman William Matthews and underman James Mead.

They were working on one of the lines on a bridge near the Wolverton carriage works, shovelling ballast into the space between the rails (the ‘four-foot way’) from the space between the rail and bridge girder. They were working back to back, so one man was facing in each direction along the line, but as they were engaged in the heavy work of moving the ballast, they didn’t spot the 8.35am semi-express train from Euston to Rugby approaching until too late: ‘Mead was just able to throw himself on to the girder clear of the train, but Matthews was struck by the engine and fatally injured.’

What might have been understood by ‘shock’ at this time was revealed in the brief sentence which followed: ‘Mead was not injured, but sustained a severe shock, and was unable to resume duty for some time.’ This was all that was said about it, at least in Inspector JH Armytage’s report, before he went on to state that the men should have been able to see the train coming as the weather was clear and there were no other trains nearby. At the same time, he concluded that ganger Alfred Sinfield ‘should not have instructed them to work at this point without some additional protection’ as their view might have been obstructed by steam from any trains passing on the lines underneath the bridge.

Armytage added a note which we could suggest reveals some of the class assumptions underlying ideas about railway work at the time. As a ganger, in charge of his team of permanent way men, Sinfield was presumably deemed more competent and, crucially, more responsible than the men in his command – a better (working) class of man. Armytage suggested that, if he didn’t appoint a dedicated look-out man, Sinfield ‘should have worked with them and personally kept a better look-out than is usually kept by undermen working alone’ (1911 Quarter 2, Appendix B). This could simply be a comment about the demands of the job which meant undermen had to focus all their energies on getting the immediate task done; but it could have be meant as a comment on the perceived mental capacities of the staff undertaking what was seen as rather menial work.

So what of the shock? In the Earlsfield case, the surviving worker had been injured, so it wasn’t clear whether shock was being used in physical sense, in terms of the accident’s impact on the tissue of the body. However, in this case the report clearly stated that Mead had been uninjured – by which it presumably meant there was no physical trauma, an interesting distinction which says a lot about how psychological wounds were perceived at the time.  So here Mead’s shock was a mental health issue, having an impact upon – again, presumably – his nerves and his ability to return to work. More details on this would have been extremely useful – how was this handled procedurally (in terms of the investigation and in terms of managing Mead’s return to work)? How was Mead regarded by his co-workers and family? How did Mead ‘recover’ from the trauma, and what did this say about ideas of masculinity and appropriate behaviour at the time? Sadly all of these questions are beyond the scope of the accident report as it was constituted in 1911.

The history of the medical humanities field has for some time explored issues related to psychological conditions – things like stress, for example, and ‘shell shock.’ This latter concept – which has a past stretching back long before the First World War which made it more widely known – involved ideas about the impact of trauma upon the mind, with a resultant physical manifestation. Where more ‘everyday’ events – like shock arising from industrial accidents – fit into this trajectory isn’t entirely clear, but the ideas that were circulating about what shock might have been were clearly applied to all areas of life. Of course, the railways had a long association with psychological shock, as a result of discussions about ‘railway spine’ in the 1860s and 1870s and the impact of accidents upon passengers. Needless to say, the workforce were not a prominent feature of that debate.

These reports and our database are therefore another welcome route into assumptions about a variety of topics and concepts, such as work, class and the history of the medical humanities. There is plenty in our project that examines railway work – but there’s so much more than this too. Whilst we don’t want to overstate our case and say there’s something for everyone, there is a much broader relevance to our work than might immediately appear from the focus on railway employee accidents between 1911 and 1915!

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