Instructive First Aid

Continuing our look at the cases found in our new data release, this week we have the 1922 accident to Frederick James Webb. In many respects this was a typical accident, as we shall see. However, in one aspect it was atypical – in a way which says interesting things about how the railway companies prepared staff for ‘inevitable’ accidents.

Frederick Webb was born around 1881, in Leamington. He grew up to work on the Great Western Railway (GWR), as a goods guard (according to the 1921 census) or a shunter (according to the state accident report). The two roles were closely related, however, so the different titles are not a big surprise.

On 10 November 1922, Webb was at work at Leamington Spa’s GWR station (the London and North Western Railway also ran into Leamington). Just before 4pm he was helping to shunt some wagons from the down main line into a siding. Using a pole he attempted to uncouple an empty coal wagon. He walked alongside the train, ‘when he slipped and fell under the moving vehicle’. A wagon wheel passed over him, severing his left leg.

Ordnance Survey map, showing the GWR station in Leamington Spa.

1922 map of Leamington Spa station, where Webb’s accident occured,
Courtesy: National Library of Scotland maps.

Prior to his fall, he had been walking alongside the wagons in the space between two railway lines. However, there was a difference in height, and the path he was using was narrow as a result. At some point on this route, Inspector William Worthy Cooke believed, Webb ‘picked up some wagon grease on his boot, and it is probable that this caused him to slip.’

Cooke attributed the mishap to accidental causes. He didn’t offer any comment on the height difference or that the path wasn’t fully suitable for use if it involved hazards like grease not being cleared away. In all of these respects, then, the accident was fairly typical, showing the dangers of freight movements.

The final sentence of the report is the most intriguing one. Cooke said ‘it is worthy of notice that Webb’s knowledge of first aid work probably saved his life, by his own application of it, and his instructions to those who came to his assistance’ (1922 Quarter 4, Appendix C).

GWR first aid proficiency badge, St John Ambulance. Round metal badge with GWR heraldic device on top, mounted on a smaller circle of black fabric and a larger circle of white fabric.

GWR St John Ambulance first aid proficiency badge.

The railway companies were early adopters of first aid, including working with St John Ambulance when it was first establishing itself in the late 19th century. Companies like the GWR encouraged their staff to learn first aid – no doubt as there was a good chance they would need to use it at some point in their working lives. Webb’s ability to recall the necessary steps in the moment of need – his need – and to direct colleagues when he was no doubt in considerable pain is quite staggering.

We don’t know what happened to Webb after his accident. Did he return to work on the GWR, found alternative employment that someone deemed suited to disabled man? How did his family cope? According to the 1921 census, his wife Annie undertook domestic duties, and their two children both went to school. If Webb’s injury meant he could no longer work, how did the family survive? By the time of the 1939 Register, Webb had died, though when is unclear. His widow Annie lived with one of their sons, William Henry, who had not followed his father into the rail industry. Sometimes there were good reasons why the railway career did not run in the family.

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