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International Workers’ Memorial Day 2023

The International Labour Organization estimates that – each year – around 2.3 million people around the world die as a result of workplace accidents or ill-health.

That’s around 6000 people a day.

That is shocking, and it’s clearly important we try to improve this. It’s also important that we recognise and remember those who’ve already been killed, disabled or made ill in the workplace. Both of these are why International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) was established, being marked on 28 April each year, with the strapline ‘Remember the dead, fight for the living.’

We’ve blogged about this significant day before, but this year it has a new resonance for the project as a result of the data releases over the last year, adding around 42,000 cases to our database of accidents to British and Irish railway workers before 1939. That’s brought our total up to nearly 50,000 cases.

IWMD is particularly relevant as last month’s release, of c.25,000 cases, came from the records of one of the key railway trade unions. Trade unions have, since their foundation, advocated for better protection of workers, including on grounds of health, safety and well-being. Our new dataset demonstrates this, coming from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS)/ National Union of Railwaymen (NUR; now the RMT Union).

The impact of occupational death, injury and ill-health is hard to comprehend through these headline figures. Each one was an individual, with family, friends and belonging to various different groups, organisations and communities. So how do we keep sight of that individual?

Our database offers a starting point. For the first time it names those railway workers killed, injured or made ill through their work. It’s possible to find out more about them, and to put them in context of their work, their accident, their family and more. So, for this year’s IWMD, we’re going to focus on a few of the trade union members uncovered in the project work who had some connection with 28 April.

What we’ve been able to glean comes from the Union records and from some other railway industry or newspaper sources. Those sources are useful, but they still give us a somewhat official view of the individuals. What we’re keen on exploring is a much more personal view – particularly the recollections and understandings of descendants. To that end, we’re always glad to hear from people – especially those in the current industry, and ideally those in the RMT – who find ancestors in our database.


Donald Sinclair (1897-1918)

On 28 April 1918, Donald Sinclair died following an accident the evening before at Motherwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland. He was just 21. He’d joined the NUR in 1918, and was a member of the Oban branch – he was born and raised in Oban, but as was the case with much railway work, he was required to work at different locations as part of the job. The Daily Record for 30 April 1918 recorded that he had lodgings in Orchard Street.

1910 Ordnance Survey map showing railway tracks in the area where Sinclair was hurt.
Dellburn sidings, c.1910.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

Sinclair worked for the Caledonian Railway, as a brakesman. This was a particularly dangerous job, as it involved working alongside moving trains, to apply or release brakes on goods wagons. According to the Hamilton Advertiser (4 May 1918), at 7pm on the 27th Sinclair was ‘spragging’ wagons at Dellburn sidings. Spragging involved inserting a purpose-made wooden block, or a pole, between the wagon wheel spokes, which would then make contact with the wagon framing and slow or stop the wagon. There was an art to it, and it was risky – as Sinclair discovered. He fell, and the wagons ran over his feet. A doctor was called, and Sinclair was taken to the Royal Infirmary, but died in the early hours of 28 April. He left a widowed mother, Mary, in Oban and two younger siblings. We know that the NUR paid the £5 death claim, presumably to Mary.


Joseph Allatt (1839-1889) and Arthur Allatt

On 28 April 1889, Joseph Allatt died. He was a goods guard on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, and a member of the ASRS Wakefield branch. He contributed to the Union’s Orphan Fund. This meant that, upon his death, the ASRS made a weekly financial contribution to Joseph’s wife, Jane, to support any eligible children. Children were considered eligible until they were 14 and able to join the workforce. Though Joseph and Jane had six children, by the time of the accident only one – Arthur – was under 14. Ironically, he had been born 10 years to day before his father died – Arthur’s birthday was 28 April 1879. He was on the Union’s books for four years; in the first year alone, Jane received £3.18.0 in support.

It’s not possible to know what impact the death of his father had upon Arthur, other than to speculate it must have been hard. The same would be true for Jane, of course, and no doubt the older children. However, it might have had a longer term impact on Arthur. From the late 1890s, Arthur clocked up a series of arrests for sleeping in the open air and for drunkenness – at least eight into the 1900s. It’s impossible to say that this was a direct result of his father’s death, but it could have been a factor.


M Coughlan

IWMD isn’t only about remembering those who’ve died. Far more workers, including on Britain and Ireland’s railways, have been injured over the years. Sometimes those injuries were life-changing.

This was the case for Great Southern and Western Railway (GSWR) porter M Coughlan. He was a member of the ASRS Cork No. 2 branch. It’s worth remembering that, at this time, the UK included what is now Ireland, and the Union therefore sought to protect members there, too. (This didn’t end in 1921, either, but that’s a different story.)

On 28 April 1908, Coughlan was involved in an accident whilst shunting. Though we don’t have all the details, according to the ASRS records his ‘arm [was] rendered permanently useless’. He therefore appears in the Non-Fatal Compensation records, receiving 7/9 per week until October 1908, at which point he was awarded a lump sum, as final settlement, of £125.

We believe from other records – the 1901 Census – that his first name was Michael, and he was born in 1883. This made him 25 at the time of his accident. This is the kind of case where we’d really like to know what happened next to Coughlan. Was he found another role on the GSWR, which he could manage with only one arm? Or did he leave railway service?


John Thomas Downs (1890-1920)

John Downs was a shunter for the Cambrian Railways Company. He’d started as a porter, being listed as such on the 1911 Census. He joined the Oswestry branch of the NUR in 1919. This proved to be a good move, as when he was knocked down and killed at Oswestry on 28 April 1920, the NUR secured his dependents £300 in compensation. They also represented his interests at the coroner’s inquest, so appears in two parts of the NUR dataset.

1924 Ordnance Survey map of Oswestry town, station and locomotive works.
Oswestry and its railway, c.1924. Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

Downs also appears in a further set of records, which will, in due course, come into the project – those for the railway companies. These records are very much incomplete, but there is relatively good survival for those which came to be a part of the Great Western Railway – like the Cambrian Railways. Held at The National Archives of the UK, a volunteer team there has been transcribing the records. As a result, we know that he suffered a fractured skull and injured side. Curiously this record gives the data of accident as 27 April.

We also learn that he was shunting on a line beside the running line, and was knocked down by a passenger train engine ‘apparently having stood too near running line’. No-one saw what happened, but it was thought he was struck by the engine step. The records show that he had been paid a weekly wage of £2.19.5.

Posed staff safety photograph and text, showing a railway worker walking too close to the track and about to be hit by a train approaching from behind.
Posed 1920s photograph, warning of the dangers of walking too close to the track.

There was a Railway Inspectorate investigation, but in those records this falls in the wartime gap between 1915 and 1921, and so we don’t have it … yet. For here the Union is coming to our rescue! For those Railway Inspectorate investigations undertaken between 1915 and 1921, but for which the reports weren’t published, and in which the NUR played a role representing its members, the Union kept summaries of the investigation reports. So, in due course, John Down’s Railway Inspectorate accident report might be recoverable. Watch this space!


Richard Gammon (1890-1919)

Richard Gammon was born in 1890. On the 1901 Census Richard’s father and elder brother were labourers; he followed in their footsteps and by the time of the 1911 Census was also a labourer. He joined the NUR’s Cardiff No. 5 branch in April 1915, as a hydraulic repairer for the Cardiff Railway, so at some point in the preceding four years he changed employment direction.

On 28 April 1919 he was killed in an accident. As a result he features twice in the project database. His dependents – his widowed mother, Ellen – received the £5 death benefit the Union paid out to the dependents of deceased members. The NUR represented Gammon and two other members at the coroner’s inquest; the records note that the accident took place at Cardiff Docks, with a verdict of accidental death.

Once again, the railway company records, at The National Archives, come to our aid – to be brought into the project in the future. They show that the accident took place at the level crossing at the top of Metropolitan Road, at 21.50. A train of 15 wagons pushed back over the level crossing before entering the Docks System; on the return Gammon’s body was found in the track, along with two damaged bicycles. It was believed that Gammon was pushing the bicycles across the level crossing when he was hit by the train. £250 was awarded in compensation, and court fees of five shillings paid by the Cardiff Railway Company.


WH Bannister (1884-1962)

Finally, on 28 April 1909 Great Western Railway shunter WH Bannister, 26, had his foot injured. His foot got wedged in a check rail, and then hit by a railway wagon, crushing it. Based at Acton station, he joined the ASRS Acton branch in 1907. It secured him 14/7 per week compensation whilst he was off work – until February 1910. He also received £23 in disablement benefit, in March 1910, presumably reflecting the point at which he’d returned to work and the extent of any lasting disability was known. His Union membership record suggests that he had another accident in 1949, too.

Two staged photographs from a 1920s accident prevention booklet, showing a shunter stepping over the rails in safety, and another with his foot trapped in points in front of an oncoming train.
Staged accident prevention photograph, showing a similar issue to that of WH Bannister – a foot, stuck in the track with an oncoming train.

These were just six individuals of the tens of thousands of people now in our project database. Sadly that means there are plenty more to choose from. Hopefully, though, you’ve seen something of the individuals. There are many, many more cases to come into the project in the future. If we can help raise awareness of the toll of railway work in the past, and contribute to making a safer and healthier workplace today and in the future, we’d be very satisfied.


Remember the dead, fight for the living.

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  1. Pingback:May Day – International Workers’ Day? - Railway Work, Life & Death

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