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May Day – International Workers’ Day?

Internationally, for the last c.150 years May Day – May the 1st – has been linked with the labour movement and calls for better rights for working class people. In many nations, 1 May is a bank holiday and marked as ‘Labour Day’ or ‘International Workers’ Day’. However, this tradition is less well-established in the UK, where May Day remains more commonly understood as a celebration of spring.

This week we thought it would be apt to look at a few of the cases in our project database that occurred on 1 May, given they largely affected the working classes. However and for whatever reasons we mark May Day, it’s worth remembering the toll of work on the bodies and minds of the workers, including on the railways. This seems particularly apt, coming so soon after International Workers’ Memorial Day, the subject of last week’s blog post.


Owen Ralphs (1896-1915)

We start in the midst of the First World War – a huge challenge to the international labour movement, as working class solidarity was pitted against nationalism. In Britain, many areas of railway work were regarded as indispensable to the national war effort, so many railway workers remained in their jobs. This included 19-year old Owen Ralphs, a signal porter for the Cambrian Railways at Bettisfield station, in Flintshire, north Wales.

On 1 May 1915, at 3.10pm, he was coupling a wagon to a train next to a cattle dock. To do this, he chose to go between the wagon and the dock wall – but ended up being fatally crushed. Ralphs appears in the Railway Inspectorate reports in our database, where Inspector JJ Hornby determined Ralphs could have coupled the wagon from the other side (1915 Quarter 2, Appendix C).

Posed black and white staff safety photo, showing a railwayman being crushed between a goods wagon and the door of a goods shed.
Warning of similar dangers from the LNWR’s 1918 accident prevention booklet.

What’s helpful is that Ralphs also appears in our most recent update to the database, covering trade union data. The National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) represented the interests of two members at the coroner’s inquest. The suspicion is that these members would not have been Ralphs, but instead some of his colleagues involved in the shunting at the time. The inquest recorded a verdict of ‘accidental death’ (Union Inquests, 1915).

Being able to link the different datasets in our database like this starts to give us a fuller picture of railway work, accidents & their aftermath. As we add further records to the database in the future, this value will only grow. Then add to that the possibilities offered by combining these records with other types of material, and things get really exciting!


W Percival (1883-1919)

Another case where we can link records in the database for a 1 May death is W Percival. He was a goods guard on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. He appears in the death claims and orphan fund sheets. They tell us that he joined the NUR on 13 August 1916, dying just under three years later from pneumonia, aged 36. His family received the standard £5 death benefit payment made after the death of a Union member. The records show that they received the payment, equivalent to about £245 at today’s prices, on 6 May – this was a prompt payment, to help the family in the immediate aftermath of a death (Union Death Claims, 1919).

Another of the significant aspects of the trade union dataset is that it includes a substantial amount of information about issues beyond accidents – including health of railway workers. In this case it’s possible that pneumonia was being used interchangeably with influenza (something discussed by Helen Ford in this blog post). The timing is significant – May 1919 was part of the post-First World War ‘flu pandemic, which killed a great many railway workers, as it did others.

And what of Percival’s family? The Orphan Fund record shows that Percival was a member of the Burnley No. 1 branch of the NUR. Again, the Union’s machinery moved quickly – from 6 May benefit was being paid to Percival’s family – most likely to his wife. He left four children under the age of 14 who were therefore eligible for a small weekly support payment. Between them this amounted to nine shillings (Union Orphan Fund, 1919).


F Richardson (1872-1915)

From the Union’s records of fatal compensation, we know that F Richardson, member of the Darlington branch, was a platelayer (track worker) for the North Eastern Railway. He was knocked down by an express and killed on 1 May 1915. His dependents received £165.9.10 (around £14,000 today) compensation – an amount on the lower end of the scale (the maximum at this point was £300, about £25,500 today). Exactly how the amounts awarded were determined is unclear (Union Fatal Comp, 1915).


C Cremer

Not all incidents led to deaths, of course. This means that on 1 May 1906, we find Great Southern and Western Railway driver C Cremer being injured. Member of the Cork No. 1 branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS – which merged with other unions to become the NUR in 1913), he was 37 at the time of his accident. Whilst getting on to his engine, he slipped and his toes were crushed. Unusually for this run of records, when he returned to work isn’t recorded, but whilst he was off he received £1 per week in compensation (around £114 today; Union Non-Fatal Comp, 1909).


J Sutton

Finally in today’s post, we have Great Northern Railway signalman J Sutton. Member of the Hitchin branch of the ASRS in 1908, he joined the Union in 1897. He was 60 at the time of his accident, on 1 May 1908. The Disablement Fund doesn’t always record what lay behind an incident, so further details of Sutton’s accident aren’t available. However, we do know that he received a £20 grant on 3 December 1908 – some time after the accident. Presumably this was the point at which it became clear he had suffered some lasting incapacity.

Interestingly, of the 17 claims currently in the Disablement Fund records we’ve transcribed and which occurred on 1 May, only two were for accidents. The other 15 were for old age – showing us something of the ways in which old age was regarded as a disability at this time. The youngest old age claim was for someone aged 60; the oldest was 73 (Union Disablement, 1908).



Put together, these randomly chosen cases give us more detail on the working lives, accidents and after-lives of railway staff in Britain and Ireland before 1939. They help us think through the working conditions and experiences of many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. At a time when working conditions, including health, safety and well-being, are being eroded, thinking about what collective action has achieved, and about the power of understanding the past, is important. Happy International Workers’ Day to you all!

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