New data release: Great Eastern Railway Benevolent Fund book, 1913-23

We’re thrilled to release a new data set for you: details of Great Eastern Railway (GER) staff who had been injured at work and applied for assistance to the Company’s Benevolent Fund between 1913 and 1923.

One of the pages from the GER Benevolent Fund book.

The information comes from a ledger book kept by the Company and now found at the National Railway Museum (2005-7531). Once again we are indebted to our brilliant and loyal volunteers, who have transcribed in full the details found in the book. We’ve more to say about some of the practicalities of the transcription in this blog post – including the challenges of reading some of the handwriting! For now, the most important thing we can do is to thank our volunteers once again for their hard work.

What’s particularly fitting is that we’re releasing this at the start of Disability History Month, as the book details what happened to people after their accident. Our existing dataset looked only at the moment of the accident, so for those who were injured we couldn’t be sure what happened next. This book – and other such documents – help to fill in the picture. We can see cases where staff returned to work in different roles – but also where they were permanently incapacitated. So, this is an important new direction for the project, as well as complementing our existing (and continuing!) work on the accidents themselves.

The book and its transcription contain 641 entries concerning over 500 individuals. The accidents took place between 1879 and 1923, so clearly there were some long-term care needs being met. It’s hard to tell accurately, as the details aren’t always as precise as we might have liked or expected, but it is clear that some individuals returned to the Fund on more than one occasion, for ongoing support. This was usually to replace some sort of physical aid that was presumably worn out, like a prosthetic limb or a truss. In its most extreme incarnation, gateman W Mixer made 12 applications to the fund, for new kneecaps (presumably some sort of external strapping rather than an implant under the skin, following an injury to his knee in the Wymondham area).

The book doesn’t cover all accidents – only those where someone had applied to the Fund for support, so we’ve got a snapshot of Great Eastern’s record on work-related injury and disability. From the best figures available, between 1913-22, the GER (and its joint line with the Great Northern) suffered over 117,000 injuries or deaths – and that will be under the true figure, as accurate accident statistics weren’t kept for around half of the First World War. Many of those injuries would have been relatively minor and not required an application to the Fund; others would have been supported by Workmen’s Compensation payments (for accidents after 1896 at any rate). But even so, it’s clear we have only a relatively small sample of those affected by accident and disability.

Sometimes the applications cover medical expenses incurred as a result of an accident, or even in the case of the four fatalities which produced applications from dependents, for support ‘to widow to help in distress’, as was the case with the wife of the late checker C Clarke of Devonshire Street station in 1918. She was awarded £5 (around £230 in today’s prices). And just because an application was made to the Fund, it doesn’t mean it was granted. The Committee met monthly – an indication of the demand – to consider each case. Whilst most cases were awarded some support, 11 applications were declined (sadly, in most cases no reasons are given!).

The largest source of applications was from people suffering from ruptures, strains and hernias – 251 cases in all. After that, injuries to lower limbs and feet produced 139 cases. These – and plenty of others, involving all parts of the body – came from across the Great Eastern’s system, with well over 100 stations featuring in the data. The single largest location for applications was Stratford, in London; ‘home’ of the GER and location for its works and therefore a significant proportion of the staff.

There were also 3 female workers injured who applied for support, all for accidents which took place in the war years (though there were of course women employed by the railways before and after the First World War).

The database is searchable on all of these categories, and more, so it’s another really powerful tool for understanding the nature of working life, accidents, disability and life after accident in the railway industry. The details it contains tell us plenty about the individual’s wider life, putting the moment of the accident into context. It’s an important addition to our existing database of railway worker accidents 1911-15 (including some cross-overs, about whom we’ll be blogging in the future), and helps us to build up a bigger picture of those involved in occupational accidents on the railways.

But that’s only the starting point, as it’s perfectly possible (if time allows!) to combine our records with other sources, such as census returns and newspaper accounts). Indeed, it’s our hope that this will happen – so if you find someone you’re keen to follow up on, do please let us know what you manage to find out.

You can access the data within our database.

It’s great to be able to add more details to our project work, and to extend the date range of our coverage, something many people had requested. And we wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without our NRM volunteers. Do go and explore the new data, and make use of it – and please let us know what you think and find!


There’s also more good news – there’s a lot more to come, with the current project extensions underway:

* Inter-war Ministry of Transport accident reports (NRM): see here

* Railway company records, c.1897-1930 (TNA): see here

* Trades union records, c.1876-1930 (MRC): see here – and please do help us with this, as we’re recruiting volunteers who can get to the MRC to assist!

Watch this space!

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