We’re delighted to feature this blog post from a team at the Head of Steam – Darlington Railway Museum. It focuses on a topic of great interest to our project – provision for injured staff after an accident, via prosthetic limbs. It arises from the exhibition currently on at the Museum, on this important topic. We were pleased to be able to contribute in a very small way, providing some background information about the types of accidents that resulted in the need for artificial limb production.
As a part of the exhibit, the Museum hosted a number of free online talks, including one from the project. Talk recordings will be available soon.
The Museum team returned with another guest blog post here, looking at the experiences of those receiving artificial limbs. Make sure you come back for that post – and our thanks to the Head of Steam team for this blog!
‘On Track for Change’ has been a two-year project to explore the history of artificial limb making by the railways. Head of Steam – Darlington Railway Museum has worked with members of the local community to produce an exhibition and art installation that highlights the individual experience of living with an artificial limb. The project has been funded by Arts Council England National Lottery and supported by Tees Valley Museums.
The idea for the project began when our curator noticed an ‘artificial limb bench’ marked on a plan of North Road Locomotive Works in Darlington. The site opened in 1863 and built and repaired locomotives for 103 years. At its peak, the works employed over 3000 men and women.
The artificial limb bench was located in the pattern maker’s shop. Pattern makers were highly skilled and usually worked with wood, creating wooden patterns from drawings. The pattern shop was different to the rest the works, as instead of being oily and noisy, it was quiet and clean.
The first step of our project was to uncover the artificial limb makers working in the pattern shop. After searching far and wide, we found that our own collection was the richest resource for finding the men who had made artificial limbs at North Road Works. The museum has a vast collection of staff history records covering the North Eastern Railway (NER) from 1840 through to British Railways up until the 1960s. They are a popular resource for family historians searching for information on railway ancestors.
We were surprised by how many limb makers we found in our records. Using census information, we tried to create a fuller picture of their lives and the various routes into the profession.
Father and son, Charles and Leonard Rodgers, began working for the railway as limb makers at different stages of their life. Charles trained as a limb maker with a private company and worked in Leeds for a number of years. He later moved to Darlington and worked for the NER at North Road Works.
Charles’ son Leonard worked for the railways for all of his life. Similar to other railway professions, the position often passed from father to son. Leonard joined the NER at a young age and trained as an artificial limb maker. He eventually became chargehand of the limb makers.
Thomas I’Anson is another example of spending his whole career with the railways making artificial limbs. Thomas began working for the NER in 1919 and became an artificial limb maker meaning he would have been a contemporary of Leonard Rodgers. He stayed with the company until 1965 when he took an early pension when redundancies took place shortly before the closure of North Road Works in 1966.
Our research has also shown that it was also possible to make the change to artificial limb maker later in life. Other trades provided the skills needed to make the limbs. James Timms originally trained as a carpenter and didn’t start work for the NER until after he was married in 1872. It isn’t known if he joined the company as a limb maker but census records show that he was working in the role in 1911 aged 62.
Finding the artificial limb makers at North Road Works was just one half of our project. The next stage was to discover more about the men who received them – more to come on this in another post soon.
The ‘On Track for Change’ exhibition is open until Monday 30 August 2021. Please visit www.head-of-steam.co.uk for opening times and booking information.
Alison Grange, Ray Holland & Shannon O’Neill
Alison is the Collections & Learning Assistant at Head of Steam – Darlington Railway Museum and has worked in museums since 2012. Her work at Head of Steam has focused on the social history of railways and improving access to the museum’s collections.
Ray joined the project after being invited by an occupational therapist during a rehabilitation session following an above-knee amputation. His love of history meant he was on board immediately and he was fascinated by the stories and hardships that had been endured by some of the recipients of limbs.
Shannon is a Collections Research Assistant for Tees Valley Museums and works with collections across five local authorities. Her research interests include medical and social history with a focus on the Victorian period.
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