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‘Railwaymen’s Good Friday effort’: collecting for railway orphans

Last week we released our new dataset – 25,000 records of support offered by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS)/ National Union of Railwaymen (NUR; now the RMT Union) to its members in the event of accident, ill-health or old age. We’re delighted with the response so far, with people getting in touch to tell us about the people and details they’ve found in the database. We welcome more of this, so if you find someone or something you’re looking for, please do let us know!

However, we also know that 25,000 records – however easy to search – can appear daunting. With these blog posts we’re trying to offer ways into the records and the details they contain. Sometimes they’ll focus on particular people or cases, and sometimes – like this post – they’ll take a wider view.

Shows a report cover. Text reads 'Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. Orphan Fund report 1906'. Image shows a steam train.
Cover of ASRS orphans fund report for 1906.
Courtesy Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick

One of the series of information in the new release is for the Orphan Fund. For an additional contribution from their wages, those who paid in would know that if they died from accident, ill-health or old age, their children would receive some financial support from the Union until they reached age 14. Given the numbers of workers killed in accidents, in particular, this imposed a heavy financial burden on the Union. In 1916 alone, for example, 2,253 children were supported, at a cost of over £12,700. Not all of the money could come from member contributions – so where did the rest come from?

Union members did a tremendous amount of fund-raising. Collections were made from the travelling public at stations; ‘flag days’ were held, selling small flags; and special events were hosted, either charging entry or at which donations were taken. The Easter weekend – particularly Good Friday – was a popular date for fund-raising work.

Back of NUR Orphan Fund flag, sold to raise money, from 1916. A small paper rectangle on a metal pin, with text in red which reads 'National Union of Railwaymen 2253 children supported in 1916. Annual coast £12,759.15.9.
NUR collecting flag, sold to raise money for its orphan fund – front and back. c.1916.

So, Lanarkshire’s Daily Record newspaper reported in 1910 on the ASRS’s ‘railwaymen’s Good Friday effort’, noting the costs of supporting orphans and the ‘fetes, concerts and other entertainments’ being put on. This had been the case since at least the 1890s. On 4 April 1891 the Cardiff Times noted the ‘highly successful evening concert’ the ASRS put on for the Orphan Fund at Park Hall on Good Friday. This involved acclaimed musicians of the period, including Eos Morlais, and ‘despite cold and unsettled weather there was a large audience, and the promoters have every reason to be satisfied’.

Individual branches organised their own efforts across Britain. Also on Good Friday 1891, members of one of the St Pancras branches of the ASRS ‘held their eighth annual tea and entertainment […] for the benefit of the Railway ASRS Orphan Fund’. With around 300 railway workers and family members present, they raised around £3 for the fund. At the 1915 Cardiff Good Friday concert it was observed that the Fund typically paid out between 3s and 7s per week, and that these grants ‘were more appreciated now than ever, owing to the increased cost of living.’

These Good Friday efforts continued across our period; the Boston Guardian reported on the local branches efforts in 1920, which included the Railway Women’s Guild as part of the organisation. Tea was provided for 352 people before a concert. In the introductory remarks it was noted that up to the end of 1919, over £250,000 had been paid out since the Orphan Fund was started.

Cartoon, showing two widows of railwaymen, discussing the NUR orphan fund. One dressed in black says to the other 'If only my Jim had had the foresight to pay his penny per week to the NUR Orphan Fund. What a help it would be to me and the children now! If he had only thought for a moment -'. The other replies 'Yes. It has been a blessing to us. You see it's not just the cash benefit. The Branch Orphan Fund committee are so helpful in many ways.'
From the Railway Review, the NUR’s weekly newspaper, 11 September 1942. Courtesy Modern Records Centre.

And who did it support? The project database’s records from the Orphan Fund give us some ideas. It’s worth noting that at this time the legal definition of an orphan was a fatherless child; in many cases, the mother would still be alive. Indeed, she would likely be the recipient of the Union’s financial support for the children.

By the time of Good Friday 1891 (29 March), we see that W Wright of the Bury branch of the ASRS had died in an accident. Though one child was too old (over 14) to receive support, his three eligible dependents were receiving 4/- per week from the Orphan Fund from 8 February 1891. Over the course of 1891 this amounted to £58.7.0. Some of the detail is thin for the earlier records – in Wright’s case, for example, we don’t know his grade or which company he worked for.

However, there are other details contained in the records, and now in our project database, which are illuminating – including of wider societal mores. After his death by accident in early 1891, R Elliker of the Consett ASRS branch left four children on the Orphan Fund. Over the course of the year, the Fund contributed £62.9.6 to their upkeep – until Elliker’s widow remarried. At that point the children were taken off the Fund, presumably reflecting the notion that there was now a new breadwinner who would take the children on as his own.

The records in the 20th century tend to have a bit more detail. So, we know that Great Western Railway platelayer W Jones, 46, had been a member of the NUR Llantrissant branch since 11 August 1907. He was killed in an accident on 26 June 1919, and support from the Orphan Fund started on 5 July 1919. His six children received 12/- per week.

Sadly, then, we see a great many cases of families being adversely affected by workplace accidents and ill-health. Whilst the support of the Union’s Orphan Fund won’t have reflected the emotional connections and costs of losing a parent, it at least would have allowed the surviving family members a better chance of remaining together and out of debt. With further research – and ideally hearing from descendants of those affected – we should be able to find out more about the impacts of railway work upon staff and their families, and better understand their experiences.


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