Remembering the Dead, Fighting for the Living: Workers’ Memorial Day

28 April is Workers’ Memorial Day – an important occasion for us to stop and think about all those who have died, been injured or made unwell as a result of work over the years. For our project it is particularly pertinent, given we’re so closely focused on the ways in which work has had an impact on the bodies and lives of railway staff.

Workers’ Memorial Day is a relatively recent creation. It’s been marked in the UK since the 1990s, promoted initially by the Hazards Campaign, before being adopted by the Scottish Trades Union Congress and in 1999 the TUC. It’s part of a wider movement, started in North America in the 1970s and now spread across the globe. It’s an important reminder to us all and helps make some of the issues our project is concerned with a bit more visible.

We’ve talked about the relatively invisibility of railway worker accidents before in our blog posts, but it’s worth reiterating now. There were a range of reasons why accidents to railway workers of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries were relatively unknown. Passenger crashes were infrequent, but when they happened they were big news: dramatic, they could leave large-scale, obvious wreckage and killed or injured relatively large numbers in a single go. Passengers came from all classes and had little or no control over their fate. By contrast, worker casualties happened in ones and twos, away from public sight and in relatively mundane, unspectacular circumstances. They involved the working classes, less politically articulate or visible for much of the period; and workers were frequently supposed to have some degree of control over what happened. Of course, this overlooks the fact that workers didn’t set the conditions under which they laboured, and didn’t necessary know or understand the risks to which they were (involuntarily) exposed. No matter. For the most part unseen, workers were definitely the poor cousin of railway safety.

And what of the accidents themselves? Between 1 January 1911 and 30 June 1915 there are 3,915 cases listed in our database – but that only represents 3% of the cases in this period, a staggering 128,128 people directly affected. When you’re dealing with numbers like these the details tend to get a bit lost – but each of these represents an individual person, with a family and wider community affected by the accident(s) they suffered. So to take just one day – 28 April, Workers’ Memorial Day – we might get something of an impression of the people involved:



* James Taylor, aged 25, crushed between wagons at Ducie St, Manchester; injured.

* Joseph Jennings, aged 35, hit on the tracks at Crewe; killed.


* Alfred Bell, aged 28, hit by an engine at Bricklayer’s Arms in London; injured.


* Albert Hickman, engine cleaner at Haymarket Shed in Edinburgh, caught his ankle in the motion of an engine on his first day at work; injured.

* Richard Wright, aged 21, had his hand crushed by a capstan rope at Hull; injured.


* Robert Blencarn, aged 28, running around Gateshead Park Lane Yard he hit a point lever and bruised his knee; injured.


* William Dodd, aged 16, riding on a wagon in Manchester and caught by another wagon in the next-door siding; injured.


And this is just the bare detail; the database and original reports have far more to offer us, to help us understand these men in the context of their accidents. What we’d love to see as a project is an even broader appreciation of the workers and how they related to the world around them. That would need even more detail about each person – knowledge of their families, backgrounds, workmates, thoughts, practices … Most of this will probably have been lost to time by now, but we’d like to think it might be possible to recover at least some of it.

Importantly, Workers’ Memorial Day is not just about remembering the ill-effects of work. It is also a day for campaigning to improve things for workers now and in the future. So, there will be a variety of events and activities taking place around the UK and the world on the 28th, promoting safer and healthier workplaces. The role of advocacy by the trades unions and others remains important, just as it was in the period with which our project is concerned. One of the things we’re keen to do is explore the links between past, present and future and we remain committed to doing what we can to improve health and safety in the railway workplace and beyond.

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