Menu Close

Robert Johnson – visualising disability

Some months ago I was sent an intriguing image by Robert Kitching of the Bowes Railway (whose guest post will be appearing soon!). The image showed a railwayman, supported by crutches and lacking both legs below the knee. Robert knew we’d be interested, especially since images of the workers involved in accidents are often hard to come by, before or after their accident. Our thanks very much to Robert for thinking of us (and we’re always interested in more images of staff).

Robert Johnson, believed to have been taken c.1900 at Froghall.

Robert had a few possible details about the photograph – noting it might be a man called Robert Johnson, around 1900, at Froghall in Staffordshire. A quick initial enquiry didn’t find much more, so I tucked it to one side, to return to. Disability History Month seemed the ideal time to revisit Robert Johnson, and a call on Twitter provoked a brilliant response. Within a day or two Steve Jackson, a family and local historian, had provided fairly much all of the details from which this blog post is drawn. So – our second round of thanks to Steve for being unable to resist an interesting challenge!

Steve also provided the route into the final piece of the blog post: he noted that the image and Robert Johnson’s name also appeared on family tree uploaded to Ancestry. A quick search and one email later, and we were in touch with Robert Johnson’s Great Great Granddaughter, Lisa! A discussion followed, including Lisa asking in her family for any further details beyond the formal records and our sharing details of some newspaper articles about Robert of which she and the family were unaware. This is a lovely two-way flow, from which everyone benefits, and important to the ethos of our project. We asked and Lisa was happy for us to blog about Robert and to include details from her family discussions. Our third round of thanks therefore go to Lisa and her family.


So who was Robert Johnson?

From the 1861 census, we know he was born in 1845 to Ann and Samuel Johnson in Monton, Lancashire. He was one of 6 sons and 1 daughter. The family lived in Barton upon Irwell, Lancashire. The two eldest sons, including Robert, who was at this point 16, were working in the same occupation as their father, possibly in the iron industry.

The 1871 census eludes me, but Robert reappears in 1881, as a ‘railway signalman farming 1 acre’ and living in Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire. Married to Harriet, by this point they had 4 sons, and would go on to have a further 3 daughter.

At some point, then, between 1861 and 1881 Robert joined the railway. We learn more from a newspaper report of his accident. The Burton Chronicle for 26 December 1872 noted ‘two cases of railway accident have lately been received at the Infirmary.’ The first was Robert: ‘a single man […] employed by the North Stafford Railway Compy.’ On 11 December at some point between 11pm and midnight he had been in a wagon travelling at Stretton crossing (near Burton-on-Trent) when ‘the accident was caused by truck running off the line’. Robert was ‘thrown out and the truck fell upon both his legs’, it later being found necessary to amputate both legs below the knee. By the time of the newspaper report ‘he is now progressing favourably.’

Map of the accident location
Stretton, site of the accident, c.1882.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

It appears that his disability did not prevent him returning to railway service, as the 1881 census noted in his occupation. In 1901 he was still a railway signalman, now living at Ipstones, just north of Froghall, in Staffordshire. He died on 17 September 1910, at a football match between Ipstones Red Star and Ipstones Church. The newspaper report into his death, from the Staffordshire Sentinel of 19 September 1910, gives a little more detail of his life.

The piece reports that Robert was ‘a well-known personality in the neighbourhood’ and had been employed by the North Staffordshire Railway for nearly 40 years. It says he joined the Company as a goods guard, though it is likely that he would have started in a lower rank and worked his way up. The newspaper puts his accident at around 1873, after which ‘he has held positions as gatekeeper and signalman’ at Consall and from 1891 at Froghall ‘a position that he has held ever since.’ The gatekeeper role was a typical one for staff disabled at work and unable to perform their original role (see this post).

The report went on to note that Robert was ‘deeply respected by the general manager, Mr Phillips, who never failed to pass a word with Johnson when in the vicinity’. Robert got to and from work in a pony and trap, as the newspaper put it ‘owing to his affliction’. He died in that trap following the football game. He was a ‘keen supporter of the Red Star team, who had just been defeated by two goals to one, and no doubt his great excitement during the later stages of game had brought about an attack which caused his death.’ The piece concluded with the observation that he left a widow and grown-up family, some of whom were living overseas.

Whilst Lisa, his Great Great Granddaughter, is still checking with the family for further information (watch this space!), she noted that after the accident Robert was known as ‘Pegleg Johnson.’ Lisa Mother also recalled having been told that Robert ran one of the pubs in Ipstone, The Sealion, from where Red Star football team operated – but wasn’t entirely sure if this was family myth. The 1901 census certainly shows Robert and his family living at The Sealion, so there may be truth in the story!

So what do we get from all of this? As ever, a key thing is the value of linking different sources – and more importantly, of collaboration. Robert’s story has only come to public view because three people beyond the project shared different details. As a result we all know more.

Importantly, we can also see the man and get a slightly better handle on him, his family life, his accident and subsequent disability – and his total working life. There is an immediacy to the image of Robert that might be lost from the printed word. It clearly brings home the stark realities and dangers that some – many – encountered whilst at work on the railways. In our current dataset of around 4,000 cases between 1911 and mid-1915, there are at least 174 which involve loss of body parts. Life will have changed for all of these workers and their families – but perhaps, like Robert, they found new ways to live, work and play.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.