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Romance is Dead: Glasgow Railway Workers, Burns and Hospital Treatment at the Cusp of the Twentieth Century

We’re delighted to feature this guest post, from Rebecca Wynter, one of the team working on the excellent ‘Forged by Fire’ project, looking at burns prevention and treatment over a 200 year period. They’re doing important work to open up all sorts of avenues into a neglected topic, and so it’s great that where there was a cross-over with our work they were willing to put this post together for us. It raises all sort of questions about what we do and don’t encounter in our project work, where we look – and where we might look – and the ethics underlying this kind of historical investigation.

In addition to this blog, it’s a busy month for the Forged by Fire team, as they have an exhibition and a series of talks, all free, at the Museum of the Order of St John in London – well worth checking!

Many documents about past railway workers hold only details about a fine sliver of time, preserved like a suspension in amber, when we encounter them. The glow they have about them burns bright. The Railway Workers, Life and Death project has proved both adept and immensely fortunate in connecting with the descendants of some of those men recorded in the accident reports submitted to the Board of Trade. Together, the academic researchers and volunteers have taken this fine slice of the past and built out, expanding the known world of the named individual as a rail worker and a member of the family. An element sometimes understandably missing from this rich collaboration is what the worker went through, what it felt like to be injured, and how they recovered, if, indeed, they did.

The AHRC-funded project ‘Forged by Fire: Burn Injuries and Identity in Britain, c.1800-2000’ has been using documents that help to meet this gap: hospital records. For our particular focus, the material held at the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives, Mitchell Library, Glasgow, has proved invaluable. Whilst the first specialist site for burns opened in Edinburgh in 1843 (closing five years later due to the volume of ‘accidents, particularly from the railways’), it is the material from Glasgow Royal Infirmary’s Burns Ward, after it opened in the 1870s, that is voluminous and enlightening. The fuller stories of incidents not covered by the need officially to report offer a more mixed and less-romantic picture of railway work than the associations the Age of Steam might evoke.

Glasgow royal infirmary
Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Wellcome Collection CC-BY.

Take the patients contained in a single volume of case histories from 1898-1901. Certainly, the number of rail workers with burns and scalds is substantially fewer than the men from industries who supplied their coal and iron, but the twelve therein speak of the range of hazards faced through labouring in sheds and on trains and tracks. However, around a quarter of this group were metal workers whose work was expressly for the railway (including an employee at Neilson, Reid and Company’s Hyde Park Engineworks, and another whose job was recorded as ‘locomotive worker’). The cases fall into three loose categories, with some crossovers: gas ignition; carriage cleaning; and fire.

The group pose somewhat of a quandary, as posting medical records—especially of people within living memory—is something with which I am uncomfortable; after all would you want me to publish the details of your grandparent’s intimate health for all to read? And yet, for this post to be as useful to family historians as others on this site have been, I should really do just that. But you will understand from the below stories why I don’t think this is right. Instead, I have chosen to avoid using surnames. (If you think one of the men here might be a relative, you’re welcome to email me directly.)

Railway carriage interior
Interior of contemporaneous railway carriage. London & South Western Railway Tri-composite Saloon No. 3598, built 1903. Science Museum Group Collection. Copyright The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum. CC BY.

Joseph J. was a 21-year-old railway carriage cleaner from Cambuslang, admitted to Glasgow Royal on 17 June 1898. ‘Whilst putting gas into [the] railway carriages, the gas became ignited, due to the fact that [the] patient was smoking his pipe at the time’. Consequently, the right-hand side of his face was burned superficially. However, the injury on his left hand was extensive, on the back, palm, fingers, and ‘lower end of the forearm’. All were red and blistered, with the skin beginning to peel away. On admission he was given a purgative—with the idea to cleanse the body of poisons and the toxins thought to have been released—and his injury dressed with soda. Weeks passed. He was not discharged until 2 July. The caution was understandable, given that, at a time before antibiotics, infection was a life-threatening condition to which burn injuries were (and are still) particularly susceptible. Moreover, ‘secondary shock’ from burns was a frequent killer. The body can be overwhelmed, with a dramatic drop in blood pressure, and loss of fluids and vital salts, leading to weakened heart and bodily systems. Couple this with likely sepsis, likelier still if an extensive burn, and such injuries often resulted in delirium and death. It was at least ‘lucky’ that anti-sepsis, or the introduction of sterility, had made in-roads into healthcare, and this was thanks to the surgeon Joseph Lister, who, at Glasgow Infirmary in 1865, had used carbolic lint successfully to heal the open leg fracture of a seven-year-old boy. Whilst this was a genuine revolutionary development, the topical treatments for burns went in cycles, so whilst carbolic was itself the favoured method for a time, this gave way to Carron oil—a treatment developed in Scotland—and later picric acid.

Joseph Lister (directly facing the camera) with family on a trip to Canada, 1897. Wellcome CC-BY.

Six weeks after Joseph J. was discharged, William C.—a railway carriage lifter who lived between the Port Dundas and Springburn areas of Glasgow—was admitted with burns to the face, neck and hands. After a full day concentrating on directing cranes, the forty-year-old ‘had another occupation at night, namely collecting money at the Gallery pay-box at the Grand Theatre, Glasgow.’ On 15 August, he had gone to the enclosed pay-box ‘and struck a light when an explosion occurred, due it is surmised to the gas having been allowed to accumulate since Saturday night when [he] probably did not put the stop-cock full on, before he left’. He arrived at hospital ‘covered with a thick layer of dirty, greasy, oily material, especially the hands. The hair, eyebrows, eyelashes [were] singed’. Although, after cleaning, it was apparent that the burns were superficial, the end of William’s nose was ‘white, indurated, and of a hard consistency without resiliency’. His hands were swollen, as was the skin around his eyes, which worsened overnight, so that he couldn’t see. Whereas he had initially been treated with soda dressings, from the 17th his eyes were washed with boracic acid, an anti-septic substance which was also applied to wet dressings for his hands and face. Over the next few days, he had a Vaseline dressing placed on his face, and his eyes were treated with McKenzie’s Eye Lotion (this was developed in Glasgow, see here p. 559), and what appears to be ‘Ung. Hydrarg Flav.’, most likely a kind of mercury ointment. William was discharged cured on 3 September, around three weeks after his admission. The Grand Theatre would itself, however, eventually succumb to flame.

No matter how innocuous it sounds, carriage cleaning was dangerous, as evidenced by Joseph J. (above). Yet others of these few cases from 1898-1901 also indicate the hazards. Colin M. (19), a carriage washer who lived in Paisley, was admitted in November 1898. He had been retrieving hot water from a tank, when he ‘slipped into it & burnt his right forearm and both legs.’ The scalds on his legs were ‘somewhat deep being of 3rd degree & the outer surfaces of both legs … 4th degree’. Surprisingly his temperature, and heart and lung functions were all considered to be regular. He was recorded only to have been treated with soda dressings and picric dressings. He stayed throughout December, over Christmas, and into the New Year. After nearly two months of treatment and bed rest Colin left at his own request and against medical advice. At 16, James (from Dennistown) was a ‘railway worker’ at Queen Street Station, now one of the two mainline terminuses in Glasgow. It is not clear how, but James ‘had been near a tin of chemical fluid used for cleaning boilers’ when it exploded, the contents burning his face, hands and wrists and injuring his left eye, though only superficially.

Driver and fireman on a locomotive footplate, about 1953. Courtesy National Railway Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Powered by coal fires, the steam engines brought with them numerous dangers of both scalds and burns. The incidents in this particular case book point to maintenance being just as dangerous as track work. While labouring at St Rollox engine shed, for example, James C. (61, from the Dalmarnock area) had walked past ‘a locomotive the fire of which was being drawn’, and the ‘live fire [caught] the back of the neck’. He received a small fourth-degree burn. However, it seemed more usual to be injured by fire whilst out on the rails. What is more, these cases speak loudly of the benefits and problems of working in teams and beyond the surveillance of more senior management. Hugh S. was 26-year-old engine driver living at the Watson Street Model Lodging House (which would, five years later, catch light, killing 39). ‘[U]nder the influence of liquor’, Hugh ‘lay down beside the cabin fire at the railway side’ and fell asleep. He was woken up by a friend to find he had moved his leg onto the fire. The back of his limb was burned deeply and he was treated with boracic and Vaseline dressings. He discharged himself two weeks later. Francis (28) was an engineman from Southside. ‘While sleeping on an engine his jacket in some way caught fire … He jumped [out] … and managed to extinguish the flames’. On admission at 8:20am on 13 August 1901, it was noted that he was ‘in a very weak condition which may partly be accounted for by his having done a double shift before admission’. The size of the burn was small when compared to what the other rail workers had experienced—6 inches total, with 2–2.5 inches with fourth-degree burns—but for many the size was no protection from infection. Luckily, Francis was discharged well within a month. Less fortunately he was returning to a workplace where he ‘[alleged] that the burning was done intentionally by the driver of the engine that he worked on’.

William D. (50) was a ‘Surfaceman on [the] Railway’; he lived in Partick. He had been ‘left by some of his companions sleeping by the fireside. When they returned there found him lying [severely] burned’ on his legs and hips. The hospital doctor observed ‘practically they are charred all over … large charred areas mingle with whitened, anaemic patches along with large areas of red … The penis and scrotum are badly injured and the scrotum swollen’. On admission, a soda dressing was applied. From 9:30 the following morning a ‘yellow dressing’—perhaps a dressing steeped in petrolatum (another name for petroleum jelly)— and bromide mixture were prescribed every hour, the latter being a powerful sedative. William survived less than a day, dying on Christmas Eve 1899.

It is clear that trust was a significant part of working on the railway in any capacity—people were saved, cared for, or perhaps even intentionally injured through the interventions of their workmates. In many of the instances, the case notes imply who was at fault, especially in the vein of what might now be called ‘victim-blaming’, when men had come off worse for smoking or drinking. Blame for being overworked and tired is palpable in the description of William C. Yet whether it was working a second job, or pulling a double-shift on the tracks, there also seemed to have been some tacit sympathy by the doctors for working-class men having to work so hard. These labouring boys and men, from 16 to 61, came from all over Glasgow, a place that, as is evident even in this short blog post, earned the nickname ‘the tinderbox city’. Yet the medical care they received at the Royal Infirmary also shows the innovations the medical profession had made to try to treat and heal the workers of the city. And for some of the injured, the Royal Infirmary was their home for months. As can be seen through this blog post, there are indeed ways of accessing railworkers’ experiences of safety and danger that go beyond an incident report – but in using them researchers should be aware that the romance of the past might itself become a casualty.


Dr Rebecca Wynter is a history lecturer and Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the ‘Forged by Fire: Burn Injuries and Identity in Britain, c.1800-2000’ at the University of Birmingham. She is a historian of medicine and Quakers, publishing on war, ambulance, psychiatry, and mental health.

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