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Seeing disability in our database

In last week’s Disability History Month blog post, we looked at a case which showed staff with hearing loss were employed by the railway companies. Sometimes this was in roles we wouldn’t expect to find them – in which hearing might have had important implications for safety.

In our final Disability History Month post for the year we’re going to look at sight loss. This isn’t the first time we’ve covered sight – see here, for example. In all of these cases, coming from our project database, including our recent data release, we start to build a picture of a world in which disability was more commonplace than we might expect.

Ordnance Survey map showing Thornon Junction - four lines converging from N, S, E and W, forming a very loose diamond shape, surrounded by fields and a small village to the north west.
Thornton Junction in its landscape, c.1914.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.


On 22 February 1930, John Duncan, 59, was working at Thornton Junction, in Fife, Scotland, for the London and North Eastern Railway. At this time, Duncan was a ‘sandman’: his job was ‘to attend to the sand-drying kiln’ near the coal stage in the engine shed yard. After he started work, at 8.15am, he had filled the kiln with sand. From the investigation report by Inspector Charles Campbell, we get some sense of the routines of work: Duncan ‘then went into the space between the kiln and coal stage line, where, leaning on the arched roof of the building, he rested about five minutes’.

Unfortunately, at this point a train of 19 wagons was being moved to the coal stage. This movement was provided only with a shunter – but he was holding the hand points to get the wagons into the correct siding. This meant ‘there was no person keeping a look-out in front of the train.’ Sadly Duncan moved into the way of this rake of wagons and ‘was knocked down by the first wagon’. He was severely injured – living a few hours before dying of his injuries.

Extract from 1914 Ordnance Survey map of Thornton Junction, showing the shed area - a turntable, shed and coaling stage, with associated sidings, nestled between tracks on all sides.
Detail of the 1914 OS map, showing the shed area. The coaling stage is the building to the south of the engine shed.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

Campbell’s report went out to provide details of the site arrangement, particularly noting where some of the building entrances/exits were under three feet from railway lines. Combined with the lack of an employee warning about the shunting movement taking place, this suggests there were failings in the physical layout of the site and the work planning and organisation. Yet none of these are mentioned by Campbell.

Campbell also observed that Duncan’s failure to see the train that hit him was the root cause of the accident. He recorded ‘some months ago the unfortunate man lost the sight of his left eye, but I do not think that this disability had any bearing on the accident.’ How he was able to make this decision is unclear of course.

He concluded the report, recommending that when similar wagon movement were happening, ‘it is desirable that a man should be stationed in the vicinity of the sand kilns for the purpose of giving warning to any person who may be in danger’ (1930 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

What the report doesn’t tell us is how Duncan lost the sight of his eye. The signs are, however, that it was an earlier accident. One of the newspaper reports into his fatal accident noted that he was an engine driver – not the sandman given in the state accident investigation. Indeed, according to the Dundee Courier ‘he was well known among railwaymen throughout Fife’ driving between Thornton and Anstruther, where he lived with his daughter (he was a widower) (24 February 1930, p.4).

This suggests that he had, until relatively recently, been an engine driver – unless there was a very marked and sudden decline in his eyesight (as drivers were tested regularly), it seems probable that he had an accident. Finding what was deemed ‘more appropriate’ work for a disabled employee was a fairly common practice in the railway industry, helping to reinforce the companies’ sense of paternalism and at least ensure some sort of income for the worker.

Unfortunately we haven’t been able to turn up any evidence about an earlier accident. This isn’t to say he didn’t have one – just that any formal documentation hasn’t survived, and that the accident wasn’t one chosen for investigation by the state inspectors.

The Courier’s report also noted that following the accident, he was ‘immediately removed by special train to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where he died soon after admission’ (24 February 1930, p.4). Once again, we can see something of the mechanics of how workplace injuries were handled in practice.

The Dundee Telegraph’s report of the inquest noted the suggestion made of providing a warning bell to ring when wagons were being moved. Tragically they also reported Duncan’s first comment to one of his colleagues who rushed to help: ‘I never saw them coming. This is my railway career finished’ (24 February 1930, p.5). Framing his comment in terms of his career suggests the all-encompassing nature of the job for railway workers – they were railway first and foremost, even in death.

Duncan was also a trade unionist. There were multiple trade unions covering railway workers, but the two major forces were the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) and the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS)/ National Union of Railwaymen (NUR; formed by a merger in 1913 – the ASRS was the core union to that merger). As the name suggests, ASLEF covered only the ‘footplate grades’ – so, those in the career path to drive engines (cleaners, firemen, drivers). The ASRS/NUR was a general union, covering all grades – which could include footplate crew. If you were in the footplate grades you faced a choice about which union to join – and that choice would largely be determined by which union was dominant in your home shed.

In Duncan’s case, it appears the ASRS was dominant at Thornton – and so in 1892 we know that he joined the ASRS, at the same time as 31 of his North British Railway colleagues (the NBR being a predecessor company of the LNER) at Thornton. By this time he was a driver. He remained in the union, with a brief intermission for arrears, until his death in 1930. He transferred to the Anstruther branch in 1919, presumably having been moved there by the Company, or having requested the move himself. Upon his death in 1930, his family were given the £5 Union death benefit, to help with the immediate costs associated with a death. We can presume that his dependents would also have been awarded compensation, probably somewhere between £200 and £300.

So, once again, we have a fairly typical accident and subsequent report, but one which tells us a lot about the assumptions of the time, about the nature of work, and about the ways in which occupational disability in the railway industry might have meant a change in work undertaken rather than the end of all work.

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