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‘Slightly deaf’ at Forty Hill

We’ve blogged in the past about disabled staff employed in railway service, including hearing loss, the subject of today’s post. Where it appears in the project database it relates almost exclusively to roles that involved working on the tracks or around moving trains. This might reflect what was investigated by the accident inspectors, or the greater dangers of these roles and the fact that workers with hearing loss were therefore exposed to greater risk.

Today’s post comes from the data that we’re readying to bring into the database – around 17,000 more cases, investigated by the railway inspectors between 1900-1910 and 1921-1939. It involved GW Bowsher, employed by the London and North Eastern Railway as a ‘caller-off.’ This was someone who would load and unload wagons, reading out details of consignments from labels, to the staff who would ensure nothing was missed before it was moved.

Normally Bowsher was based at Bishopsgate in London, but on 30 January 1928 he was sent to Forty Hill station in Hertfordshire. He was to help unload a number of cast iron pipes, each weighing around a ton. Using a crane on a railway wagon, with the help of two men employed by the local road haulier, they spent an uneventful morning unloading the pipes.

OS Map of the Forty Hill station area. Double track line running N-S, with some sidings just north of the station and platforms.
Forty Hill station and area in 1910.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

In the afternoon, it was necessary to shunt some wagons on the lines they were using, which involved moving the wagon containing the pipes and the crane wagon. When the two were moved back, the yard foreman asked Bowsher in passing if the wagons were now in the right position.

Inspector JLM Moore, who investigated the accident, noted that ‘Bowsher, who is slightly deaf, apparently misunderstood this remark’ as meaning the wagon movements were finished and work could resume. This he did, but unfortunately another shunt meant some wagons nudged the pipe wagon. Bowsher was in the wagon, and when the pipes shifted, his left leg was injured.

1930s posed accident prevention image, showing a man buried under a pile of goods that have fallen out of a wagon which was moved whilst he was working in it.
The perils of unloading goods, as imagined in a 1932 accident prevention booklet.

Moore found that the accident was a result of a misunderstanding – at least in part a result of Bowsher’s hearing loss. Moore concluded his report with an interesting observation: ‘It is […] for the consideration of the Company whether Bowsher is altogether a suitable man for sending to out-stations, where he is bound to come in contact with men who do not know him, and therefore may not realise and make allowances for his slightly defective hearing, which is not at first noticeable’ [1928 Quarter 1, Appendix B]

So – as we’ve seen elsewhere – disability was not always a straightforward disqualifier from a railway job. It’s hard to gain any sense from the remaining records how many staff might have been in some way disabled, but it’s worth suggesting that disability was, if not prominent, certainly not invisible. We also see some of the strategies for coping adopted by the disabled – that throw-away note at the end of Moore’s report about Bowsher’s hearing loss being ‘not at first noticeable,’ presumably as he tried to mask it and work around it. Was this for fear of losing his job? Sadly at this distance from the event and the man, we’re unlikely to know.

There will be further cases involving disability in railway work in the new data coming into the project – soon: watch this space!

As a coda, Forty Hill station was renamed in 1960, to the rather festive Turkey Street.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback:‘danger may arise in the employment of a man with defective sight’ - Railway Work, Life & Death

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