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Southport: lens into the project database

The original intention for this blog post was to act as a micro-study, taking one place in our database and looking at some of the accidents that occurred there, finding out more about the people and the place.

The idea was two-fold. Firstly, for Local and Community History month it would help show how our project database might be used in local history and place-based research. Secondly, by taking Southport as our example, it would help set up next week’s guest blog post, which focuses in detail on one Southport case.

However, it hasn’t quite worked out like this. The blog as envisaged and the blog you’re reading are quite different. I’d intended to map the accidents on the town, along with home locations for those involved. I’d harboured vague ideas about creating ‘hotspots’ on the map, so that when you hovered over them, relevant details would pop up. In doing so I’d hoped we could connect railway and town spaces with the people who worked and lived in them.

Ordnance Survey map of Southport.
1909 Ordnance Survey map of Southport, imperfectly stitched together. Three coloured dots represent home addresses of two of the railwaymen featured in this blog post, plus another. Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

However, it wasn’t to be! Time was not on my side – particularly not when I found we’d 70 cases in our database connected to Southport. Trying to locate further details – even ‘just’ tracking people down via census returns – was unfortunately too time consuming for this week. So – with apologies, my lofty ambitions are certainly not going to be met in this blog post. It’ll be a rather more speculative post. Nevertheless, hopefully it will show some of the potential of the project database – and act as a call for further research, into the Southport cases and others.

So what can we summarise? Of the town itself, from the ‘Vision of Britain’ website we see that Southport’s population grew from just over 48,000 to around 76,600 in 1921. Before 1923 it was served by two railway companies, the Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC) and the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (LYR). From 1923 the LYR was absorbed into the newly-formed London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), though the remained.

Of the cases in our database, coverage reaches from 1885 to 1938. It covers a range of railway jobs – station masters, shunters, carriage cleaners, labourers, track workers, loco crew, guards, porters, signalmen, even a stone mason and a crane driver. Of the 70 cases, two were women. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s reasonably representative in terms of workforce percentages – in 1913 around 2% of the railway workforce were women.

Thirty-one of the 70 cases come from our newly-released trade union dataset. Importantly, by looking at the local level like this we can start to see some of the really new aspects that our dataset offers – including that it goes beyond ‘just’ accidents. Eight of the 31 trade union cases involved accidents; but more resulted from other issues – eight from old age, and 12 from ill-health. We start to build a bigger picture of railway work through this detail.

Southport features in two ways in our database. Firstly, via railway workers’ membership of the Southport branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS; until 1913)/ National Union of Railwaymen (NUR; from 1913), and secondly as the accident location identified in state accident investigation records.

To pick out a few of the cases in more detail, I’ve focused on some where I’d initially speculated there might be some familial connections. From the little bit of research I’ve been able to do I’ve not been able to make those links concrete, but with more time (and patience!) who knows what might be possible?

From the Union records, we know that LYR passenger porter E Mercer was knocked down and killed on 28 November 1919, aged only 18. He’d joined the NUR in 1918; his dependents received £90 in compensation (around £4,400 at today’s prices) from the LYR. This was probably so low as he was likely to have been single, without any children. From the Railway Inspectorate records we have LMS track worker W Mercer suffering burns on 2 March 1931, after a tool he was carrying came into contact with a live rail. Here we can see how railway and local geography interacted, as Southport was a relatively early location to be electrified, with electric services starting in 1904. Proximity to Liverpool was key to this, for both commuting and leisure users. Fortunately W Mercer was only injured, but it started me wondering if the two Mercers were related in some way?

Posed staff safety photo, showing a railwayman carrying a tool which touches the electric rail.
Posed staff safety photograph, illustrating one of the dangers of work around electrified lines.

The Mawdesley surname appears only twice in our database – and both men have their accidents in Southport. Though I’ve not been able to establish a connection definitely, I have my suspicions. In the first case, from the Railway Inspectorate records, on 7 August 1900 Henry Mawdesley was killed at Lord St Station on the CLC. Henry was a shunter, and as he connected the vacuum brake pipes between 2 carriage trucks that had just been coupled, they rebounded slightly. A chimney tied by rope to a caravan on one of the trucks fell on Henry. The Railway Inspector investigating the case found it to be a ‘totally accidental’ mishap.

The second case came nearly 31 years later, on 15 April 1931. LMS driver SA Mawdesley was leaving St. Luke’s Station, turning the reversing wheel with his left hand and holding the chain aside with his right when the hook swung towards the wheel. The first finger of his left hand was trapped between the point of the hook and a spoke, and was badly lacerated. Inspector JLM Moore attributed the accident to misadventure, but add the note that ‘the practice of using these improvised hooks and chains is both unnecessary and irregular.’ Again – were these men related? It seems probable, but I haven’t been able to demonstrate it.

The Union records show that LYR guard J Rainford joined the ASRS in 1909, but that he died on 3 March 1915 of bronchitis, aged 44. His family received the Union’s automatic death payment of £5, provided upon death (from whatever cause) to help with immediate costs. I managed to track him down on the 1911 Census – Joseph lived with his wife Martha and their five children at Grove Terrace in Birkdale: marked on the maps with a green dot.

Another Rainford appears in the Railway Inspectorate records – Edwin Rainford. On 11 February 1910 he was working as a ballast man for the LYR. He was part of a gang unloading ballast (the stone chippings the track sits on top of), when he was thrown out of a wagon by an unexpected movement. He injured his hip and jaw. The 1911 Census has him, aged 37, living at Chatham Road in Birkdale – shown on the map with a purple dot – with his wife Elizabeth and their four children.

Finally, the Rimmer surname appears three times in Southport in our database. Samuel Rimmer, 49, was a coalman for the LMS, working at Southport’s engine shed on 3 October 1930. Shovelling coal from a wagon, it was struck by an engine and he ended up crushed between the wagon and loco. The subsequent investigation proved that regulations weren’t being followed, possibly with the knowledge of supervisory officials, and engines were being moved single-handed and by crew not authorised to do so. Samuel appeared on the 1921 Census living on Milton Street (to the north of the area covered by our map), with his with Margaret and their three children.

Posed staff safety photograph, showing a railwayman using a capstan to move wagons.
1921 accident prevention booklet advice on capstan use – though not protecting against faulty equipment!

JS Rimmer died in an accident on 31 January 1938, in the LMS goods warehouse at Southport. He was moving 5 wagons by capstan, but the drum continued revolving even when he took foot off the plunger which provided power. As a result the wagons overran and started pulling the rope. This became entangled, causing the hook to detach from the last wagon and swing round. It hit Rimmer as he tried to avoid it. I’ve been unable to find out more about this Rimmer.

Nathan Rimmer was an LMS labourer, injured on 24 July 1938. Working beside the track, he slipped and fell forward. His shoulder struck one of the rails on which trains ran, whilst his left hand touched the end of the conductor rail. His shoulder was sprained and his hand slightly burned. On the 1921 Census he was aged 42, living with his wife Mary and their four children and his father-in-law at a property in Devonshire Road (again, to the north of the area covered by our map).

It would be excellent to be able to map not only the homes of the Southport railway workers appearing in our database, but all railway workers in Southport. I suspect that we’ll see a clustering in particular areas – around Meols Cop station, for example (again, to the north of the map we’ve been able to produce). This would help us better understand Southport as a place and its occupational communities.

Through these cases – and all the others in our database (no doubt with more to come as we bring in more of the union records) – we start to get not only a better picture of railway work and accidents, but also of these accidents in and around Southport. I’ve started to find some of the locations at which railway workers lived, enabling us to see a little more of how town and railway worked together. We’ll see more of this next week, in a guest post about one of the accidents to Southport railwaywomen.

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