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The Act that gave Compensation to Workers

This week’s blog post is from project volunteer Arthur Moore, part of the National Railway Museum team. Arthur looks at a key piece of legislation which started to ensure provision was made for workers in a number of industries – including the railway industry – if they suffered an accident.

This is very significant, as it made the process of securing compensation more straightforward – something reflected in the compensation data coming into the project via the trade union records.

Arthur’s previous blog posts for the project can be read here.


Until 1897 a worker had to prove his employer was negligent in order to claim compensation.  For some industries – including the railways – that changed with the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1897.  This required the employer to take out insurance to compensate workers who were injured, regardless of fault.  The Act was gradually improved and was extended to include virtually all occupations and to cover industrial disease.  The Act was long lasting and provided for workers until superseded by National Insurance, with the state taking over responsibility for compensation in 1946.

Page of text from statute book, for 1897 Workmen's Compensation Act.
First page of the 1897 Workmen’s Compensation Act.

There were, of course, exceptions.  An employee off work for less than 2 weeks received nothing.  The law also said no compensation should be paid where the worker was negligent, or acted wilfully, or when they were acting beyond the scope of their employment. This latter is something which came up in this guest blog post, from Gordon Dudman, looking at a significant 1946 legal ruling. In practice, though, the Workmen’s Compensation Act set the benchmark for payments.

For example, in 1903 a relief signalman, Mr J Love, going to work at his signal box, tried to alight from a passenger train which had slowed to exchange single line tokens. He slipped, fell under the train and had to have his left arm amputated. The Company refused compensation on the grounds that he had breached regulations by exposing himself to danger.

The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants trade union fought this in court and Love was awarded compensation for nine of the 11 weeks he was off.  The Act also required compensation be paid if the worker had to return to lighter work, and this happened to Love, making up the difference between his regular wage and the reduced amount he received after the accident.

The Act also stipulated how much compensation should be paid.  This was half the worker’s normal income over the past year, so not his base pay, but half of what he earned on average.  The Union was effective in advising workers how to claim and advising them what to do where the payment was not correct.

The Act also covered the death of a worker.  This gave a sum equal to the person’s earnings over the previous 3 years, or at least £150.  The payment was capped at £300.  These claims were often taken to court so that the sum could be apportioned between wife and children.  Elderly parents also received compensation where the worker was single.  Sometime the union and employer agreed a sum, but sometimes this also required the intervention of a judge.

The Act allowed for arbitration where the parties disagreed over compensation payments, but this seemed to rarely happen in practice.  Usually, the union and employer negotiated, but where that was unsuccessful the case went before a judge in the County Court.

This Act was of immense benefit to workers killed or seriously injured at work.  Compensation effectively became a right and the worker and their dependents benefited.

Finally I should like to thank vLex Justis for allowing me to obtain a copy of the Act with no charge.


Arthur Moore

I trained as an engineer at the BBC and went on to design and manage the creation of television stations in countries as diverse as Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei and the UK.  My earliest memory is riding on a shunting engine at Warwick station circa 1951 and a Triang train set a year later confirmed my interest in all things railway.  Now I am retired I am building an O gauge layout in my loft based on LSWR practice pre-WW1, for which I use modern engineering tools such as CAD, etching, laser cutting and 3D printing.  Involvement in ‘Railway Work, Life and Death’ has provided me with a fascinating insight into the operation and working practices of British railways in the first half of the last century.

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  1. Pingback:Left on the track - Railway Work, Life & Death

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