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The treatment of railway workers injured in accidents

In this guest post, NRM project volunteer Arthur Moore returns to consider some of the cases he’s encountered when transcribing state accident investigations for the period up before 1911. He draws together some threads to think about what might have happened to injured staff after their accident – raising more questions we should be considering.

You can read Arthur’s previous posts here. Our thanks, as ever, to Arthur for all of his hard work on the project!


When inputting accident reports you get tantalising glimpses on the medical treatment for those who were injured in accidents at work.

Where a railwayman has been run over it is sometimes stated that a limb was crushed and he died of his injuries in the next hours or couple of days.  However, in some cases it is reported that the limb was amputated and it appears that the person successfully survived the operation.

The period of our project is before the advent of the National Health Service and it was expensive for a private individual to obtain treatment from a doctor.  Who, therefore, was paying for these major operations?  In the 1890s Britain had a mixed system of voluntary and poor law hospitals, together with some municipal hospitals, but according to the Science Museum the majority of seriously ill patients who could not afford hospital fees ended up with second-rate medical care.  We know that railway workers contributed to benevolent funds for help when they were unable to work, so did this also pay for their medical treatment, or did the railway companies pay for staff injured on duty?

What is clear from a number of reports is that, despite somewhat primitive anaesthetics and an imperfect understanding of infection control, there was a fairly high success rate for these operations provided one survived the first couple of days past the accident.  In one quarter I transcribed in 1904, there were five successful amputations, for example.

On the North Eastern Railway at Newcastle in March 1906, Richard Cummerson was cleaning the inside of a cattle wagon when, without any warning, other wagons were propelled into the siding. The slight impact caused him to lose his balance, fall and bruise his thigh.  Cummerson’s job was cattle porter, but the Inspector noted that his balance was somewhat impaired by his artificial leg.  It is interesting that Cummerson was employed in a job which needed him to be fairly fit and agile despite his disability.  Had he lost his leg on the railway?

A case of how the railways looked after older employees was reported in an accident in January 1906 on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway.  Joseph Whiteside was picking up rubbish from the lineside and his shoulder was severely bruised as he stumbled over a signal wire avoiding an approaching train.  The Inspector noted that he was an experienced man who had been a foreman platelayer, but was now a permanent way labourer.   One can only presume this 67 year old was given this light duty job so he continued to have some income.

There was sometimes conflict between the views of doctors and the person who had been injured. In August 1904 in Cavan, Ulster, sixty year old John McNamara was held responsible for an accident where couplings between wagons were tight and McNamara asked the driver to ease back, while at the same time he placed his body on the coupling to try to slacken it. He was caught between the drawbar hooks and the Inspector said he should not have been in the four-foot way as he could have safely uncoupled the wagons using his coupling pole.  McNamara’s back and stomach were injured in the accident and, unusually, the Inspector visited him at home.  McNamara said he was totally unfit for future work, but the doctors stated he was suffering from general debility and not from the accident.  Were the doctors employed by the railway which was keen for him to return to work?  Was McNamara malingering in the hope of cash from the railway, or was he suffering from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?


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:Pre-NHS healthcare for railway staff - Railway Work, Life & Death

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