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Too deaf to work on the railway lines?

As part of Disability History Month, our recent blog posts (here and here) have focused on physical disabilities caused by railway work. But what about railway workers who might have had a life-long disability, or a condition which grew progressively worse over time?

This might include hearing loss, a topic that’s been relevant in a number of our existing blog posts. Today we focus on another case from our recent data release, and found in our project database: that of JB Kemp – who may or may not have had some extent of hearing loss.

John Brice Kemp was born in Canterbury, in 1875. He married Fanny around 1900; they appear on the 1901 Census living in Sittingbourne, Kent, with their 1 month old daughter Kathleen Daisy. By this time John was working as a platelayer – someone who maintains the tracks. This was dangerous work, in amongst moving trains and in all weathers.

He remains in this location and role on the 1911 Census. Sadly Kathleen had died, but John and Fanny had two sons, Frank and Alec. No reference was made to any form of hearing loss – though for inclusion in the final column of the Census form, the example given was ‘totally deaf’, which was a high bar for hearing loss. In 1914 John joined the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), via its Sittingbourne branch. He remained a member until his death.

From the 1921 Census, we know that John was employed by the South Eastern and Chatham Railway Company. By this time he and Fanny had a further two sons, Hubert and Eric. At the 1923 grouping of railway companies – a state imposed consolidation of c.120 railway companies into four major concerns – he became a member of the Southern Railway.

John was not to appear on the 1931 Census. By 1929 he was no longer employed as a platelayer on a regular basis. Instead, he was working with a gang of men installing and maintaining fencing. On 25 February 1929 he went to work in the evening expecting to be doing fencing again. However, when there he was assigned to an extra gang of platelayers working between Chatham and Gillingham, to unload and spread ballast (the stone chippings that sit underneath tracks).

Extract from Ordnance Survey map, showing housing built up around the railway line, which cuts through left to right, emerging from a tunnel, passing under 3 bridges, all in a cutting.
1932 map of the approximate accident location.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

The work involved 17 men and continued overnight. A lookout man had been appointed for this work – not always the case! – which was spread out over 75 yards, in a deep cutting, on a curve. At 6am on 26 February, a light snow was falling and it was dark. The lookout saw the signal on one line change, indicating a train was coming. He ‘gave warning by two blasts of his horn’ and the men ‘apparently made a movement to clear the down line.’

There was some dispute about how much warning the men had to clear the line. In the investigation, led by Inspector JPS Main, one man said that the train was within 50 yards before warning was given. Most of the men moved to one side of the line on which the train was running, but Kemp stepped the other way, where he would have been too close to the train. A well-meaning colleague shouted a warning, and Kemp ‘turned and endeavoured to get back, but too late, and he was caught by the engine, with subsequent fatal results.’

Main was critical of the lookout’s warning, thinking it should have been given sooner. However, he also advised a second lookout be appointed given the location and conditions: ‘I am of opinion that too much responsibility was placed upon one look-out man to protect the gang and give efficient warning for both’ lines.

Importantly, Main’s report gives us more detail about safeguards that were – in principle – in place to protect staff and railway operation. He recorded that three years before the accident, in February 1926, Kemp was ‘certified as being unfit in consequence of deafness for work upon the permanent way [the track] and arrangements were made to employ him in a fencing gang.’ So, in additional to annual testing on the rules and regulations, it appears that track workers were also subject to hearing – and very probably also sight – tests, to make sure they were safe to be on track.


The question is, then, how does a man who shouldn’t be on the track end up working trackside?


Habit, it seems, is part of the answer. Main’s report noted that Kemp’s ‘services had, however, on many occasions been utilised in connection with similar work’ since February 1926. He laid the blame for this firmly at the door of the by this point retired Permanent Way Inspector EH Woolley. Presumably Woolley and the other men knew that Kemp was a ‘safe pair of hands’ having previously worked on the tracks. No doubt Kemp felt an internalised social pressure, and wouldn’t have wanted to let his colleagues and mates down.

There may also have been wider economic factors involved, as during the 1920s the NUR protested about ‘undermanning’ in relation to track work. This saw numbers of track maintenance staff reduced, but without an increase in time to do the same work. If the gang was short staffed, putting Kemp back on track might have appeared the only solution.

Finally, might Kemp’s own self-image have played a part? No-one likes to think of themselves as less capable than they once were, or less capable than their workmates. Did Kemp feel he was able to carry on in his old role, as if he shouldn’t have been relegated to ‘less important’ – or even less manly? – work?

Main could only go so far in his report, of course, and didn’t speculate on these issues. Indeed, he recorded: ‘I have a feeling, however, that his deafness had no material connection with the occurrence under notice’. So, perhaps Kemp’s hearing loss was simply incidental to the accident. Main pointed out that the man in charge had other men in the gang qualified to act as lookout, so if he’d considered the risks he could have used them (1929 Quarter 1, Appendix B).

There’s also a question over where the thresholds for hearing loss in an occupational environment were set at this time. Possibly the threshold was lower than we might expect. More detailed testimony at the inquest came from Kemp’s son, Frank, who noted that his father ‘could hear perfectly’ outside ‘but indoors he was very slightly deaf’. This was corroborated by one of his workmates, who said Kemp’s hearing was ‘normal most of the time he was out, but he could not hear so well indoors.’ This suggests that the Southern Railway’s threshold for acceptable hearing for track workers was quite strict. This was also a noisy environment in which to work: ‘they were making a great noise with their spades on the stones and that would drown anything.’

The press report also reveals a bit more information that helps us understand what happened in the event of an accident: ‘There were two first-aid men on the spot, who attended to deceased [who was alive at the time], and he was taken to Chatham on a light engine [a locomotive running without pulling anything] about ten minutes later.’ And one final tragic detail: Kemp died on his birthday (East Kent Gazette, 9 March 1929, p.7).

Whatever the extent of Kemp’s hearing loss, was it age-related? He was only 54 at the time of his accident. Or might it have been occupation-related, from long-term exposure to high noise levels? Clearly we can never know, but understanding more about the long-term implications of railway work on staff health would be very useful. This is something that our coming data release, provisionally in spring 2023, should help with, as it features a lot more information about railway worker health.

These factors are good indications of some of the contributions the Railway Work, Life & Death project can make to understanding railway practices, as well as broader aspects like disability history and social history. The project is capturing the realities of railway work on the ground and allowing us a better understanding of who was working on the railways and how – and with what effect.

The final post for this year’s Disability History Month looks at sight loss, employment in railway work – and an accident.


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