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Tools, tales and collaboration: a museum case study

Railway Work, Life & Death Co-Lead and Library Manager at the National Railway Museum (NRM), Karen Baker, talks about the Museum’s use of the RWLD dataset.  This picks up nicely on some of the issues in this recent blog post, about how heritage insitutions deal with challenging pasts.

Mike Esbester of the University of Portsmouth and I have worked together on this project since its inception. At the beginning my main aim was to help our Museum visitors trace their railway family history. This was, and is, a popular request and our previous resources were disparate and difficult to use. Now, thanks to our volunteer teams and cross-organisation working, we have this amazing dataset to signpost to our visitors which has aided personal discoveries and understandings of worker life (and death).

But the reason for this blog is that we have got so much more out of the project than could have been envisaged, helping us unlock stories about the objects in the collection and the stories we tell on the museum floor.

Museum interpretation

Data from the project is being used in the redisplay of one of our major galleries – Station Hall. Station Hall’s previous life was as a Goods Station, and we will be interpreting how and what was moved and the people who moved it. Part of that story is to show that this was dangerous work. One of our PhD placement students, Connor Scott, used the dataset to interrogate just how dangerous this was. He focussed on the people who made up the goods trains, the shunters. Their role was to couple and uncouple often moving wagons, to make up new trains moving to new destinations or for processing in-situ. Connor’s analysis of the project dataset revealed that of the c.23,000 accidents investigated by state inspectors between 1900 and 1939, there were 2,818 shunting incidents and 504 deaths. That’s 14.7% of all injuries recorded and 9.6% of fatalities. Connor’s research gives further insight into what was going on with shunting:

Qualitative analysis of accidents involving shunting poles suggests three main types. Foremost was when the pole slipped, resulting in crushed hands or appendages between the buffers. The company often attributed this to workers attempting to use the shunting pole before the wagons’ buffers had come together.[1] However, several injuries of this nature appear to have resulted from defective poles or poor design, which was discussed by company officials and inspectors.[2] The second common reason why shunting poles resulted in injuries was their improper use as brake sticks to apply wagons’ brakes.[3] This appears to have been common practice despite repeated company regulations prohibiting it, and many sites seem to have tacitly allowed it or not even provided the proper brake sticks for the job.[4] Workers across the time period also commonly injured themselves by riding on their shunting poles, often falling off between the buffers or else being thrown off.[5] A less prevalent but still notable type of injury was when workers got their shunting poles caught on things such as lamp posts or fences, often being crushed or struck by the pole.[6]

The magnitude of shunter accidents will be represented on the museum floor by an infographic on the main Goods Story panel (below).

Concept image of exhibition display panel, seen from above. Multiple images and representative text. Project infographic indicated.
Draft design of panel for Goods Life showing the location of the infographic based on the Railway Work, Life and Death dataset. Seen from above.


Mock up of area in the new Station Hall in which the panel with the project infographic will appear. Mechanical horse, brake van & goods wagons beyond.
Draft design showing the interpretation table in situ with the shunting poles suspended above.


We will also be suspending some of our collection of shunting poles above the table, with instructions to “look up”. On its own, a shunting pole could get lost in the space. Having a display of poles elevated will be an engaging way of relaying their importance in the work of the shunter, both as a tool to prevent accident and, also as a cause of accident, through improper or defective use.

Image of a vertical cabinet, black lower surround, glass sides containing prosthetic limb.
Mock-up of showcase featuring prosthetic leg and reproduction drawing.


Adjacent to the interpretation panel will be a showcase. Here, we will be displaying a prosthetic leg made by the railway companies for use by a worker who lost his leg in a shunting accident. The background image is a copy of a drawing for a prosthetic leg made by the team in the Drawings Office at Crewe Works. Drawings would usually be of locomotives and rolling stock to help with mass production, but here it has been necessary to design a replacement leg, suggesting there was a regular need. Indeed, the dataset indicates 806 workers lost a body part(s); 150 of these were shunters. This human cost to moving goods around the country has not been told by us before. The fact that we can begin to, is entirely down to being able to interpret the RWLD dataset. This gives new understandings and significance to the, often dangerous, work of shunters, and to objects like the shunting pole.



The project has fostered collaborative working which has had and will have significant benefits. Thanks to colleagues at the Modern Records Centre (MRC) who were able to digitise their trades union accident records and share them with the NRM volunteers, we were able to continue with the project during all the disruption of the Covid years. At the height of restrictions, these volunteers were able to continue working on these records, from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS)/ National Union of Railwaymen (NUR; now the RMT Union). They were, for most of 2020, the only volunteer team operational across the whole of the Science Museum Group. Their work offered much needed positivity during a time when many volunteer projects had to be put on hold.

Thanks to the hard work of volunteers at both sites, a good proportion of the MRC’s trade union records have been added, and we have a missing piece of the jigsaw. Alongside the names of workers suffering accident or death, we have for the first time an insight into the impacts of these accidents. That might be on the individual or on their family: on the wives and children who needed financial help from the trade unions’ orphan funds, which provided an income when husbands/fathers were no longer able to work. This information will help contextualise and add human stories to objects we have in the collection, such as Laddie the Railway Collecting Dog. He will be on display in Station Hall; during his life he would walk up and down the station platform collecting donations for the orphan fund; upon his death, he was stuffed and used as a mascot for the cause. Laddie has previously been on display as an oddity, with no explanation about why he was there or the important work he, and other dogs like him, did. We have not yet begun to interrogate fully what this new influx of data will mean for understanding family impact. But I am confident that it will bring a new dimension to our understanding of worker life.

Cabinet with wooden edges and glass panels, containing stuffed airedale terrier, wearing a harness and collecting box.
London & South Western Railway (LSWR) Collecting Dog ‘Laddie’, a stuffed Airedale Terrier, on display in the Station Hall at the museum, York. ‘Laddie’, with its collecting box, was originally located at Wimbledon station and collected donations for the LSWR Servants’ Orphanage.


As a final example of the benefits of collaboration, the University of Portsmouth is supporting a new PhD project, just getting started, looking at railway worker accidents and their wider impacts on those affected. The student will be drawing upon the RWLD dataset and the collections at the NRM and other institutions like the MRC. Having a student able to spend the time to interrogate and interpret such a rich array of source material and data is certain to bring forth new knowledge and understanding, further adding opportunity for enhancing Museum display and visitor enjoyment.

Karen Baker

Karen is Curatorial Lead in the redisplay of Station Hall at the National Railway Museum. There’s more information on the Museum’s website about the Station Hall project, including the most up-to-date information about the reopening.


[1] All accidents taken from the Railway Inspectorate reports. For this blame and repeated attempts to prohibit it with company rules, see 21 Sep 1907 and 8 Apr 1910. See also all results between 22 Oct 1907 and 11 Dec 1907 for a string of accidents all ruled to be due to workers not waiting for the buffers to come together.

[2] See 23 Jul 1924, 17 Mar 1923, and 19 Oct 1931.

[3] For instance, see 27 Feb 1914 and 24 Mar 1911.

[4] For examples of this, see 16 Jul 1912, 15 Sep 1906, 12 Feb 1906, and 17 Jul 1907.

[5] See 15 Dec 1904, 11 May 1903, and 12 Jun 1934.

[6] See 15 Jun 1935 and 23 Sep 1912.

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  1. Pingback:Difficult pasts at heritage locations - Railway Work, Life & Death

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