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Union support for disabled railway workers

To conclude our posts for Disability History Month, this week we’re focusing on what one of the datasets in our trade union data release can tell us. We’ve done this already for the Disablement Fund of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants/ National Union of Railwaymen (ASRS/NUR; now the RMT union). This time it’s the turn of the records in our project database relating to compensation the Union secured for non-fatal accidents.

How we identify disabilities in the dataset isn’t straightforward. The information focuses on the accident and compensation secured – not necessarily on the longer-term impact on the individual. All of the records kept at the time were, by today’s standards, poor at identifying mental health issues. What we find, therefore, is that we are forced to concentrate largely on physical disabilities. Even how we access disability physically isn’t straightforward.


What’s in the dataset?

The 7172 records currently in the dataset include 218 cases involving the loss of a body part. This clearly isn’t a simple indicator of disability. However, with the information available at the time it’s a useful proxy for life-changing injury suffered at work on the railways. There will be further records to come in this dataset, so these numbers will only increase. For now, though, we focus on those 218 cases. The remainder of the cases in the dataset involved injuries less likely to have led to long-term physical disability.

Of the 218 individuals, all were men. This reflects the types of work deemed appropriate on the railways (as in wider society) for men and women in our period (up to 1939). As a result, men were more likely to be exposed to disabling dangers in railway work. As we shall see, this was particularly focused around working on and around the tracks and moving stock.

In terms of age, at the upper end of the spectrum we have individuals who were 64 years old. At the lower end, the youngest disability is that of 15-year old WJ Spence. A carriage cleaner for the Caledonian Railway, he was a member of the Carlisle 2 branch of the NUR. On 15 September 1917 he was involved in an accident which resulted in the loss of a finger on his left hand. Compared to some of the other injuries seen in railway service and in the database, this was relatively limited.

Of course, to Spence the impact might have been severe. This raises the question of how we understand disability. What we’re capable of knowing and understanding from the outside (and at a distance in time) clearly won’t reflect Spence’s lived experience. We don’t know how Spence understood his body and his sense of self – or whether or not he saw himself as disabled after his accident.

We do know that on the 1921 Census he was listed as a ticket collector. We’ve seen workers being employed as ticket collectors after disabling accidents. So did the loss of his finger mean he couldn’t continue as a carriage cleaner? Or was this a typical career path, from carriage cleaner to ticket collector?



Sight loss features in the Non-Fatal Compensation data, in 16 cases. This includes Evan Isaac, who we discussed in last week’s blog. Virtually all of the roles these men were employed in meant that they were working on or around the tracks. Fourteen of the men resumed work following their accident – whether or not in their original role wasn’t specified. One took up a new railway role – Great Northern Railway (GNR) foreman platelayer B Medlock, 28, who lost an eye on 11 February 1911. A member of the Wakefield 1 branch of the ASRS, he received 13/2 (around £71 now) per week until 6 September 1911. Under the Workmen’s Compensation Act (more on that here) this was half of his weekly wage.

From September 1911 he was re-employed ‘in another position’ at 26 shillings per week – so, slightly under what he’d earned previously. Though the Union record (and hence our database) doesn’t record what his new role was, Medlock appears in the 1921 Census as a ‘foreman stockkeeper’ for the GNR. This looks like it was a clerical role, though working on the tracks with sight loss certainly wasn’t unknown (as in this case).

Compensation payments, made whilst a worker was off work as a result of their accident, range from 10/3 up to 25/- per week. Within our small sample, the average length of time for a worker who lost an eye to be away from work was four months. As with other life-changing injuries we see in the database, this seems – again, from today’s perspective – a very short recovery time. However, with limited, if any, social security, and half wages being paid (at best), the need to return to some form of paid employment must have been a strong driver.



Within the Union’s Non-Fatal Compensation data, we currently have 42 individuals who lost an arm or a part of an arm. Thirteen of these were from the footplate grades (so, loco cleaners, firemen and drivers), and 16 tended to be involved in moving stock (shunters, brakesmen and guards). Clearly working around moving engines, coaches and wagons was dangerous. By contrast, only six of the cases were track workers. This likely reflects that when track workers were hit by trains, they were often killed rather than disabled.

Compensation payments ranged from 7/9 per week to 25/-, for the duration of the absence from work. Working on the basis that this represents half wages, under the Workmen’s Compensation Act, we can therefore start to see more about what people were earning at work on the railways. We can also think about which jobs attracted the higher wages.

For Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway shunter HS Waters, 24, his accident meant a change of career. On 13 October 1910 he fell whilst crossing tracks; presumably his left arm was run over, as it was recorded as having been amputated. As a member of the Wakefield 2 branch of the ASRS, the Union helped secure him 9/6 compensation per week (around £51 at today’s prices) until 22 September 1911 – a reasonably long convalescence. At this point he started work as a crossing sweeper at Goole, earning 18 shillings per week – slightly less than the 19 shillings he’d been earning as a shunter. However, under the Workmen’s Compensation Act, the difference was made up, and he was paid an additional one shilling per week.



Occupationally-induced disabilities involving loss of legs make up 46 of the cases currently in the Non-Fatal Compensation dataset. Here we see fewer of the footplate grades – only six men – and a similarly limited number of track workers: five. Twenty-four of the cases involved brakesmen, shunters and guards – those most like to trip and fall under moving stock. Compensation payments were similar to those seen elsewhere – between 8/11 and up to 25/- per week whilst off work.

Where it’s included, the detail in this dataset about re-employment is very helpful in seeing how disabled railway workers were treated. It’s also instructive in reinforcing that – given the scale of occupationally-induced disability on the railways – disabled railway workers would have been visible on the system and in wider society. Great Western Railway goods guard HJ Tiller was involved in an accident on 14 May 1910, aged 37. Acting as a passenger guard – the next step on his career ladder – he tried to close a train door as it departed. However, he hit a bridge and one of his legs had to be amputated.

As a member of the ASRS Plymouth branch, the Union secured him 15/3 compensation per week (around £83 now) until 7 May 1911. At this point he started as a signalman. He earned 22/- per week in wages – supplemented by 4/3 in compensation. This didn’t quite bring him up to his pre-accident earnings, but it was better than nothing. He remained as a signalman, at least until the 1921 Census.


Clearly there’s a lot that our project and the database has to offer anyone interested in the history of railways, of labour, of individuals – and of disability. These blog posts can only ever be a surface-level look at some of the possibilities, so please ask your questions of the data and make use of it in your research. Do let us know what you’re asking of our database, what you’re finding in it and what you’re doing with it. We always welcome guest blog posts – and whilst we’ve focused particularly on disability history during Disability History Month, it is a topic of interest and importance all year round!

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