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What did ‘disabled’ on the railways mean?

Continuing our Disability History Month blog posts, today we’re exploring one of the new runs of data from our trade union data release earlier this year: the Disablement Fund. This is really interesting in its own right, but it also gives us some insight into what was included as disability.

Framed Disablement Fund certificate from the National Union of Railwaymen, awarded to W Matthews of York No. 6 branch in 1933, after 41 years of membership. Value of £30. White background, with blue, yellow and green (all faded) design around text. At the bottom includes 'All grades united in one common object.' Signed by Charlie Cramp.
1933 NUR Disablement Fund certificate.

The records included in the project database come from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (1871-1913; ASRS)/ National Union of Railwaymen (1913-1990; NUR) – now the RMT Union. Amongst the support it offered to members was the Disablement Fund. Our working presumption had been that this fund provided a one-off payment to members who were still living but unable to work any longer. However, it looks like this might not have been the case, as we’ll discuss shortly. As a result, we’re keen to know more about how this Fund was run.

Page from annual report, showing a table of data about the NUR's disablement fund. Data available from the Railway Work, Life & Death project's database.
Example page from the NUR’s Disablement Fund – 1919 2nd quarter.

So far (November 2023) the records in the project database cover some – but not all – of the years between 1889 and 1920. Our volunteers are working on transcribing the remaining years in this range, so there will be more cases to come in the future. As it stands, though, the phenomenal work of the volunteers means there are currently 3437 entries listed.

Within that there are around 100 duplicates who for various reasons appear more than once. These all appear in the early years of the records, when the precise format of the record-keeping was being determined. This means, for example, that London and North Western Railway (LNWR) goods guard William Rayson, 44, features twice, with essentially the same details recorded. We know that his left foot received a compound fracture whilst he was shunting at Longsight, Manchester, on 15 January 1888. As the early records include both the quarterly meetings at which decisions like these were ratified and the end-of-year accounts, he is noted in both places as having received £20 (around £2350 now) from the Superannuation Fund. (In these earlier years there is variation about the remit of the Disablement Fund and other funds, like Superannuation.) As a part of this process he was certified – presumably certified unable to work – by a doctor, before the payment was granted in April 1889. This was some time after the accident, no doubt reflecting the time it took to become clear that he would not return to work.

The youngest person to feature in the Fund is 20-year old North British Railway (NBR) shunter Alexander Taylor. A member of the Dunfermline branch, he joined on 13 April 1919, but had an accident on 16 June 1920. He received £20 from the Fund (equivalent to about £850 now) on 13 August 1920. And this is where our presumption about the Fund’s principles falls down. On the 1921 Census, Taylor is still recorded as an NBR shunter. So – he doesn’t seem to have stopped working. He doesn’t feature in another of the Union data runs, for non-fatal compensation, so we can’t cross-reference there. His Union membership continued until 1955. Did the Disablement Fund therefore also allow for temporary disability?

The oldest person to feature is 85-year old Great Northern Railway of Ireland signalman F Stevenson. He joined the ASRS via its Belfast branch on 20 February 1891. Curiously, he retired in December 1901, but the details show he was a member for 20 years – so did he continue to pay his dues for a further 10 years before his Disablement Fund grant of £20 (c.£2200 today) was paid in March 1911? The grounds on which the payment was made also raise important questions about how the Union understood ‘disability’ at this time.


Old Age

Under the ‘nature of incapacity’ heading, Stevenson’s payment was recorded on grounds of ‘old age.’ His is one of 2668 such cases. We might perhaps not have included age-related infirmity under ‘disability’, but there is a logic to it, of its time. When the Disablement Fund was set up there was no state provision of Old Age Pension – that didn’t come until 1909. Until that point, therefore, for a great many people stopping working was a very difficult option, particularly if they hadn’t been able to save money. It seems clearer, then, that age-related infirmity might be seen as a disability.

As the records in the project database are incomplete at the moment, it’s challenging to suggest a relationship between when a particular age/ age bracket became considered ‘old.’ That said, ‘old age’ seems to have been relative. Looking at the distribution of cases, the vast majority occur in the 60-69 bracket. There are four real outliers, occurring to men age 23, 31, 32 and 46. Was the category perhaps mistakenly recorded, and another reason lay behind their incapacity? That we see relatively fewer cases in the 70 and 80s is less surprising, both in terms of people’s lifespans and their working lifespans. All of those captured in their 60s couldn’t go on to be a case in their 70s or 80s, of course. What is interesting is that there were still several hundred Union members working – or at least paying their membership – into their 70s or 80s.

Bar chart showing numbers of cases of old age in the Disablement Fund data, with a big spike in the 60-69 bracket.

Further confounding our expectations, it’s clear that people didn’t simply reach ‘old age’ and then stop work or become seen as ‘disabled.’ The first entry in the Disablement Fund is for LNWR guard John Beauchamp. He joined the ASRS, via its Birmingham branch, on 12 January 1874 – relatively early on in its existence. The Fund entry records that on 1 October 1888, age 62, Beauchamp was ‘reduced to gateman due to debility and the effects of age’. On 12 February 1889 he was granted £20 from the Fund (around £2350 now). He appears on the 1891 Census as a ‘railway signalman’ – despite the name, this was likely to be his role as a gateman. By 1901 he was a ‘railway gateman, retired’, and in 1911 ‘pensioned guard.’ So, again, old age didn’t necessarily equate to having stopped work, though it might qualify someone for the Disablement Fund as they weren’t able to follow their former role.

Similarly, on 4 March 1889 Taff Vale Railway fireman Joseph Lodge was regraded to a labourer on grounds of old age, with a consequent reduction in wages of six shillings per week. At this point he was 60 years old; he’d joined the ASRS in December 1873, via the Cardiff branch. We’d suggest that he was being found light work as a labourer, as that could still be heavy manual work – otherwise it would have been little relief from shovelling tons of coal as a fireman. He too was granted £20 from the Disablement Fund.

As hinted at in John Beauchamp’s case, old age sometimes went along with compounding factors – mainly health-related. Great Western Railway (GWR) signalman David Drinkwater, 71, suffered from lumbago. On 29 October 1889 he stopped work; recorded against his name was the observation ‘advanced age and lumbago. Not fit for employment.’ Another £20 grant from the Disablement Fund followed in December 1889.


Health grounds

Clearly health might have disabling impacts, preventing railway workers from following their occupations. That means around 150 cases of health-related disability currently appear in the Disablement Fund records, covering workers aged between 25 (JG Beale, suffering from ‘trasimatic neurasthenia’ in 1903) and 76 (GWR platelayer Jeremiah Potter, who from 1889 was ‘never able to resume employment due to old age and chronic bronchitis).

Health-related disability appears on many grounds, including ‘morbus cordis’ (an unspecified heart condition), optic neuralgia, strained heart and various heart conditions, softening of the brain, varicose veins, carcinoma of lungs, double cataracts, double hernia, nervous debility, apoplexy, eyesight, gangrene, and rheumatism. For the first time we have some data on railway workers’ health conditions – though how far any were connected directly to their employment is hard to say at this point. With the exception of one award from the Fund of £10, all of the awards were between £20-30.



Finally, then, accidents – what we might perhaps have expected to have made up all of the cases in the Disablement Fund. Far from it. This category ‘only’ comprised 536 cases – around 16% of the total. Whilst this is only a relatively small percentage within the Disablement Fund, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that for each of those individuals, their families and their workmates, their accident was significant, particularly where it resulted in life-changing injuries and the end of their working career on the railways.

Bar chart showing numbers of cases of accident in the Disablement Fund data, with fairly even distribution in the 30-39, 40-49 and 50-59 categories.

As ever, the absolute figures need more context and analysis before drawing meaningful conclusions, so they’re presented here cautiously. We don’t know how many union members fell into each age category over the years, for example. That means it’s hard to say how representative the cases are. We might expect to see a distribution of cases as in the above chart, with relatively fewer people working in the latter age categories,

At the younger end of the spectrum we’ve earlier touched on Alexander Taylor’s accident in Dunfermline. At the older end we have T Turner, a member of the Wolverhampton No. 2 branch. Details on his case are scarce – we know that he joined the ASRS on 18 July 1872, and by the time of his accident he was 76. He is simply recorded as having been granted £20 from the Disablement Fund in 1890 for an accident; presumably this occurred in 1889 or 1890. Unfortunately there aren’t any further details about what happened.

In some cases – typically before 1907 – there is a bit more information about why the claim to the Disablement Fund arose. For Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway signalman John Sheridan, it helpfully tells us about his post-accident life. He joined the ASRS on 12 February 1872, via the Stockport branch. Curiously, one part of his record notes that he had an accident in September 1887. In the further details, though, it records that he ‘left railway work after an accident, employed as night watchman in timber yard. Had accident on 13 December 1888, cannot perform duties of a signalman.’ So, a bit of a mismatch in the details, with his claim made to the Union in 1890, when £20 was awarded. This is an unusual level of detail, however. Particularly after 1907, most of the recording shifts simply to noting ‘accident’ as the reason for the incapacity. The payment from the Disablement Fund for accident is between £20-30.


Paying out from the Disablement Fund

In the main, the Disablement Fund seems to have paid out in a fairly standard way. From the detail in the dataset, it seems that in most cases the ‘starting’ payment was £20, for anyone with between one and 20 years’ membership of the Union. Thereafter for each additional year’s membership the payment incremented by £1, up to a normal maximum of £30. Quite why some cases were treated differently, and granted either more or less, isn’t clear.

If someone did have life-changing injuries, for example, a payment of £20-30 seems perhaps relatively limited. It wouldn’t provide for them or their dependents in any meaningful way. However, it should be viewed in conjunction with other benefits conferred by Union membership or secured with the assistance of the Union. This might be – after the 1897 Workmen’s Compensation Act – compensation secured from the employing company. This is recorded elsewhere in our database, via the Fatal and Non-Fatal Compensation datasets. It might also be via support from the Orphan Fund, if members paid into it – again, another of the datasets in our database.


Altogether then, it seems as though for the Union’s purposes ‘disablement’ covered a range of circumstances – going beyond what we might perhaps have expected for ‘disability.’ Looking at the detail contained within the database and each dataset it contains opens up insights into the data, but also much wider issues – including disability.

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