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What happened after an accident? Our new trade union data release

So far most of the details in our database have focused on the accidents that British and Irish railway workers had before 1939. They’ve been really valuable in helping us understand railwaymen and railwaywomen’s experiences of work, of accidents and of their working practices on the ground. But they’ve shed less light on what happened next – until now.

Today we’re delighted to be launching the next update to our project dataset: around 25,000 records from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS)/ National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) trade union. Their records show how the Union supported its members after accidents – and not just accidents, either: ill-health and old age both feature extensively, giving us even more insight, previously unavailable, into workers’ lives.

Back of NUR Orphan Fund flag, sold to raise money, from 1916. A small paper rectangle on a metal pin, with text in red which reads 'National Union of Railwaymen 2253 children supported in 1916. Annual coast £12,759.15.9.
NUR collecting flag, sold to raise money for its orphan fund – front and back. c.1917.


The volunteers

This blog post will introduce the new release as an overview, before posts in the future exploring more of the detail and specific cases. However, before we do that, we’d like to mention and thank the volunteers responsible for making this data release possible. There were two teams involved. One came from the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick (MRC), the archive responsible for looking after the records we’ve been using. The MRC team have been working on these records, behind the scenes, for the last five years. The National Railway Museum (NRM) team then joined them working on these records two years ago.

Between the volunteer teams, then, they’ve achieved a huge amount – a real demonstration of the power of collaboration. It’s thanks to them all that we’re able to share this data release with you. We’ll be featuring more from the volunteers in a future blog post.


The Union

Back to the records. They come from the ASRS/ NUR, and it’s worth saying a little about the Union’s history. The ASRS was formed in 1871 – and we see some of those very first members in the data release, like Taff Vale Railway driver R Morris, who had membership number 3, having joined on 28 July 1872, via the Aberdare branch. It’s clear that there was a period in which membership numbers weren’t used, presumably before realising that with so many men – and, at this point, it would have been all men – joining numbers were needed to keep track of things. Morris appears in our data release as his dependents received the £5 death fund payment when Morris died in January 1909.

The ASRS was an ‘all grades’ union – that is, for any railway worker, whether labourer, signalman, driver, stationmaster or something else. In 1913 the ASRS merged with a number of other unions, forming the NUR. This continued throughout the period the project is exploring, until it merged with the National Union of Seamen in 1990, to become the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). Throughout its history, it has advocated for the health, safety and well-being of its members, and by extension, of all in the railway industry.

We’re thrilled, therefore, that the RMT has taken such an active interest in its past and has been a strong supporter of our project. This has included hosting the project at its Health and Safety Conference earlier this year, investigating possibilities for using the project work in helping current health and safety reps, and hosting the launch for this new project data. It’s not just an interest in the RMT’s past, of course. Sadly a great many of the issues found in the dataset aren’t confined to the past, but are still relevant today. That makes it all the more important we find ways to use the project’s work to change the present for the better.


What’s been transcribed?

As well as advocating for health and safety, the Union has provided for support for members in times of need. Often this has been financial, though sometimes it’s also been via legal guidance. All of this has produced records which we’ve now brought into the project. The material we’re drawing from was all originally included in the Union’s annual or quarterly reports.

It starts in the late 1880s in a rather sporadic fashion – there are inconsistencies in terms of what is recorded from quarter to quarter, which is reflected in what we’ve been able to transcribe. Gradually as time goes on, the details become more regularly recorded, and in increasingly standardised formats. They cover Britain and Ireland, as the Union had branches and members throughout what was, until the end of the period we cover, all part of the United Kingdom.

As always with the database, the information is fully searchable, whether by a straightforward ‘find’ or via the filters on each column of information. Whilst the precise details vary depending on the nature of the run of information – discussed below – all the information that is in the original has been fully transcribed. Typically that will include names, Union branch details, dates, Union membership details, employing railway company, details of the financial or other support provided by the Union, and any further description or comments. We’ve also included the reference details for the original documents at the MRC, so it’s clear where the information has come from.

It’s worth searching across all of the different runs of data now in our database, as sometimes we see the same individual appearing in multiple places. Each different appearance gives us a further piece of the puzzle that we can use to build a fuller picture.

At present we haven’t covered all of the available information from the late 1880s, through to 1921 (when, for some reason, the reports stop recording the information and therefore our data dries up). That means our coverage is currently patchy – not every year is transcribed yet. We’re working on the remaining records, which will probably amount to at least another 25,000 cases. That will take time, of course. At the moment, we have details for six runs of information. We’ll explore these in more detail in future blog posts, but for now a brief introduction to each might be helpful.

Death claims

This was paid to the dependents of any member who died, whatever the cause. So, as well as accidents, we find many cases of ill-health and old age in this data. This opens up huge new options for understanding railway staff lives, including around occupational health issues, something that’s never before been possible. Typically this was a payment of £5, believed to be a contribution towards immediate costs, like the funeral. So, we see that W Harman, membership number 998, joined the Union on 19 October 1873. By the time of his death in January 1919 at age 66, he’d amassed 45 years membership, at that point part of the Birmingham 8 branch. Curiously, his death was attributed as accidental – but his grade was given as ‘ex-railwayman’: had he had an accident and retired previously, but the after-effects of that accident subsequently caused his death? Like so many of the individual stories found in the records, his case needs further research.

Disablement claims

This was a form of financial support paid if a Union member was unable to continue their previous work. That again might be through accident, ill-health or old age, and often was a sum of £20. This was the case for signalman F Stevenson of the Great Northern Railway of Ireland, a member of the Belfast branch who received his payment on grounds of age in 1901 – he was 85!

Fatal compensation

Until the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1897, securing compensation in the event of an accident was challenging for most workers – including railway employees. One of the key areas the Union assisted in therefore was securing some form of compensation, where possible. After 1897 compensation became easier to achieve, but sometimes still required the Union to fight  cases before the railway companies would pay out. When they did, the amount varied considerably – from just £4.7.6 in the case of Great Central Railway wireman G Deacon of the Neepsend branch in 1915, to £353 in the case of Cardiff Railway goods guard W Cooper of the Cardiff No. 4 branch in 1917. Typically payments amounted to around £200-300, with variation by the number of surviving dependents – but sometimes only a token contribution to cover funeral costs would be secured. This was the case for Great Central Railway carriage cleaner Jane Rowland, of the Chester No. 1 branch. She was knocked down by a train on 14 May 1918, age 36; her family received just £10 for funeral expenses.

Non-fatal compensation

The Union also worked to secure compensation for its members for non-fatal accidents, paid by the relevant railway company. This might be as a one-off payment, as for Doncaster branch member E Dewhurst, a driver burned around the neck and shoulders when his fireman colleague accidentally threw hot cinders over him whilst Dewhurst was off the engine in 1899. He received £4. Alternatively, there might be an ongoing payment awarded, sometimes with an additional one-off payment. This was the case for Cardiff Railway platelayer WH Dalley. Whilst unloading timber on 8 September 1906 he suffered a split kneecap. He received a one-off payment of £20, and 15/- per week until he resumed work on 8 November 1906. Significantly, the records also detail those cases in which compensation wasn’t successfully claimed, so it’s possible to get a better idea of the working of compensation at this time.

Orphan fund

This was an optional contributory fund, so not all Union members belonged to it. For an additional payment from their wages, those who paid in would know that if they died at work from ill-health or old age, their children would receive some financial support from the Union until they reached age 14. The first entries for the fund detailed the names and birthdates of the children, though this was simplified in later years only to include the number of children from any given family being supported. This shows us that Great Northern Railway porter James Pettit, member of the Wakefield branch, died on 7 July 1880. In 1889 his three children Sophia (born 29 April 1876), Charles (20 September 1887) and Frederick (30 July 1879) were still being supported by the fund. Through these records we can see how large some families were – Great Central Railway head shunter JW Head, killed in 1917, had nine children supported by the fund.


In addition to its financial support, the Union also provided representation for its members (or their dependents) at coroner’s inquests. This might be to safeguard Union members who might have been seen as bearing some responsibility for the death of another, or to provide a voice for a member who had been killed in an accident at work. As an example of the former, we know that in 1910 North British Railway goods guard W Dickson was represented by one of the Union’s ‘Organising Secretaries’ (a regional official) JG Muir. In Edinburgh, on 31 October 1910 Station Master J Robertson was standing between the railway lines talking to Dickson when he was hit by a train.


We warmly invite you to explore this fantastic new resource.


With over 25,000 new cases to choose from, you have plenty of options. Please take your time to explore the database – even if your precise person, place or company isn’t featured, then you’ll still find plenty of similar locations, actions and people that will provide you with great context for your own area of interest.

In the coming weeks and months we’ll carry on exploring what’s found in the new data release, via this blog, so please keep coming back. We’ve already made a start on that in our most recent posts, on women, Irish accidents and the curious case of James Broughton and the Christian Herald newspaper. As you can imagine, though, with the wealth of detail in the database, there is so much more to come.

We welcome your thoughts, contributions and research, too. Do please share what you think, who and what you find in the database, and your own research: we’d love to know more. We’re always particularly keen to hear from descendants of those mentioned in the database – it’s invaluable to our understanding of the individuals as rounded people. We’re always open for guest blogs, too. We’d also appreciate your feedback on the project work, via this short form – thanks in advance, and happy and productive researching!


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