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William Harwood’s missing leg

Continuing our Disability History Month exploration of the new Great Eastern Railway (GER) data (see last week’s post, here), this week we’re focusing on a cross-over case between our two datasets. We’re fortunate we can trace the moment of the accident for William Harwood as well as a little about what happened to him afterwards, as he appears in both the Railway Inspectors’ accident reports for 1911-15 and the GER Benevolent Fund data for 1913-23. This is a very tangible way we can see the benefits of putting these different datasets together, as we start to draw a bigger picture of the impact of occupational accidents upon the lives of individuals.

Lowestoft station (seen centre right) and surrounds, 1920.
Courtesy Britain from Above, EPW001898.

From the accident reports data, we learn that at 09.20 on 9 January 1913 carriage and wagon examiner Harwood was on duty at Lowestoft. He was something over three hours into his shift, standing between the up and down main lines ‘engaged in feeling the axle boxes of the first of six carriages then being propelled’ onto one of the platform lines. This might no doubt raise some eyebrows today – how exactly was Harwood checking the axle boxes as they moved? It was something that caught the attention of Inspector Amos Ford who investigated the case, to which we shall return.

Lowestoft station, September 1911.
Courtesy Russell Walker, Views of Old Lowestoft.

Unfortunately for Harwood, as the carriages passed he was struck by an overhanging footstep, knocking him foul of the other line nearby. Doubly unfortunately, ‘just at that moment three carriages were being propelled from the station on the down line’ and Harwood was run over. His left leg was cut off and his right leg broken.

Lowestoft station, 1905.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

Ford’s investigation found that ‘it appears to be the general practice at this station for the examiners to follow the carriages during shunting operations to different parts of the station […] In my opinion this is a very unsatisfactory arrangement.’ As he noted – paying careful attention to the order of priority – ‘It not only prevents a proper examination of the vehicles, but it also, as in this case, exposes the men to danger.’ He made the point that this was not the first time an accident of this type had occurred at Lowestoft, and recommended that instructions should be given that vehicles shouldn’t be examined whilst moving (1913 Quarter 2, Appendix C). He didn’t, however, go so far as to recommend that the Company ban the practice.

So far as the accident report data goes, Harwood then disappears from view. But he surfaces in the GER Benevolent Fund book, on page 12, when his case came before the committee meeting on 23 April 1914, approximately a year and a quarter after his accident. Under the ‘occupation’ column he is recorded as ‘Late examiner’ – presumably he had not (yet?) found alternative employment within the Company, as had he been ‘gifted’ another job that would have been recorded (as was the case for others in the book who were disabled in similar ways). The other details given match, but from the book we learn in addition that Harwood was granted £20 for the cost of an artificial leg (around £1,800 in today’s money).

At this point, then, we can see that the GER was still paying for prostheses to be produced privately, beyond the Company. Some of the larger companies – the London and North Western Railway (see here) and the Great Western Railway, for example – were already producing artificial limbs and the like at their workshops, such was the demand created by railway work. From other sources we know that the GER followed suit in 1915 and brought production of prosthetics in-house. We can see this in the Benevolent Fund data, where the costs for replacement limbs are routinely given until approximately June 1915; thereafter, the usual comment is simply ‘Company to make new limb’ or equivalent.

It poses questions about what had happened to Harwood between his accident in January 1913 and the sign-off for costs of an artificial limb in April 1914. Had he been convalescing for the entire period? Had he already got the limb, and was being repaid? (Circumstantial contextual evidence from other cases suggests this was unlikely, but we can’t be sure.) If he hadn’t already got the leg, how had he coped on a day-to-day basis? When it came to finding a leg, how did Harwood know where to get one? Was he provided with direction – either formally or informally – from the Company, colleagues or union?

That is the only time Harwood appears in the book – presumably his limb lasted at least until the middle of 1923, after which details were no longer recorded in the book. By putting the sources together in this way we get a better sense of the accident and its aftermath – and the potential offered by our project, in its own right but also as a means of contributing to a picture developed from a range of sources. Particularly in cases of disability, this could be a really powerful route into better understandings of how those affected continued with their lives, including who was involved in providing care and support before the NHS existed.

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