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Work-caused disability – and death

Last week’s blog looked at shunter Frederick Potter, and the way his railway work continued, in a different role, after his 1913 accident which led to the loss of a leg. This week for Disability History Month we look at another accident leading to disability – two accidents, in fact, as James Waring is one of the people who, sadly, feature more than once in our database. His accidents appear in our newest update, the 17,000 individuals we added to the database earlier this year.

James was born in 1862, in Birkenhead. He married Alice in 1888. They appear on the 1911 Census as having had four children, three of whom were still alive. James gave his occupation as a ‘locomotive chargeman’ – his role would have been to supervise grades like engine cleaners, employed at an engine shed, and generally to help make sure the shed ran efficiently. In 1911 James and his family were living in Wrexham; they appear at the same address in 1921. By this time James’ eldest son, Robert, was employed as a carriage cleaner, based at Ruabon, to south-west of Wrexham. James remained a locomotive chargeman, though now with the extra detail that he was based at Croes Newydd shed (in Wrexham), on the Great Western Railway (GWR).

James first appears in the project database on 14 February 1925. At 9.15am he was around three hours into his eight-hour shift. He was helping to move six wagons to the engine sheds. When they reached one entrance to the sheds, he detached the loco and, when it was clear, reset the points to allow the wagons to move by gravity to the siding where they were wanted. He tried to cross the track in front of the wagons, but ‘his foot became stuck fast in a wing rail of a crossing’. He managed to get free, but was hit by the first wagon ‘and fell with his left arm across the rail’. It was run over, and amputated.

Two staged photographs from a 1920s accident prevention booklet, showing a shunter stepping over the rails in safety, and another with his foot trapped in points in front of an oncoming train.
Stated accident prevention photograph, showing a similar issue to that of James Waring – a foot, stuck in the track by a pair of points.


Inspector William Worthy Cooke’s report into the accident put the case down to Waring’s ‘neglect and want of caution.’ According to the report, Waring should have put the brakes on the wagons whilst he made preparations to move them. Unlike in some of the cases we see in the database, most of the wagons were fitted with ‘either-side brakes’ – as the name suggests, brakes that could be operated from either side of the wagon. This meant that workers didn’t have to cross the line to apply the brakes (1925 Quarter 1, Appendix C). Why Waring felt it necessary to hurry with the task isn’t made clear – was he allowed sufficient time to do his work safety? Or was he under pressure to ‘get the job done – quickly’?

Presumably at the scene first aid would have been rendered, and Waring would have been transported to the nearest hospital for treatment. In this, he was clearly fortunate, as in other cases in the database an accident of this severity led to death. As this was pre-NHS, medical treatment would have required payment. This would likely have been covered by the employer, the GWR.

We don’t know anything about Waring’s recuperation and rehabilitation, but losing an arm in this way must have been both physically and emotionally traumatic. At the same time, with only a nascent social security system in place, Waring and his family still required income to support themselves. At some point after his accident, James Waring returned to work on the GWR.

We know this as, unfortunately, he makes another appearance in our database, on 7 July 1928. He was still a shed chargeman at Croes Newydd – the same role he’d performed previously – so the loss of his arm was clearly not an impediment to this job. This is another demonstration of something that we’ve observed before: that railway companies would often keep disabled employees on after the accident which cause their disability. Typically this was in a different, less physically demanding, role – but there were exceptions, as in Waring’s case.

At 6.15am, Waring was moving three wagons by gravity from the coal stage, with the intention of placing the third one on a different line. He separated the first two from the final one, and allowed them to run down the line, controlled by loco cleaner R Williams, under Waring’s instruction. Waring then took charge of the third wagon and moved it off. He crossed behind it – safe, as it was rolling away from him. However, he hadn’t spotted that a fourth wagon was not secured, and it too was rolling down the line – catching Waring and running him over. Sadly this time Waring was killed.

This time the accident was investigated by Inspector JPS Main. In many ways the similarities with Waring’s earlier accident continued. The wagon he was interested in had brake levers on either side, so technically ‘there would appear to be no reason, other than possible convenience in handling the brake lever on the other side, for Waring to cross behind the wagon’. Might that ‘convenience’ actually have stemmed from the loss of Waring’s arm, meaning he needed to apply the brakes on the opposite side of the wagon? That earlier accident was noted in the report, but it appears only as an incidental comment rather than as having a bearing on the fatal accident.

Main noted that the wagons shouldn’t have been moved by gravity, but an engine fetched to move them. This change in practice would be made for the future. Interestingly, Main also recorded that Waring ‘was anxious to get through the work quickly, and rather than delay matters by obtaining an engine for the purpose, which was available, he elected to take the other course’ (1928 Quarter 3, Appendix B).

Why was he Waring so anxious to get the work done quickly? Again, was he under pressure to get the job done? These issues very rarely appear in official state reports, but in the 1920s railway staff numbers were decreased, sometimes leaving fewer people to do the job – but no extra time in which to do it. Might this have been a factor in Waring’s case?

The Liverpool Echo noted that Waring was transported to Wrexham hospital, but died a few minutes after admission (7 July 1928, p.8). An account of the inquest noted that Waring was ‘exceeding his duty in releasing the waggons [sic], but he was such a zealous servant of the company that he did a lot of work outside his ordinary duties.’ The same report also noted Waring’s earlier accident and the state investigation – noting that ‘Waring was warned’, something which doesn’t appear in the written report of the proceedings (Dundee Evening Telegraph, 11 July 1928, p.5).

This idea of the ‘zealous employee’ is interesting, and starts to confirm a long-held suspicion that, rather than disaffected or ‘careless’ (in the understanding of the time) employees having accidents, it was rather those employees who were most diligent and engaged with the work who were likely to have an accident. They took the shortcuts to ensure the work was done on time and the engine or train ready to go – but in so doing exposed themselves to danger. Many times this was of no consequence – but it only took the one occasion for an accident to happen.

James Waring’s case is another, therefore, where we see railway work causing disability – but less commonly, one where we can see how he continued in railway service after the accident. Given the numbers of staff who incurred life-changing disabilities, starting to understand more about their working lives after an accident is important. We anticipate further insights to come the more we look into the project database, and as we add further cases from other records – chiefly those produced by the railway companies and the trades unions.

Our next post for Disability History Month looks at hearing loss and railway work, and is available here.


  1. Pingback:Work-caused disability: Frederick Potter, Portsmouth - Railway Work, Life & Death

  2. Pingback:Too deaf to work on the railway lines? - Railway Work, Life & Death

  3. Clodagh Lennon

    Very interesting blog as it’s around the time my Great Grand Uncle James Treacy had a shunting accident in England. James from Naas, Co Kildare was a Royal Dublin Fusilier (9622). On 09.06.1917 James was reported wounded in the Irish Times – GSW to the leg and chest. Work was scarce in Naas after the war and James and his family moved over to England and he worked on the railways (I have no idea where). However, I do have a newspaper article from the Kildare Observer dated 14.01.1928 stating that he returned home to Naas about Christmas in ill health. He died on 09.01.1928 and looking at his death registration a post mortem was carried out and concluded his back was broken. As it’s approaching his anniversary I would really like to find out where the shunting accident happened. I will keep an eye on the database!

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