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Work-caused disability: Frederick Potter, Portsmouth

In last week’s blog, starting our contributions to Disability History Month, we considered where we might see learning disabilities in our project work. This week we return to physical disabilities, by looking at a case of a disability resulting from the work that railway staff were asked to do. It’s also a case local to Mike, one of our project co-leads, as it happened in Portsmouth.

At the centre of the case is Frederick Potter. He was born on 17 July 1878, to Henry and Amelia Potter. Henry was a railway worker, originally from Wiltshire; Amelia was from Havant, near Portsmouth. My suspicion is that he moved to work on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR) and met Amelia in Havant. Frederick was born on Hayling Island, just south of Havant, so the clues are there. Henry was working on the Island and the family was living in Havant until 1879, when they moved to Portsmouth.

Frederick too joined the LBCSR, in 1898, as a porter. Curiously his first station was Croydon South – it’s not clear how or why this was the case, given the distance from Portsmouth. His record notes that he was transferred to the LBSCR and London and South Western Railway joint staff in Portsmouth in October 1899. These two companies jointly operated the line into Portsea Island, so he was back home. He was living with his parents and siblings at the time of the 1901 Census, though later that year he married.

He next appears on our radar in the 1911 Census, by which time he was living with his wife, Louisa, and their four children. By this point Frederick was a shunter – and it was in this role that he had his accident.

1910 Ordnance Survey map of the area around Portsmouth Harbour station.
1910 map showing Portsmouth Harbour station and the surrounding area. Leading off from the station lines it’s possible to see a line heading to the north, into the blank white space of the dockyard. This was one of the rail connections, accessing the dockyard via a swing bridge. The dockyard was redacted from this map for security reasons. It’s also possible to see the loco turntable to the east of the station, where engines would have been turned ready for services departing from the station. Above that it’s possible to see Milldam barracks – now the site of project co-lead Mike’s office at the University of Portsmouth!
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.


On 16 September 1913, Frederick signed on for duty at 5.30am. He was at Portsmouth Harbour station, where between the northernmost two platforms there was a third track. This was used for stabling stock and for running engines around trains after they’d arrived (as this was a terminus station), so that the loco could be turned nearby and re-join the departing service at the head of the train. At 6.35am he went to couple an engine to two coaches stood on this third line.

Close up of 1910 Ordnance Survey map, focused on Portsmouth Harbour station.
Detail of Portsmouth Harbour station, showing the three lines on which Frederick’s accident occurred – seen above the station name. The centre, third, line is shown in the dashed white and black. The points in which Frederick trapped his foot are seen above the ‘ou’ of ‘Portsmouth’.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.


Frederick went between the coaches and the engine, calling for the driver to ease back. He failed to couple them on the first try, as the nudge from the loco pushed the coaches forward slightly. He called to ease up again, but as this happened, he got his right foot caught in points. Before he could get free, the leading wheel of the tender caught and crushed his leg (1913 Quarter 3, Appendix C).

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.
Page from a 1920s accident prevention booklet, showing a similar issue that which caused Frederick’s accident.


The Hampshire Telegraph reported the accident three days later, noting that ‘the unfortunate man was picked up, and first aid was rendered, after which he was taken to the Hospital.’ The injuries were noted: ‘the right leg was terribly lacerated, and there was a compound fracture.’ Potentially treatable today, in 1913 it meant Frederick had to have the leg amputated. The press report recorded that he was ‘going on as well as can be expected’ (19 September 1913, p.3).

The official state investigator, Inspector JJ Hornby, determined that Frederick didn’t need to go between the engine and the coaches whilst they were moving. As a result the accident was put down to ‘a want of reasonable care’ on Frederick’s part (1913 Quarter 3, Appendix C).

Frederick’s was one of over 800 amputations found in our project database. These range from losing the tip of a finger to multiple limbs. Each will have meant some change in the individual’s life, though clearly some were more extensive than others.

In terms of immediate support, it was reported that ‘with the object of assisting Shunter FW Potter […] a successful smoking concert, organised in connection with the London and Provincial Yearly Dividing Society, was held at the Lodge House’. Another concert was held at the Railway Hotel in Fratton. The amount raised was not reported (Portsmouth Evening News, 21 October 1913, p.4).

In the longer term, the Company would likely have paid compensation of some sorts. That might have been an initial lump sum, but also a weekly supplement if Frederick remained employed with the Company at a lower wage, to make the total up to his pre-accident income. The Company would likely have provided Frederick with an artificial limb. Certainly this has been seen in other cases for which documentation has survived.

Frederick had also briefly been a member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants when he first joined the railway, but that membership lapsed. Had he been a member at the time of his accident, he might well have received a payment from the Union for the disablement. Interestingly, he re-joined in 1916 (by which time the Union had become the National Union of Railwaymen, NUR). He was listed as a porter.

This is significant. A key way the railway companies saw themselves as supporting disabled staff was by providing work after an accident. This was very much part of their world view, conceptualising themselves as paternalistic. The work would, of course, need to be something the employee was physically capable of doing. There’s no doubt that social expectations and conventions about the capabilities of disabled people would have played a part in shaping that understanding, of course.

So – it seems that in Frederick’s case the LBSCR found him a new role. When this happened isn’t known, but it was probably long before 1916. He would have found it challenging to remain a shunter, given the nature of the job, so a role as a porter was much more likely to have been manageable with an artificial leg. Yet it might well be that even this role was too strenuous.

On the 1921 Census there was a further surprise. Frederick is listed as a ‘railway official’ at Moneyfields Crossing, in Copnor (known as Salterns Crossing). This is confirmed on his NUR membership record, where the change of role is noted – also that his membership lapsed in December 1921. It seems likely that he was a gatekeeper, responsible for opening and closing the gates to allow road traffic to cross the lines safely. This was a ‘classic’ role given to disabled employees – and to women, which speaks volumes to the equation of roles at this time.

1930 Ordnance Survey map showing Moneyfield crossing.
1930 Ordnance Survey map showing Moneyfield Crossing – marked here as ‘Salterns Crossing’. Frustratingly across the join of two map sheets!
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.


How long he remained in this role is unclear. By the time of the 1939 Register he was listed as ‘incapacitated by loss of leg’. At this point he was 61 – well within working age, so we might have expected he would still be employed were it not for the disability.

From these various accounts, we have some idea of the way in which a railway-induced disability affected one man. We can see how he continued to work, in new capacities, for some time after his accident. What we lack is a more personal insight into what his disability meant to his sense of self and how he experienced work and life after his accident. Sadly these sources are very difficult to find – but important to look for.

In the next post in our contributions for Disability History Month, we look at the accident which cost James Waring his arm, and the second accident he had, after his return to work.


With grateful thanks to all who helped with queries around Henry Potter’s life – including Gordon Dudman, Ant Dawson & Stephen Barker.


  1. Gordon Dudman

    An interesting set of observations on the consequences of what, in these days, would be described in the local press as a “life changing” accident.

    These events perhaps need to be seen through the prism of what basic health and social care was like at that time. With no structured NHS style health care, the railway companies no doubt were under pressure from their staff and trade unions to support injured employees.

    If he had been a member of the Hospital Savings Society he may well have had some time to recover from the trauma of amputation at a Railway Convalescent Home.

    Throughout its existence, BR continued to provide employment for those members of staff who experienced trauma from accidents at work. Left Luggage, time keepers and messengers were all quite common employment. With a stable pension scheme it was also possible to allow staff to retire early on a full pension.

    • Mike Esbester

      Thanks Gordon!

      And absolutely spot on about the care that would have been available at the time – radically different to today, of course. What happened after the accident needs a lot more research – including the role of the Railway Convalescent Homes, as you note. This brilliant film, from 1956, is really interesting on rehabilitation; shot at Swindon works. The soundtrack is a lot of fun!

  2. Gordon Dudman

    What a find!

    Again, from an era when although the NHS was still in its infancy, the pre-NHS era of a paternalistic employer (very likely GWR) continued.

    As, interesting initial shot of railway staff providing first aid, including getting the casualty strapped up and placed on a stretcher. Today you’d get a rollicking from the ambulance crew!

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