In the early 1890s a public scandal arose over the hours some railway employees worked. We might conclude that the press and MPs who took up the case were very public spirited and willing to campaign on behalf of others, particularly as it resulted in the 1893 Railway Regulation Act which (theoretically) restricted employees’ hours of work. Not so: the main interest was in ‘safety critical’ roles that affected the public, ensuring passengers weren’t put at risk by fatigued locomotive crews or signalmen who had worked shifts of 12, 14 or more hours.
Railway workers were well used to long days (and nights). It took stronger unionisation and the First World War to force a change; before 1914, many workers in the manual grades commonly worked 60 or more hours in a week. One case of extraordinarily long hours was picked up by Inspector John Main, on the Isle of Wight Railway in April 1915.
Frank Edmunds, working at St Helen’s Station, was helping to push a wagon into place for loading. He didn’t notice that seven other wagons were approaching, rolling down the slope on the siding. As anyone who has been on or around a railway will know, even locomotives – noisy in theory – can move surprisingly quietly; wagons rolling can be virtually inaudible, especially if you are near another source of noise. Edmunds was crushed between two wagons and later died.
According to Main’s investigation, Edmunds had failed to apply the brake correctly to the rake of seven wagons, and although it wasn’t explicitly stated, the implication is that he was therefore responsible for the incident. That said, the railway company subsequently gave the foreman in charge of the work instructions that he would be held responsible for ensuring all wagons had their brakes applied properly, suggesting the inadequate supervision might have been an issue.
The fact that Edmunds was nearly 18 hours into his 26 and a half hour shift also came in for explicit comment – even if it was noted that this only happened at most once per week, ‘the Company should endeavour to make some re-arrangement whereby the men will not be kept on duty for such an excessive length of time.’
This was wartime expediency, you might conclude. Perhaps so – it was certainly noted by Main that the issue of getting the work done was difficult, ‘especially so at the present time’ (1915 Quarter 2, Appendix B). However, the other cases uncovered by the project, pre-dating the war – and about which we will blog in the future – suggest that, so far as the railway companies went, old habits died hard and long hours remained an issue for some employees.