University of Portsmouth's History Blog

New Data Set On Railway Accidents Released & Research Collaboration

In this post, Mike Esbester, Senior Lecturer in History, introduces the new dataset he’s been working on for the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project. He shows the working behind the data and what’s in it – including why a book of legal cases reveals so much about one of the most dangerous industries of its time. You can find the all the project data here.

Back in February 2019 the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project took part in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine’s ‘Transcription Tuesday’ event. This made a primary source available digitally – scans of a volume detailing a railway trade union’s legal cases between 1901 and 1905 – and invited anyone, from anywhere in the world, to transcribe as little or as much as they fancied. We didn’t know what sort of a response we’d get, but we were delighted at what happened. The volume, of something over 2,000 entries, was complete by mid-afternoon on the day of the event! The volunteers were excellent, and did really good service: it would have a very long time for just one person to do the equivalent transcription. It was also another brilliant way of getting people involved in the project and its work – including some who started doing more detailed research into some of the accidents they discovered in the volume (for example, see this account of one worker’s family after his death).

The initial transcription was only part of the equation, however. With so many people involved – we estimated around 60 – despite our best attempts to cover all scenarios and set protocols in place to ensure standard ways of entering data, inevitably there were some variations. Not everyone was familiar with reading the nearly 120 year old manuscript. Some of the terms used or locations noted were obscure, at best, to those without some specialist railway background. To make the data as easily useable as possible, all of these things needed to be ironed out.

That was no small task. A number of volunteers were exceptionally helpful with elements of this – particularly Gordon and one anonymous volunteer, who between them came with an excellent knowledge of railway locations and working or historic county boundaries. Together we went over the data with a fine toothcomb. It took time. Everyone has been doing this around the margins of their day-to-day activities. But now it’s done …and the data is public!

So what’s in it?

There are 2,152 entries, covering Britain and Ireland for 1901-1905. They record cases where the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants trade union (now known as the RMT) had some sort of legal interest, to defend its members. Many of these relate to accidents – around half of them, which goes to show how prolific accidents at work once were in the railway industry, and the importance of health and safety issues to the trade union movement.

The entries give us some detail about who was involved, what happened, where and when. Sometimes they have more detail, including about the wider impact of an accident – whether on the injured worker or the family and dependents in the case of a fatality.

There are some mysteries, too. How did relief porter Faraday, a member of the Todmorden (Yorkshire) branch of the ASRS, come to be injured at Portsmouth on 18 August 1903? We know he was knocked down, paralysing his left arm and leg, but he was a long way from home (railway) territory. He received 8/5 compensation per week. This ended up being a long-running case – possibly because the railway company was unwilling to settle up. In July 1906 Faraday was offered £100 in compensation, which he declined. Instead he went back to the Company with a counter-offer: that he was willing to accept £260 and compensation. Unsurprisingly the Company didn’t opt for that; instead they offered £110, which Faraday accepted – a telling demonstration of where the power in the relationship lay.

Some of the cases are indisputably sad. On 29 September 1903 shunter J Wood had an accident at Longsight, Manchester. His hand was crushed between buffers on two railway vehicles. He was awarded 15/3 compensation per week. The details are scare, but in the ‘remarks’ column of the book an entry starkly notes ‘committed suicide 23 Sept 1904’. Did his accident have anything to do with his death? Impossible to say, but this was certainly the case for others.

Altogether through cases like these we get a better impression of the sometimes harsh realities of railway work at the turn of the 20th century.

There’s more than accidents, too. Around half of the cases relate to other matters. Pilfering features, as do embezzlement, furious driving, slander, and the occasional good deed with an unintended consequence, like signalman Walker of the Dunford Bridge branch, who was summarily dismissed in 1905 for lending a funnel to a farmer to help him drain a leaking barrel of oil! Non-railway employees appear, too, so there’s all sorts of detail in there that helps us understand railway spaces and their relationships to wider society in Edwardian Britain and Ireland.

What next for the project? Well, there’s plenty still left to do: we’re currently working on cleaning 1000s of cases from the volunteer team at The National Archives. We’ve just received a run of 9,000 cases from the volunteer team at the National Railway Museum (NRM), covering 1921-1939. And we’ve had the go ahead to move the NRM team on to a new run of data in the new year, covering 1900-1910. Busy times – watch this space for more in the future!

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