University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Accidental dismemberment on the railways

Our own Dr Mike Esbester is co-lead of the Railway Work, Life & Death project at the National Railway Museum.  This post from the project, written by co-lead Karen Baker, looks at the work of one of the project’s placement students, Connor Scott, who used the dataset to interrogate just how dangerous it was to work on the railways, with 23,000 accidents investigated by state inspectors between 1900 and 1939, including 504 deaths.

The data show that shunting accidents were particularly common, and the blog details how this has led to new displays at the museum to illustrate this for visitors. Another display shows a prosthetic leg made by the railway companies for use by a worker who lost his leg in a shunting accident.  The fact that it was thought necessary to design a replacement leg, suggests there was a regular need: the dataset indicates 806 workers lost a body part(s) and 150 of these were shunters.

Artificial Leg. Source: The Wellcome Collection.

Artificial Leg. Source: The Wellcome Collection.

The project also worked collaboratively with colleagues at the Modern Records Centre at Warwick who were able to digitise their trades’ union accident records and share them with the NRM volunteers.  These records show the human impact of accidents, the financial help received by wives and children from trades’ union funds, which provided an income when husbands/fathers were no longer able to work. This information will help contextualise and add human stories to objects in the collection, such as Laddie the Railway Collecting Dog, previously on display as an oddity, with no explanation of why he was important.

LSWR Collecting Dog 'Laddie'.
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

LSWR Collecting Dog ‘Laddie’. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum 

The University of Portsmouth is supporting a new PhD project looking at railway worker accidents and their wider impacts on those affected. The student will be drawing upon the RWLD dataset and the collections at the NRM and other institutions like the MRC.


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