Dr Mike Esbester is a senior lecturer in history at Portsmouth. Mike’s research focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain, particularly on the cultural history of safety, risk and accident prevention, and on the history of mobility
Working & Dying on the Railways
At 5.45am on 11 August 1913, steam locomotive fireman Charles Lock, an employee of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, clocked on as usual. His train arrived at Portsmouth Town station, now known as Portsmouth & Southsea, at 10.13am; 2 minutes later, whilst he was underneath the engine oiling it, another engine gently touched the train, moving it forwards slightly. Lock was caught in the locomotive’s mechanism and his left shoulder and back were injured. In that, he was fortunate; this was the sort of thing that often killed. Indeed, in 1913 alone nearly 30,000 railway employees were either injured or killed. This was the cost of keeping the railway system running, but the scale of the safety problem was largely unknown by the public – then, as now.
Aiming to recover some of these cases of work-related injury and death, ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ is a new collaborative project devised and led by the History team’s Mike Esbester, in conjunction with the National Railway Museum, York (NRM). We’re using accident investigation reports, produced by the government-appointed Board of Trade’s railway inspectors between 1911 and 1915. These reports detail the circumstances surrounding accidents to railway workers, and tell us a fantastic amount about what it was like to work on the railways in the early years of the twentieth century – including how dangerous it was. They tell us what really happened to ordinary men and women responsible for keeping a key national industry running, how the railway companies viewed workplace deaths and injuries, and what role the state played in this area.
Until now these accident reports have been virtually unused, as they’re hard to get hold of, and the quantity is overwhelming: at the moment we don’t know exactly how many cases we’re looking at over the 5 year period covered by the project, but it’s likely to be around 3,000. To get through all of these reports, we’re working with a team of volunteers at the NRM – the project is an experiment in ‘crowd-sourcing’, harnessing the power and interest of the volunteers to work through material that would otherwise remain unexplored.
The project, which started at the end of 2016, has already attracted considerable interest from a range of audiences looking to make use of the data – family historians, rail enthusiasts, the current railway industry as well as academic historians. One great outcome will be that the resource detailing the accidents will be freely available, via the project website – this will provide a huge boost to making the worker accidents and those involved in them better known and understood.
Whilst this is a relatively small scale starting point, once we’ve demonstrated the potential we’re looking to extend it more formally, with external financial support and by bringing it into the Zooniverse fold. The bigger project will cover a much longer period, encompassing a huge variety of records relating to railway worker accidents, and covering tens of thousands of cases. This has huge potential to get people outside the university environment involved in and shaping the direction of important research, something Mike believes in and is pleased to be championing. At an individual level this means, as the work goes on, ordinary people like Charles Lock, who were injured or killed in the course of their employment on the railways, will once again be remembered.