At the start of the 20th century, the railway industry was the UK’s third largest employer, providing jobs for over 500,000 workers. Little wonder, then, that so many people have a railway connection in their past. But did you know that it was also one of the most dangerous places to work – and that this has left an invaluable, but largely untapped, source of records for genealogical research?
The railways were huge producers of paperwork, seemingly documenting everything. This has worked to our advantage, where the records survive, as it means we have some detailed accounts of many aspects of railway life, including staff accidents. The Railway Work, Life & Death project is making some of these accident records more easily accessible, for free, via our website (www.railwayaccidents.port.ac.uk).
Railway Accidents Research
We’re a joint initiative of the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick, the National Railway Museum and the University of Portsmouth. Working with volunteers and the support of The National Archives, we’re transcribing details of accidents to British and Irish railway workers from the mid-1870s to the Second World War. There’s a wealth of biographical and operational detail found in these records that can shed light on the working lives of railway staff, as well as their accidents and the impact that deaths and injuries had on the individuals and their families.
So far our volunteers have made available a dataset of around 4,500 individuals and their accidents. Most of these come from accident investigations undertaken by state inspectors between 1911 and 1915. These generally give all sorts of factual detail (who was involved, where, when, ages, etc) as well as a brief account of how and why the accident happened. A smaller run of data looks at the Great Eastern Railway company, covering applications made by injured staff to the Company’s Benevolent Fund for financial support. This gives us a real insight into the lives – often still working after their accidents – of those who were hurt whilst at work and the adaptive technologies used to support them.
In addition to the expanding database, the project website features a range of resources to help contextualise railway work and railway staff accidents, including a weekly blog post exploring some of the cases and their implications in more detail. We also feature guest posts, written by family historians and genealogists, amongst others – so if you find a case in our database that helps with your research, do please get in touch, as it’s the sort of thing we like to feature in our blog.
The work so far has proved its value, and we’re working on answering the calls for more data – there is a vast amount more that could be included in the project. Some of that is coming within our existing project extensions, and we’re always on the look-out for further volunteers or collaborations through which to extend what we’re doing.
Over the next few years a huge quantity of data will be made publicly available – as with all of the existing work, for free. Our NRM volunteers are currently transcribing the inter-war state accident reports, bringing our coverage up to 1939 with an estimated additional 7,500 records. We’re also working with volunteers at the MRC to include trades union accident records in our resources – potentially up to 30,000 cases covering the mid-1870s to 1929. Finally, at The National Archives another team of volunteers are working on transcribing a large number of the railway company accident registers. Often these relate to South Wales railways, but there are other areas covered; we estimate that this may bring a further 30,000 records into the project. Together these will expand our dataset significantly.
One huge advantage of all of this is that it will form an easy way to find information across a variety of different railway records, previously difficult to connect. To give one example, we know from our existing dataset that the death of George Player, a coal tipper employed by the Cardiff Railway, took place on 11 March 1911 at Queen Alexandra Dock in Cardiff. This, and further detail, came from the state accident report; but his case also appears in a record book kept by the Company, to be featured in data from The National Archives extension. And he appears again in the trades union records, which will be included in the Modern Records Centre extension; in fact, he appears three times in these records, as the subject of a death claim, in relation to compensation secured for dependents, and because his three children received support from the Union’s Orphans’ Fund.
With just these records we gather a more complete picture of Player’s death and the impact it had – and that’s without adding in sources external to the project, like registration documents, newspaper reports, location maps from the National Library of Scotland’s mapping website, and images of the Docks from the Britain From Above website. Altogether we hope that our project will be an important tool for genealogical research on British and Irish railway staff. We’d certainly appreciate your feedback on the project, including when you make use of our resources, as this helps us improve what we’re doing, get a better sense of what you want, and make the case for continued support and expansion of our activities: if you want more, please tell us!
There’s plenty to explore via our website (www.railwayaccidents.port.ac.uk) and Twitter feed (@RWLDproject). If you want to find out more in person, then we’ll be at Family Tree Live in April 2019 and THE Genealogy Show in June 2019 – we’re looking forward to spreading the word about our project and to helping with your research.
About the Author
Dr Mike Esbester is the academic lead on the Railway Work, Life & Death project, along with Karen Baker (National Railway Museum) and Helen Ford (Modern Records Centre). Mike is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Portsmouth, and is particularly interested in the history of accidents, safety and risk in modern Britain.
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