Historically, railway accidents were common and many of the health and safety rules that we have today did not exist.
Volunteers are now being sought to help tell the sad and costly story behind Britain’s railway age – the deaths and injuries suffered by many thousands of mainly men who operated the railways.
Historian Mike Esbester, at the University of Portsmouth, is hoping people will volunteer to help transcribe a 1901-1905 railway trade union handwritten notebook, as part of Transcription Tuesday, on 5 February.
The notebook meticulously details the surprisingly common deaths of railwaymen – seven deaths are recorded on just the first page – alongside scratches, cuts, concussions and amputations, and stories of workers fired for petty theft, among other things.
Dr Esbester said: “In the early 1900s, the railways were Britain’s lifeblood. But keeping the nation moving carried a high price – the death or injury of many thousands of mostly men who did the dirty work.
“So far, the book hasn’t been used by researchers and we don’t know what it’ll contain – we’re excited. The data would be a huge benefit to research and a really excellent resource for family historians and anyone interested in our railway past.”
Among the handful of stories the notebook is known to contain are the deaths of two railwaymen in separate accidents a few days apart.
A Mr J Hallams, a track worker, was hit and killed by a train at Thackley, in Yorkshire, on 7 January, 1901. His widow and their four children were given a paltry £234 compensation – £24,000 in today’s money.
Robert Blyth, also a track worker, was described as having been run down and killed by a train at Elswick Station, near Newcastle, on 17 January the same year. His widow was awarded £187.
In addition to recording deaths and injuries, there are records of legal cases in which the union had an interest, including railwaymen being accused of pilfering and a libel case the union had to defend.
Dr Esbester has studied the evolution of how British authorities have tried to keep workers safe for more than a century.
His current research project examines work, life and death on Britain’s railways from the late 19th century to World War II.
He said “Most attention on railway deaths – then and now – focuses on visually spectacular passenger crashes, but the everyday accidents to workers that happen in ones and twos kill and injure far more.”
By 1900, for every passenger hurt, nine workers were killed or injured. This was at a time when the railways were Britain’s third largest employer, with about half a million staff, he said.
By 1913, staff numbered about 640,000, of whom 30,000 were killed or injured that year alone.
Dr Esbester is working with the National Railway Museum, the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick, and The National Archives of the UK.
“It’s great working with these archives, improving accessibility and raising awareness of the value and potential of these records,” he said.
Transcription Tuesday is in its third year. It is run by ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Magazine and aims to encourage and inspire armchair-historians to help turn archive records into digital format for future generations.
Editor Sarah Williams said: “The internet has transformed family history, but the documents that are going online need to be transcribed or indexed to make them searchable, and for many projects the only way that is going to happen is with the help of volunteers.”
Dr Esbester’s project is one of three the magazine has chosen for 2019. Dr Esbester said: “We’re hoping volunteers will be able to transcribe all 2,150 entries in the book on February 5.”
Volunteers don’t need to sign up – they just need to ‘turn up’ digitally at the website, download a picture of an entry from the book, and enter details into a spreadsheet.
To find out more about Transcription Tuesday, visit: http://www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/transcriptiontuesday and tweet using the hashtag #TranscriptionTuesday
Volunteers are the backbone of many heritage railways and without them, many railways would not be able to run. If you are interested in being a heritage railway volunteer then you can find out more in my post here.