Railway workers faced danger while keeping cargo and the network moving. Reporter Michael Jones found out about new research into the risks

A PROJECT documenting the work, life and death of railway workers in the early 20th century has highlighted the startling dangers workers faced on a daily basis in south Wales.

Turning up to work and being presented with the possibility of death is something completely unheard of in modern day Britain.

But for railway workers in the early 1900s, this was the norm.


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A train arrives

“In 1913, around 30,000 workers were injured or killed on the UK’s railway in a single year,” explains Dr Mike Esbester, a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth.

A joint imitative between the University of Portsmouth, the National Railway Museum, the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick, the National Archives and a team of devoted volunteers, have discovered “tens of thousands of records” relating to injuries and deaths, he explains.

And most of those records relate to South Wales.

“With the stuff at the National Archive, there is quite a heavy predominance for South Wales,” said Dr Esbester.

“In just one record, there are over 2,300 cases for South Wales and in the coming years, there will be maybe 10,000. There is an awful lot to come.”

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Dr Mike Esbester

The project’s ambition, however, is to make this documentation about much more than just numbers.

“These cases are undeniably tragic,” he says.

“These people had families, friends, communities.”

In one incident, a 14-year-old was killed working on the railways in south Wales.

“He was working at three in the morning, on September 11, 1912, said Dr Esbester.

“He was walking alongside a line of moving wagons and the assumption is that he hit a lever and fell across a rail underneath a wagon.

“He had only been employed for eight and a half weeks.

“That was that boy’s life gone.”

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An example of some of the cargo and trucks on the train network. This is the Canal Parade junction in Newport

Dr Esbester researched his PHD on railway accidents so he had a “reasonable understanding” of the sheer volume of cases before this joint project.

“But the numbers are so vast, that you can’t really think about that," he said.

“The thing that really brought it home is getting the names and stories behind it. Then it really hits home.”

One common accident that befell a lot of workers was being crushed between wagons while unlocking or connecting them.

“In South Wales, you would have wagons full of coal being transported from the Valleys into the docks," he said.

“All the men were shunting and moving the wagons and at this time, they would have to go in between the wagons to couple them up which is incredibly dangerous."

Though some crushes could be fatal, most would suffer damages to limbs. But even crushing your pinky finger could have been disastrous, Dr Esbester explains.

“Back then, if something like sepsis crept into the open wound, it could be fatal,” he said.

Accidents like these became so common that Great Western Railway released comical sketches for workers to follow.

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Two of the comical sketches

It was imperative that ships left on time – with their departures dictated by tide timings – and so there was a huge pressure on workers to meet tight deadlines.

It meant safety was not always a worker’s number one priority.

“If it is a case of stopping the train and sorting the steam engine out, or climbing around the outside of the train while it is still moving, the chances are you would hopefully be able to sort the problem out and not slow your journey down," said Dr Esbester.

“The problem, of course, is what happens if you fall off while the train is moving?”

Dr Esbester says that railway companies were also guilty of relegating worker safety in their list of priorities.

“They had other fish to fry," he said.

“The workers had no political clout, they had no voice.


“Their accidents were punted down the list of priorities, despite the fact they were far more numerous than passenger deaths – which always got more attention.

“For every one passenger fatality, there were nine worker fatalities.”

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Coal on Newport Docks

One of the project’s aims is to allow family historians and, indeed, families to learn more about the way in which their relatives may have died.

This was none more so apparent than when a volunteer who was just hours into her introductory session discovered an accident involving her great grandfather.

Rosemary Leonard, who was brought up in Newport, was helping transcribe reports when she “suddenly stopped”, she wrote in a blog post on the archive’s website.

“There in front of me I saw Keast, Phillip,” she wrote.

“I knew at once that this was my great grandfather. What was he doing in a railway accident book? He was a mariner."

Though he was working on the docks in South Wales, his accident was recorded because it occurred on railway property.

The report read: “On July, 10, 1917, while shifting chain to renew platform and chain, the chain hook of the man who was assisting him, slipped and penetrated Keast’s right thumb.”

The project promises to unveil and document a lot more accidents, especially in South Wales.

“It is important that we do get these people down,” Dr Esbester said.

“Their names, who they were, we start to make them human – provide some sort of way of remembering them, acknowledging them.”

You can explore their collection of cases by visiting their website http://www.railwayaccidents.port.ac.uk or following them on Twitter @RWLDproject