Sunday, 24 October 2010

'Killed or Injured from their own Misconduct or Want of Caution' - Death on the Mid-Victorian Railway

Between June 1854 and June 1860, 55 London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) employees were seriously injured, while another 40 were killed. Presumably, because of the high accident rate, fear of death or injury must have been an ever-present worry for railway employees by the mid-Victorian period. Indeed, these fears were also accompanied by the fact that that they knew their loved ones would receive little or no support from their employer if they were disabled or killed while at work.

This was because railway management and directors viewed accidents as usually being the result of employees’ 'own misconduct or want of caution.' Government returns from 1854 onwards show how prevalent this opinion was amongst L&SWR managers. Of the 55 fatalities and 40 injuries on the L&SWR mentioned, only 2 deaths and 2 injuries were attributed to ‘causes beyond [employees’] own control.’ This left 53 fatalities and 38 injuries that were classified as being a result of the individuals’ ‘own misconduct or want of caution.’

However, by detailing a few cases of accidents, it shows that management could have mitigated the number of fatalities and injuries through the implementation of better procedures and rules, and through investment in safety equipment. On the 19th May 1856 ‘Edward Bundy, breaksman, incautiously coupling a goods train at Ringwood Station was caught between the waggons and killed.’ On the 14th June 1858 ‘John Colbourne, platelayer, fell from a ballast waggon in motion near Eling Junction, and was run over and killed.’ And lastly, on the 7th October 1859 ‘William Scott, platelayer, (not on duty at the time), run over and killed in the Knowle cutting, near Fareham, from his own want of caution.’

Clearly, in each of these cases the LS&WR could have done more to protect these men. Yet, Railway Company managers felt that there was little or no need to put in place rigorous safety measures to avoid accidents, as it was widely accepted that the employee had to take, in most cases, responsibility for his own actions. However, because such a high proportion of employees were classified as being killed or injured because of their ’own misconduct or want of caution,’ it suggests that managers used this excuse to avoid making life-saving changes in an effort to save money. It was only years later that they were forced to do so by the Government.

More upsettingly, the effect of the death or disabling of a railway employee may have been that it reduced poor families to further poverty. The majority of those killed or injured on the railways were porters, platelayers, pointsmen, or labourers; all of which would have received the lowest pay within railway companies, and who may have been living in poor conditions anyway. But, on a railway employee’s death or injury there were few funds to support widows and orphans, and support from the company would be minimal. In the L&SWR management’s case, the most they would give to widows in this period was a £5 gratuity to cover funeral costs, or possibly a very low paid job as an office cleaner, carriage lining sewer, waiting room attendant or gatekeeper. Thus, when these unhappy events occurred, it may have meant further poverty, even destitution, for railway workers’ families.

Thus, the death or injury of a railway employee in the mid-Victorian period was something to be feared by vast swathes of people, both in and out of railway employment.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting read, thanks for that!

    Was that unique to railways, or was it typical of employers at the time? I'd guess the latter!

    ReplyDelete

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