5 Things You Need To Know About Your Railway Ancestors

After speaking to Mike Esbester (Railway Work, Life & Death project) for #TwiceRemoved, I’m able to share the 5 Things You Need To Know About Your Railway Ancestors.

Table of Contents

When did railways begin to be used by our ancestors on a daily basis?

  • Mainline railways were really being used in earnest around the 1830s and by the 1840s use of rail for commuting to work can probably be considered as common place.
  • Railways helped to bring about the standardisation of time (Greenwich Mean Time). This was partly to ensure that trains didn’t crash into each other half way through long journeys!
  • Trains would have seemed very fast to our ancestors, who were used to travelling at horse speed. There were concerns that trains travelling through tunnels at speed might “push all the air out” and cause passengers to suffocate.
  • Railway companies were eventually required to run a “parliamentary route”, at least one train a day at a price affordable for the working-classes, ensuring they could commute to work.

To make these journeys “cost effective”, railway companies would put the journey on at unpopular times or ensure that the train stopped at every single stop and ran at a very slow speed. All this to deter people from using the cheaper option.

What kind of jobs did our railway ancestors perform?

  • Railway companies were huge employers. The bigger companies made everything themselves – from the rail lines, to the hotels along the line, to the pencils used by office workers. This means there was a massive variation in the types of jobs that were associated with the railways.
Your railway ancestors carved out tunnels

One of the most well known jobs is that of a “navy” or navigator. Originally employed to build canals, the navy’s turned their hand to building the railways – literally carving out the landscape to lay the track. Many navy’s were Irish, the work was poorly paid and incredibly labour intensive.

How did passenger accidents compare to railway worker accidents?

  • Passenger accidents were relatively rare and when they did happen they tended to attract press attention. Of course, railway companies wanted to encourage people to use the trains and were therefore much more concerned with passenger accidents than with staff accidents (which were frequent).

Passenger train crashes were investigated from the 1840s onwards. However, worker accidents were supposed to be reported but often weren’t. It wasn’t until the late 1870s that the government stepped in and said that accidents had to be investigated. Even then, it wasn’t really until the 1890’s that reports began to be produced more consistently with the 1897 workers compensation act. 

railway ancestors laid the tracks

Which jobs were the most dangerous for our railway ancestors?

  • The manual occupations, especially those working around moving trains were the most dangerous. For example, platelayers who were maintaining the tracks were at especially high risk of being hit by a train. Sometimes large numbers of platelayers were injured all at the same time because they tended to work in teams or ‘gangs’.

Goods Guards had to get out of the freight trains and uncouple the waggons. One slip could cause you to go under a moving vehicle. Goods handling was among one of the most dangerous roles.

  • In the late 1890s Trade Unions were pushing railway companies on worker safety and a commission was performed to look into the safety of railway workers. As part of this there was some comparison made between railway work and other industries. Although overall railway work might have been seen as “less dangerous” compared to coal mining (for example) – this was because railway work consisted of such a varied number of jobs (including non-dangerous jobs, like waitressing in a hotel).

However, if you looked at a role like a “shunter” (coupling and uncoupling waggons), this was only slightly less dangerous than merchant shipping or working underground in a coal mine.

Your railway ancestors faced danger, working on moving objects.
  • Generally our female railway ancestors would have worked in safer roles. However, many of their accidents (such as a mild burn whilst working in laundry) were probably not reported or investigated.
  • Working hours for those roles that affected passenger safety were restricted to ensure worker fatigue didn’t put passengers at risk. However, other workers would have been working long hours in very physical roles.

What happened to our railway ancestors if they had an accident?

  • Railway companies considered themselves paternalistic. Injured employees were often found new roles, post-accidents. For example, a Goods Guard that had lost an arm, might be found a job as a ticket inspector.

There must have been a large number of people that had missing limbs performing roles like station masters, ticket inspectors, crossing inspectors.

In fact losing a limb was so common that some railway companies even had factories making employees artificial limbs.

Providing an artificial limb or paying for a funeral was a common form of “compensation” provided by railway companies. The accidents were considered inherent risks and of course there were costs to improving health and safety.

Steam Train
  • It was common for workers to be blamed for their accidents, with inspectors coming to the conclusion that the worker ‘hadn’t followed the rules’ or were ‘careless’.
  • Compensation consisted of set amounts for various injuries. There were so many accidents that it wouldn’t have been practical to set compensation on a case by case basis.

Find Out More!

To find out more about Railway Ancestors visit #TwiceRemoved and watch the show!

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