#HeForShe – Women, work & accidents on Britain’s railways

by Mike Esbester

On 30 September 1922, railway carriage cleaner Mary Watson suffered a life-changing accident. Working at Queen Street Station in Glasgow, by 3.20pm she was just under 2 hours into her 8 hour shift. As part of a team, her role was to sweep out the carriage compartments and corridors between passenger services. As this was a busy station and turnaround times were limited, the carriages were to be moved whilst being cleaned.

The accident location – Glasgow Queen Street station, 1933. The accident took place in the tunnel to the north of Cunningham Street. Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps

The carriages had to be drawn into the tunnel north of the station. Whilst the train was moving in the tunnel, Mary realised a door was open but ‘while she was attempting to close the door it was caught by the tunnel wall, and was torn off the carriage, and that it pulled her out of the vehicle.’ Unfortunately for Mary, the door, her right hand and her left arm ‘went across the rail and were run over by one or more of the wheels.’ They were later amputated.

The details we have of her case come from an investigation undertaken by one of the Inspectors appointed by the Ministry of Transport to find out what happened in employee accidents. Whilst passenger train crashes had been investigated since 1840, staff accidents only started being examined in 1892. Even then there were so many worker accidents that only around 3% of all cases were investigated – in 1922 alone there were around 16,000 casualties. Many of the injuries left staff, like Mary, disabled.

The accidents have left a paper trail in the archives, forming the basis of the Railway Work, Life & Death project. We’re exploring accidents to British and Irish railway staff before 1939. Teams of volunteers at our collaborating institutions, the National Railway Museum and the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick, working with The National Archives, are transcribing reports into accidents like those suffered by Mary, in order to make them more easily available to researchers.

So where did women fit into the railway industry at the time of Mary’s accident? In 1921 there were over 56,000 women employed, across a working population of around 766,000 people. By 1925 the number of women employed had halved; the figure would remain at about this level until the Second World War. In peacetime women were a relatively small, though still significant, percentage of the total workforce. They were also concentrated in particular – often gendered – roles. Commonly they might be cleaners (offices and carriages), seamstresses, or waiting, hotel and clerical staff. 

What implications did this have for railwaywomen’s accidents? Most accidents to railway staff happened in manual roles, largely occupied in the period before 1939 by men: engine crews, shunters (who coupled and uncouple goods wagons), train guards, permanent way staff (who maintained the railway lines, frequently working in amongst moving trains). As a result, most of the staff injured or killed in accidents were men. But women were certainly not immune – particularly carriage cleaners like Mary Watson, who had to move around the tracks, including moving trains. One such 1913 case, for example, led to the death of Williamina Gardiner (discussed here). Some women acted a gate keepers, opening and closing level crossing gates – with attendant risks from oncoming trains, discussed here by Helena Wojtczak.

Yet in the state accident investigations, women’s accidents rarely featured. Why not? 

Where are the women? Did the inspectors deliberately focus on what they might have perceived as more serious cases – generally involving men? At over 100 years distance it is hard to say, but it does present us with some challenges when trying to understand the nature and dangers of railwaywomen’s work. 

An example accident prevention image – posed – warning of some of the dangers to carriage cleaners. Produced by the same company employing Mary, the North British Railway. The ‘Safety’ Movement (c.1918).

We know that the railway company changed procedures after Mary’s accident, to prevent a recurrence – but what happened to Mary? Sadly, at the moment we don’t know. The accident reports generally stop at the moment of the accident. She should have been due some compensation. Did she need to go on and find further work? How did she adapt to her injuries? These are important questions which railway historians are, in general, yet to grapple with – but we must if we are truly to appreciate the toll that work took on the bodies of railwaywomen and men. What’s great about the Railway Work, Life & Death project is that it is making a start on this work, and that we’re working with a wide community of researchers to find out about the people affected by occupational accidents.

Recommended Reading:

  • The Railway Work, Life & Death project site, including in particular where women appear in the records to date: http://www.railwayaccidents.port.ac.uk/tag/women/
  • Major, Susan, Female Railway Workers in World War II (Pen & Sword, 2018).
  • Reeves, Hannah, ‘An exploration of the “railway family”, 1900-1948’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Keele, 2018).
  • Robertson, Emma and Lee-Ann Monk, ‘“When women do the work of men”: Representations of gendered occupational identities on British railways in World War I cartoons’, Labour History 117 (November 2019), 47-77.
  • Wotjczak, Helena, Railwaywomen: Exploitation, Betrayal & Triumph in the Workplace (Hastings Press, 2005).

About the Author:

Mike Esbester is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Portsmouth, and one of the co-leaders of the Railway Work, Life & Death project. His research focuses on the history of risk, accident prevention and safety in 19th and 20th century Britain, including in particular the railway industry. He is interested in co-produced research, working with community historians outside higher education, including family and local historians and rail enthusiasts.

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