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Reading between the lines

Historian Dr Mike Esbester touches on illiteracy and the sad death of two track workers from 1914

Today we might take the ability to read and write for granted – but not so long ago that wasn’t a given. In an industry like rail, so dependent on the written word, via rules, regulations and more, difficulties with reading, in particular, might have had real safety implications.

However, perhaps surprisingly, the question of literacy doesn’t come up in official reports into historic worker accidents too frequently. It appears as though, in most cases, railway staff had at least a functional level of reading.

Presumably their level was more than just functional, too, given the key document employees were reading, so far as the companies and railway inspectors were concerned, was the rule book.

One hundred or so years ago, this was a densely-written document, using official, legalistic language – not an easy read by any measure. Given staff were tested on comprehension, it looks like they should have understood what they were reading, too – though of course there were many ways around this. In general, though, for the railway industry the indications are actually that the workforce was relatively highly literate.

Nevertheless, there were workers who couldn’t read. In that case, they were to have the rule book read to them, so they were still expected to know and understand its contents. Accidents caused, at least partially, by a worker’s inability to read do appear from time to time in our database of historic worker accidents, as in this case about J. Kavanagh and T. Cannon.

From a 1930s accident prevention booklet. Photo: National Railway Museum.
From a 1930s accident prevention booklet. Photo: National Railway Museum.

Kavanagh and Cannon

Kavanagh and Cannon were employed by the Dublin and South Eastern Railway as ‘milesmen’, meaning they were part of the permanent way gang that was responsible for maintaining track.

On the morning of March 28, 1914, they were working between Shankill and Bray, on the outskirts of Dublin, under the supervision of ganger T. Doyle, when he left them to obtain assistance.

What happened next wasn’t witnessed – always a difficult situation for inspectors, who had to make a best guess at the probable chain of events, when investigating accidents.

In this case, inspector J. P. S. Main presumed that a train had approached on the line they were working on, so that they had crossed it and the other line to keep well out of the way as it passed. Main concluded that ‘no sooner had it done so than they attempted to return, when a train came along the down line, and the men, failing to observe its approach, were struck by the engine and cut to pieces’ – a typically forthright statement of the time about consequences of the accident.

The crew of the passing engine were unaware that they’d hit the men and ‘it was only through the bursting of the vacuum brake pipe by a keying spanner [the tool Kavanagh and Cannon had been using], and the consequent application of the brake, that the enginemen became aware of the accident’.

The line was on a curve where the accident happened, so it wasn’t unreasonable that the men didn’t see the approaching train or the crew see them. However, as Main pointed out, Kavanagh and Cannon knew the line and he ‘was assured’ they knew that the trains usually passed each other there; as a result the unstated implication was that they should have anticipated and avoided the train that hit them. Who exactly had assured Main of this detail? The report doesn’t state – but we might suspect it was a company representative, possibly seeing an easy route for the company in terms of responsibility.

The rule book

Main noted that the rule book was clear on this case: they should ‘have moved clear of all lines and waited until the train for which they had stepped aside had cleared a sufficient distance to enable them to see that no train was approaching on the other lines before attempting to recross the rails’.

What this doesn’t take into account was the pressure to get the work done. If staff were expected – required – to work in amongst moving trains, on a busy route with lots of traffic stopping and waiting until visibility was good might have taken additional time. That might bring employees into conflict with the companies, which expected a certain level of efficiency. In that situation making a decision to move back on the lines a fraction earlier becomes understandable.

Main delved into the question of literacy. Of the three men named, only Cannon could read. Kavanagh had his knowledge of the rules tested just nine days before the accident, and was found competent. Doyle’s knowledge of the rules was tested – possibly by Main, though it isn’t clear – and he was found to have a fair knowledge. Main then went on: ‘It is a question whether a man who suffers under this disability should occupy such a position, unless the greatest care is taken to have the rules read over and explained to him at state intervals’.

Damningly, Main noted that this procedure wasn’t in place on the line but that ‘it is essential that this course should be followed with men who are unable to read, a feature which, I understand, is by no means uncommon with this class of labour on this line’. The Company was directed to ‘give the matter serious attention’.

Great Western Railway rule book, 1904. Photo: National Railway Museum.
Great Western Railway rule book, 1904. Photo: National Railway Museum.


This case, which is not alone, raises all sorts of questions about expectations and class – from the obvious (and to our ears, rather patronising sounding) questions about ‘this class of labour’ to how we read the comment about illiteracy as a ‘disability’. Literally? Figuratively? Both?

If the comment about illiteracy being widespread among track workers on the Dublin and South Eastern Railway was accurate, was it confined to just this role? Was illiteracy an issue beyond just this company – possibly industry-wide? Instinct says not on that latter point, for some of the reasons already outlined, and the demonstrations of literacy we’ve seen elsewhere in our research. However, we’re only as good as the records we’ve seen!

Thinking about how we educate and train staff in the railway industry is clearly not a new issue – and just because the question of illiteracy might today have faded, it doesn’t mean we should ignore it. In any safety-critical role ensuring staff are well-briefed in all aspects remains crucial. Standards today are undoubtedly higher than in 1914 – thankfully – but we can learn from past cases such as Cannon and Kavanagh and check that we’re not assuming everyone meets certain standards, like literacy, without being sure they do. 

The research of Dr Mike Esbester, of the University of Portsmouth, is focused on two key areas: the history of safety and accidents, and the history of mobility. As part of the former, Mike is working alongside the National Railway Museum to run the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project, which is exploring British & Irish railway worker accidents from around 1870s to 1939. To find out more, head to: @RWLDproject or www.railwayaccidents.port.ac.uk.