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RailStaff October: Attention, class

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Building Britain’s railways in the 19th century was tough work. Railway companies initially recruited miners as they were accustomed to intense labour and also familiar with steam engines, which were used to pump out water. These men were referred to as ‘navvies’, taking their name from their predecessors who dug navigation canals.

It was often dangerous work too. Navvies building the Woodhead Railway Tunnels in Derbyshire suffered higher casualty rates than the army did at the Battle of Waterloo, but the work was well paid.

The navvies were a fascinating bunch and, together with engine drivers, signallers and clerks, are the focus of a newly launched educational short course exploring the lives of railway workers between 1840 and 1914.

Co-created by the National Railway Museum and the University of Strathclyde and hosted on futurelearn.com, ‘Working Lives on the Railway’ paints a picture of what it was like building, operating and working on a railway in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The social history course is split into four weeks. The first examines the role of the “heroic” engine drivers whose tales (fact and fiction) of sacrifice and danger lifted them high into public esteem. The second, and last to be released prior to this issue going to print, looks at the complex world of signallers. These men – and sometimes women – were mysterious to the public. They worked long and lonely hours which demanded high levels of human attention and human alertness and led to terrible human consequences when it went horribly wrong, as researchers succinctly put it in the course.

Archive material, slick videos, quizzes and discussion opportunities welcome participants each step of the way. Although the course recommends three hours of study each week, you can complete the individual modules in around an hour if you’re short of time. Either way, this bite-sized programme has become a hive of activity with hundreds of amateur historians, railway enthusiasts and learners taking to the comments section to share their thoughts and questions.

This treasure trove of rail worker history reveals that semaphore signalling is based on navy signalling and was first used on the London and Croydon Railway in 1841. It explains that engine drivers had no formal training and would instead draw their knowledge from experience on the footplate, working as firemen and by driving in goods yards. And it describes the orphanages and money-raising railway dogs that would help to support the families of workers who were injured or killed.

There are three reasons why I would encourage readers to take part in the course. The first is self-explanatory – it has, so far, been great fun. Secondly, railway history, as the course organisers elude to themselves, has often focused on “the machines” rather than the people who built, operated and maintained them. As a magazine that puts people rather than trains, track and technology at its heart, you can see why we’d be a big supporter.

Finally, looking back at the past helps us to learn from successes and mistakes. I know many will have reflected on the past and present on October 5, the 20th anniversary of the Ladbroke Grove rail crash, on what lessons must be retained and re-learnt.

The online course threw up a number of similarities between the rail industry now and then, some positive (the idea of a railway family) but some not so (worker fatigue). It has been thoroughly enjoyable, and a great reminder that we should never stop learning, as individuals and as an industry. Best of all – it’s free to access, so what are you waiting for? 

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