Crowd Sourcing the Railway Accident

Dr Mike Esbester, University of Portsmouth


Working on the railways in Britain and Ireland in the early twentieth century could be a dangerous job. We have some reasonable data about the toll of working life: for example, we know that in 1913 alone nearly 30,000 employees were injured or killed in accidents. However, we know far less about the individuals involved, the precise circumstances of their cases, and the impact that their accidents had. This is less to do with a lack of information than because there are simply too many (unindexed) documents for any one person to get to grips with.

Fortunately, however, we have a collaborative solution to this problem. Our project – ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ – is trying to delve into the sources. Working with teams of volunteers – possibly including you! – we’re transcribing the details contained in a range of the sources into a digital format, which we’re making freely available via our website (

Together, we hope to answer questions about attitudes to safety and risk, how workers adapted to disabilities and the aftermath of accident, and how ideas of responsibility for safety and accident changed overtime.

The methodology isn’t new, of course – we’re drawing on ideas about engaging widely with different communities, crowd-sourcing and (ideally!) co-production, which historians and others have been playing with for some time now. But this hasn’t been applied to the history of transport, mobility or occupational safety before.

Our project brings together several quite different institutions: the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick (MRC), the National Railway Museum (NRM) and the University of Portsmouth (UoP). We are also working with The National Archives (TNA) and a number of other groups outside the academic sphere.

At the moment, one of these groups is Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine. We’ve been invited to be one of the projects in the Magazine’s 2019 ‘Transcription Tuesday’ event, which seeks to get anyone and everyone with access to the internet involved in the research process. Colleagues at the MRC have scanned a volume of trade union accident records, which the UoP team members will be making available via the project website on 5 February 2019. We’ve already had world-wide interest, and are hopeful that collectively we’ll be able to transcribe all 2,150 or so cases in the volume. It’ll vastly increase the accessibility of the volume’s contents, which deals with accidents suffered by union members and what compensation was (or wasn’t!) offered to survivors or dependents.

An example page from the volume being used in the Transcription Tuesday event on 5 February. Courtesy MRC.

In planning the project we were particularly keen to involve family historians and genealogists, as we thought they were going to be very interested – we knew the accident record data was name-rich, as well as providing new insights into people’s lives (and in many cases, deaths). That early involvement was essential, as our colleagues and contributors here were able to save us from making some easy mistakes in the how data was to be recorded, as well as to suggest the inclusion of information we might otherwise have missed.

Involving volunteers was the only way it was going to be possible to tackle the huge datasets that are available looking at railway worker deaths and injuries. But that isn’t to imply it was a reluctant decision borne only out of necessity. Far from it. We made an active decision to engage with the different skills and expertise that each volunteer brought with them. We think this has been successful, as not only have many of the original volunteers stayed with the project, but some have used the cases as starting points for their own research – and we’re now working with a team of volunteers at TNA and another at the MRC, with another interesting development in the pipeline! In these cases, we’ve been working with teams of on-site volunteers, so have carried out co-production exercises at the start of their involvement, trying to create a shared research environment that doesn’t privilege one set of priorities over another. It’s early days, but the responses were great – there were some excellent suggestions for directions that we’d not considered!

A data visualisation, covering the first run of project data.

So, what has the project achieved so far? Our free database so far covers 1913-23 and contains details of around 3,900 accidents and around 500 further cases in which injured workers applied for financial support or adaptive technologies after an accident. One great thing is that it’s already been possible to link some of these records together, gaining more insight into the accidents and their impacts – and there are plenty of other sources we’d hope to connect them to in the future.

The interest, engagement and response from across our stakeholders has also been fantastic: we’ve had encouragement from across the world, as well as people using the resources we’ve provided in all sorts of ways, from local and family history, to within the current railway industry and academic worlds. Our Twitter feed (@RWLDproject) is a source of great discussion, and the blog posts on our website are widely read. It’s particularly gratifying that many of the people who have given us feedback have asked for more – which we’re delighted to be doing. The 3 ongoing project extensions could bring as many as 70,000 more cases into the database, covering the 1870s to 1939. We’ve a range of outputs, spanning academic items and beyond, that we’re working on, too.

In an ideal world, we’d love to be able to do even more: there are more official sources to bring in, but we’d be really keen to add personal sources – like material, documents, and recollections contributed by users. We’d also like to link datasets, in the vein of the Digital Panopticon, to enable more in the way of life histories and to connect with relevant data held elsewhere. But all that is for the future – we’ve got plenty to do as it is!

Finally, we’d like to say thanks – to all involved, but especially all the volunteers (past, present and future), without whom it wouldn’t be possible!

If you are interested in getting involved, please contact the RWLD project.

About the Authors: 

Karen Baker is the Railway Museum’s RWLD project lead, liaising with volunteers, helping to promote the project and facilitating content. Helping people discover and engage with their railway pasts is a particular driver for Karen.

Mike Esbester is the academic lead on the RWLD project, which draws on one side of his research interests, into the history of occupational health and safety and accident prevention in modern Britain. He is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Portsmouth.

Helen Ford is the Archive Manager at the Modern Records Centre (MRC). She is keen to exploit the social and personal information held in the railway trade union archives and to help make this valuable data part of the bigger picture being built up by the RWLD project.

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