Health and safety at work 100 years ago

While I was recently cataloguing the personnel records in the Vickers Armstrong collection I came across a large quantity of accident records. These give a fascinating insight into working conditions at the factories and shipyards operated by the firm in Newcastle upon Tyne.

View of the Elswick Works, Newcastle upon Tyne, c1900 (TWAM ref. D.VA/57/9).

View of the Elswick Works, Newcastle upon Tyne, c1900 (TWAM ref. D.VA/57/9).

The collection includes a series of nine accident report books for the Elswick Shipyard covering the years 1898-1916. These include the names, trades, ages and addresses of all the men injured in the shipyard together with details of their accidents. There are numerous examples of back injuries suffered during heavy lifting together with minor injuries such as bruises and lacerations caused by falls and accidental contact with equipment and machinery. With so many lathes, saws and presses in operation accidents were inevitable.

Not all accidents took place during work time. I came across one example of a serious accident resulting from ‘boys being boys’.  The worker concerned was an apprentice in the shipyard, John Cribbins, who lived in Byker.


Elswick Shipyard accident report book entry relating to John Cribbins, 7 September 1915 (TWAM ref. DS.VA/2/63/9)

As the entry shows, on 7 September 1915 Cribbins lost a finger while ‘Amusing himself’ with companions during his dinner hour (TWAM ref. DS.VA/2/63/9). The accident report book records the nature and circumstances of the injuries:

“1st finger right hand amputated & thumb & second finger severely lascerated by bogie wheel passing over it. Talking to companions who were amusing themselves in dinner hour with Yard Bogie, on railway down east side of 858 ship’s berth”.

To further rub salt into the wound he didn’t receive any compensation for his injury. Sadly he was just one of hundreds of men and women who lost fingers, eyes and sometimes even their lives in the shipyards and workshops at Elswick and Walker.  Fatalities were not uncommon as the registers of accidents at the Low Walker shipyard testify.  The entry below documents a fatal injury to Edward Gray, a 43 year old painter’s labourer, on 13 July 1908 (TWAM ref. DS.VA/2/58/1).

Entries from a register of accidents at the Low Walker shipyard, July 1908 (TWAM ref. DS.VA/2/58/1)

Entries from a register of accidents at the Low Walker shipyard, July 1908 (TWAM ref. DS.VA/2/58/1)

Tragically, falls such as this from the stages besides vessels were the cause of numerous shipyard deaths.

With so many injuries to employees Armstrong Whitworth were inevitably facing compensation claims from a large number of workers. The Vickers Armstrong collection includes files relating to a significant number of these cases from the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. While the majority of these relate to men, some do also relate to women. This is particularly the case during the First World War, when large numbers of women went to work in the factories.

An example is the case file relating to Florence Dodds, from Chester le Street, who worked for the firm as a machinist at the Elswick Works (TWAM ref DS.VA/2/76/14). She was 22 years of age at the time of her accident in October 1916, when she suffered two broken fingers on her right hand and the amputation of the top of her middle finger.

Compensation case file relating to Florence Dodds,  (TWAM ref DS.VA/2/76/14).

Compensation case file relating to Florence Dodds, 1919 (TWAM ref DS.VA/2/76/14).

Three years later in 1919 Florence Dodds accepted a lump sum settlement of £40.00 for her injuries.

These accident records are a reminder of just how far we have come in terms of improvements to workplace health and safety. As well as being of interest to social historians they may well also be of interest to family historians whose ancestors worked in the Armstrong Whitworth shipyards and factories at Elswick, Scotswood and Walker. Why not visit the Archives to find out more – our location and opening times can be found on our website.


15 Responses to Health and safety at work 100 years ago

  1. Richard Percival says:

    I have in my possession a family heirloom in the form of a signed (J Stobart)painting of the Imperial Japanese Navy capital ship Hatsuse, which I understand was built by Armstrong Elswick in 1898. I am interested to understand if my ancestor worked at the shipyard (I know he lived locally). Do records of employees exist for that period. Any information would be gratefully received.


  2. Jenny Young says:

    I am researching my family history and know that my grandfather and grandmother worked, and met each other, at the Armstrong factory in Elswick in WW1. Are any records that may feature them available online or would you be able to search your records? I would love to be able to visit the Archives but live in Kent so it is not possible. Their names were Ellis Ball and Mary Maria Mathison.

    • Alan Hayward says:

      Hi Jenny,

      Thanks for getting in touch.

      I’m afraid that we have relatively few personnel records for the Elswick Works and virtually none relating to the women who worked there during the First World War. The one exception that I’m aware of is an ambulance room register for Elswick Works 40 Shop covering the period 18 February – 19 July 1918 (TWAM ref. DS.VA/2/65/1). The chance of your grandmother being named in there is very small but we could search it for you through our paid research service Please do get in touch if you have any questions.

      Best wishes,


    • Pete Mathison says:

      Dear Jenny,I am also related to Maria Mathison!Cheers,Pete Mathison (

    • Pete Mathison says:

      Hi Jenny,I am also related to Mary Maria Mathison! Cheers,Pete Mathison (

  3. Pete Mathison says:

    Hi, My Grandfather and Greatgrandfather worked in shipyards between 1880 and 1925 as they lived in Elswicki presume they worked there. They were both called Sydney Mathison (there may be spelling variations!) Do you have any record of them,I believe one may have been an apprentice carpenter in 1911.
    Cheers Pete Mathison.

    • Alan Hayward says:

      Hi Pete,

      Thanks for getting in touch.

      The apprenticeship records we hold for Armstrong Whitworth relate to the Ordnance Department rather than the Shipyard so sadly we’re unlikely to have any records of their employment.

      It’s a bit of a long shot but it’s possible that they might appear in the Elswick Shipyard register of accidents, 1884-1899 (TWAM ref. DS.VA/2/57) or the Elswick Shipyard accident report books, 1898-1916 (TWAM ref. DS.VA/2/63).

      I’ve afraid that restrictions on staff time mean than we can’t search those documents for you free of charge. You’re very welcome to visit us to take a look at the records and details of our location and opening times can be found here Alternatively, we do have a paid research service and further information about that can be found on our website If you have any questions please do get in touch.

      Best wishes,


  4. Peter Maddison says:

    Hi Alan

    I was very interested to read of your ongoing cataloguing of Vickers Armstrong personnel records. I’ve tried to access some of the items you refer to above, with reference numbers starting DS.VA/2, in order to try to see the extent of the records you have, but can’t seem to display them. The reason for my interest is that I believe my grandfather worked for the company in the early part of the last century. His occupation in the 1901 census is given as “overlooker iron boring machine”, and in 1911 as a chargeman in the steelworks. I’d like to see the extent of the records available for examination prior to visiting the archives in person. Perhaps you could provide a hyperlink to the relevant part of the catalogue?

    Many thanks

    Peter Maddison

    • Alan Hayward says:

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’m really glad that you found the blog interesting.

      I’ve only recently completed the cataloguing of the Vickers Armstrongs collection and the finished product hasn’t yet been added to our online catalogue. That explains why you couldn’t find the entries. Sadly we have relatively few personnel records relating to the Elswick Works and unless your grandfather served an apprenticeship in the Ordnance Works (from 1896 onwards) it’s very unlikely that we’ll have any records of his employment.

      I hope that isn’t too disappointing.

      Best wishes,


  5. Peter Maddison says:

    Thank you for your prompt reply Alan. I look forward to browsing the online catalogue when it has been updated to include your work.
    I have found it fascinating to read both in books (I have a copy of J D Scott’s history) and online about the history and activities of the company in which my grandfather may have played a very small part.
    He and his family (including my father) moved from Newcastle to Manchester in the mid twenties: I have always assumed to take up employment in one of the parts of the company located there. I know they lived in the Openshaw district of the city. Do you know whether any records similar to those you have been working on exist for any of the former Whitworth or latterly Vickers parts of the company, and if so could you point me in their direction please?

    Thanks again for your help

    Best regards


    • Alan Hayward says:

      Hi Peter,

      We’ve got very little relating to the Openshaw Works – we do have plans of some of the products produced there, including cranes, accumulators and presses. However, we don’t have any relevant personnel records.

      You could try contacting Sheffield City Archives – they appear to hold some Openshaw financial records (ref Acc 1988/50). However, I suspect that these are unlikely to be useful for your research. Contact details can be found here

      It’s a bit of a long shot but you could also contact Cambridge University Library to see whether they can help. They hold the main Vickers Archive and contact details can be found here

      Best of luck with your research.


  6. philip nixon says:

    Served my time, walker naval yard,1964 /1970,as apprentice welder, done first 12 months,, as office boy, in drawing office 5th floor, as not allowed in yard till you were 16! joined yard St johns, first aid team, when I was 18, seen some horrific
    injuries and fatality’s health and safety, not as today.

  7. MARK FARNELL says:

    Hi my grandfather John Joseph Fenwick joined Vickers Armstrong about 1887 aged 14 as an engine fitter before becoming an armaments fitter until his retirement. The family lived at Cullercoats and i would love to be able to find any more information out…

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