Project code



School of Area Studies, History, Politics, and Literature

Start dates

October 2023

Closing date

6 April 2023

Applications are invited for a fees-only PhD bursary to commence in October 2023. 

This project results from a collaboration between the University of Portsmouth and the National Railway Museum. You will analyse the human impacts of occupational accidents in the English and Welsh railway industry, 1897-1939. This will be understood through worker lifecycles, placing accidents in their wider occupational and sociocultural contexts. As part of this, you will explore railway workers in their family and community settings, ensuring the broader impacts of occupational accident and disability are revealed.

The PhD will be based in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Portsmouth, and will be supervised by Dr Mike Esbester, Karen Baker (National Railway Museum) and Dr Cathryn Pearce

Candidates applying for this project will be eligible to compete for one of a small number of bursaries available. Successful applicants will receive a bursary to cover tuition fees only at the UK/EU rate for three years (full time) or six years (part time) and a contribution of £2,000 towards consumables, conference, project or training costs

Your work on this project could involve:

  • Exploring the experiences of working life on English and Welsh railways, including the accidents staff suffered, placed in the context of their life courses;
  • Contributing to the National Railway Museum’s object research, display and interpretation work, to ensure we give voice to often-overlooked railway workers, families and communities;
  • Examining what happened to railway staff and their families after an accident, including the ways in which they adapted to death or disability;
  • Considering the ways in which accidents and experiences were gendered and/or aged;
  • Collaborating with external partners, including in the current rail industry, to explore the implications of your research for current practice.

The pre-1939 English and Welsh railway industry killed hundreds of workers and injured thousands annually – and yet about those people we know virtually nothing. Your PhD will change our understandings of the impacts of occupational accident and disability in one of the largest employers of its time, centring the people most affected. You will contribute to multiple fields of historical study (social and cultural history; disability history; railway history; labour history; history of risk), pioneer emerging methodologies (including academic engagement with family history) and promote public understanding (via work with the National Railway Museum, NRM).

Your research will place workers in their broader family and community contexts, expanding understandings of the ‘railway family.’ You will engage with family history practice, deepening the increasing collaboration between academic and family history. You will make a significant intervention in disability history, by focusing on occupational disability. Given no-one has examined railway disabilities in any significant way, this PhD offers you a great opportunity to shape the area.

You will draw on the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ (RWLD) project, an existing collaboration between the University of Portsmouth and the NRM, documenting British and Irish railway worker accidents between the 1880s and 1939. The RWLD project is co-led by Mike Esbester and Karen Baker, the first and second PhD supervisors, and you will benefit from their methodological and topic expertise, as well as their connections with the current rail industry. You will have excellent access to the NRM’s archival and object collections and curatorial expertise.

You will be encouraged to publish short research blogs on the RWLD website and elsewhere, and to showcase your research at international conferences during the PhD. You will join an established group of History PhD researchers at Portsmouth, where you will receive doctoral training, and be a part of the Science Museum Group’s research student community. 

Entry requirements

You'll need a good first degree from an internationally recognised university (minimum upper second class or equivalent, depending on your chosen course) or a Master’s degree in an appropriate subject. In exceptional cases, we may consider equivalent professional experience and/or qualifications. English language proficiency at a minimum of IELTS band 6.5 with no component score below 6.0.

You will be prepared to spend time in York, at the National Railway Museum.

How to apply

We’d encourage you to contact Dr Mike Esbester ( to discuss your interest before you apply, quoting the project code: SASH7970423.

When you are ready to apply, you can use our online application form. Make sure you submit a personal statement (including some discussion of how you would approach the project), proof of your degrees and grades, details of two referees, proof of your English language proficiency and an up-to-date CV.  Our ‘How to Apply’ page offers further guidance on the PhD application process.

If you want to be considered for this funded PhD opportunity you must quote project code SASH7970423 when applying.