Preventing Accidents in Twentieth-Century Britain

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Of Handkerchiefs, Milk Bottle Tops and Soap:

Preventing Accidents in 20th Century Britain

Mike Esbester

6 December 2011, Oxford Brookes University


Abstract: We all recognise the annual Christmas anti-drink/driving campaign, and perhaps mutter darkly at the latest tales of “elf n’ safety gone mad.” But do we ever stop to think when messages telling us how to be safe started, and why? This highly-illustrated lecture explores the phenomenon of safety education: preventing accidents by using the media to persuade people to change their behaviour and act safely. We might know it from the Green Cross Code or Tufty the road safety squirrel, but it started before the First World War, and made use of surprisingly diverse and engaging techniques – from photographs, posters and films to cigarette cards, handkerchiefs and messages on bars of soap – examples of which feature in the lecture.

The lecture shows how and why safety education started, and how it spread rapidly from the workplace out into wider society – particularly road safety, but also safety at home. It also discusses what safety education reveals about the changing role of the state in our lives: since 1945 the state has increasingly provided safety education and advice. Why did the government get involved in its citizens’ lives in this way? How have people responded to safety education? These are just some of the questions the lecture touches upon.

The lecture was given as part of Oxford Brookes University’s 2011-12 Open Lecture Series, and was based on research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK.


Bio: Dr Mike Esbester is Lecturer in History at the University of Portsmouth and Research Associate at Oxford Brookes University. The research upon which this lecture is based was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK as part of an Early Career Fellowship that Mike held between 2010 and 2011, based in the Department of History, Philosophy and Religion at Oxford Brookes University.

Mike’s Fellowship project – ‘Living in Safety: the Culture of “Safety” and Accident Prevention in Everyday in Britain, c.1900-2000’ – looked at how and why safety education came to be found virtually everywhere in twentieth-century Britain. It concentrated on safety at work, in the home and on the streets, and made particular use of unusual sources: including booklets, posters, board games, films, beer mats, bookmarks – even milk bottle tops!

Mike is continuing his research into safety and accident prevention, and is currently working on a monograph to be published by Ashgate, provisionally entitled The Birth of Modern Safety: Preventing Worker Accidents on Britain’s Railways, 1871-1948. He welcomes people contacting hi?m to discuss his research, so feel free to get in touch!



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