David Turner is a Railway Historian. He’s currently studying for a PHD, which finds him surrounded by all kinds of ancient railway documents. You can read his blog at turniprail.blogspot.com and follow him on twitter as @TurnipRail Here he talks about female workers on the Railway before 1914.
Before 1914 women worked on Britain’s railways in small numbers and a limited number of capacities, and in July 1914 only 13,046 were employed out of a total workforce of 630,000.
Further, it was only women who didn’t have the support of a husband that were employed, and the vast majority were either the daughters or widows of railway workers. Indeed, as with most industries in the era, marriage was the end of work for most railwaywomen, and only in certain cases did married women gain employment. Lastly, a woman who did not have a relative working on the railways could not apply for a job within the industry.
It was after 1880 that the daughters of railwaymen began to be employed in large numbers by railway companies. Firstly, the increase of women in railway employment was made possible by the introduction of universal education in 1870. This meant the majority of women were sufficiently literate to undertake many forms of railway work. However, more importantly for railway managers, women were seen as a cheap source of labour that was easily accessible through existing railway employees. Women were also considered more compliant than male employees.
Thus, in an era when the cost of running railways was increasing, from a purely financial standpoint, the employment of women was logical for railway managers.
While, as a universal rule, railwaywomen’s positions had no responsibility, were menial and low paid. A daughter’s employment, particularly, was defined by their father’s position and employing department. For example, between 1873 and 1914 the London and South Western Railway employed nine women in the relatively good job of telegraph clerk. All had fathers that were either clerks or stationmasters in the Traffic Department; two jobs that were of high status, had job security, good wages and many promotional prospects. Indeed, this would have been the case for the majority of the 1,120 female clerks employed nationally in 1914.
However, many daughters employed on the railway had fathers who were in positions that were low- status, had low job security and almost no promotional prospects. Because of this, these women usually received jobs that were more menial and lower paid than a telegraph clerk. Thus, if a father was employed by the Traffic Department, for example as a porter, carriage cleaner, inspector or signalman, their daughter would most likely obtain employment as a ticket sorter, office cleaner or laundress. Additionally, if a woman’s father was employed in the Locomotive Department, where the majority of male employees were of a low status, such as labourers or firemen, she could expect to receive work in the railway workshops as a carriage lining sewer, French polisher or carriage blind dyer. Indeed, at the Great Eastern Railway’s Wolverton Works in 1906, 40 women were engaged in French polishing, 24 worked in the laundry, and 60 worked in the cutting out room as sewers and trimmers.
While the daughters of railwaymen joined the railway in large numbers after 1880, the widows of railwaymen who had been killed while on duty had been employed by railway companies since the 1840s. However, they were without doubt the lowest paid and most poorly treated railway employees. This was because their employment was regarded as an act of charity by the companies’ managements, especially as many railwaymen who were killed while on duty were considered to have been so because of their ‘own misconduct or want of caution.’ As such, railway company management felt no obligation to provide better pay or better employment to their widows as it was their husband’s fault that they were in their situations. Indeed, this is evidenced by the fact that the death of a railwayman did not automatically secure his widow employment, and she had to wait on a list for a vacancy to become available. Thus, there was no urgency to find widows employment to support her and any family she may have.
Therefore, many widows were given employment as office cleaners, waiting room attendants, laundresses, carriage lining sewers and gatekeepers, on lower rates than their colleagues who were the daughters of railway employees. As such, their income would have provided them with barely enough money to support themselves, let alone a family. Subsequently, many railwaymen’s widows and children continued to live in poverty. In extreme cases, many suffered from ill-health, alcoholism and mental health problems, with children being taken into the workhouse.
So for all railwaywomen on Britain’s railways before 1914, their employment was dependent on their marital status and, especially in the case of railwaymen’s daughters, by where their relatives worked within the company. Women were treated poorly on the 19th and early 20th century railway and were the worst paid employees, simply viewed as cheap labour or a burden. For railway managers, women’s employment, was always simply about money.
1 Wojtczak, Helena, Railwaywomen, (London, 2005) p.4
2 Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.29
3 Walkden, A.G. A Word to Women, Railway Clerks Association Booklet, (1915)
4 Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.19
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Sadly not a unique story in history of women in the work place, but it is good to remind people that we did exist in many places that are not mentioned in history books. As Virgina Woolf said ” For many years Anonymous was a woman.”
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