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Women and the Barry Railway

This week we’re taking a sneak preview at some of the data that will be coming into the project, hopefully later this year. It comes from transcribers working on railway company records at The National Archives (TNA). We thought it might be interesting to explore one run of data (currently incomplete) as it allows us to make a few more comments on where women do – and don’t – feature in the accident records. This builds upon this recent blog post for Women’s History Month.

The cases this week all come from a single company: the Barry Railway Company. The Barry Railway was focused on moving coal from the Rhondda to the company’s docks at Barry, to the west of Cardiff. A number of relevant volumes of Barry Railway accident records survive in TNA’s holdings, from 1898-1922 (after which time the Barry Railway was absorbed into the Great Western Railway). For reasons not entirely clear, there’s a preponderance of south Wales railway companies in the records held at The National Archives.

In the 6 volumes so far transcribed – and our thanks, as ever, to the brilliant volunteers who are doing this hard work – there are 5520 cases of accident recorded. Of this, only 111 of the people listed are women. Four of the six volumes feature no women at all – these deal with compensation awarded after an accident and what appear to be general registers of accidents to staff.

Women locomotive cleaners at work in World War 1.
Women locomotive cleaners at work on the LSWR in World War 1.
Courtesy National Railway Museum, 1997-7410.

Of the 111 women featured in the remaining two volumes, only three are employees. They were all injured in 1917, whilst working as locomotive cleaners – a temporary wartime role, which put a limited number of women into roles and spaces not usually experienced. The first case involved 24 year-old M Hopkins, whilst cleaning an engine in the Barry loco sheds on 17 July 1917. A piece of wire cut her left hand – at this point potentially a life-threatening issue, especially given the likely conditions in the sheds at this time. Whilst there is no evidence of compensation or time off work, the details do record her weekly wage: 18 shillings.

The other two cases both took place in September 1917, also at Barry engine shed. A week apart Rachel Barber, 23 and Maude Downs, also 23, were injured whilst cleaning the motion of engines (i.e. the pistons and rods found underneath the boiler, and typically accessed from underneath). On 10 September Rachel suffered a cut forehead when emerging from underneath an engine and meeting a swinging coupling. Maud was injured 10 days later, on 17 September, when a spring, left in the space she was in, fell on her foot and bruising it. Presumably a different level of experience would account for Rachel’s wage of 25s 3d and Maud’s of 23 shillings per week.

Does the absence of other women employees mean women weren’t employed on the Barry Railway outside the First World War? Or that they were, but didn’t have accidents? Both situations are unlikely. The first could be cross-checked against employment registers, assuming they exist. The second is much harder to explore. We don’t know if the remaining registers to be transcribed will change our picture here, revealing more women who had accidents – or if they will confirm what looks like a bias against women in the railway workplace, in terms of accident investigation.

What of the other 108 women? Well, this once again demonstrates another value of our project: it doesn’t just include railway staff. These women feature in a volume of 698 cases, none of which were employees. It’s likely that all railway companies kept such records, as they’d want to know about all cases of accident on their line – but few such general accident volumes seem to have survived. The majority of the 108 women featured were passengers, with one possible suicide and several cases of pedestrians crossing railway lines being hit by trains.

One case was slightly different, however – an indirect casualty of railway work. On 8 August 1907, Mrs O’Connor (her first name or initial wasn’t recorded) was bringing her husband, a dock worker, his lunch at Barry dry dock. The volume records that she stumbled on the dock caisson wire, incurring unspecified ‘light injuries’ – but sadly no further detail. Did the relevant officials at the dock overlook wives bringing lunch in? Or was she doing it illicitly? Was this a regular practice, or a one-off as a result of a forgotten lunch? We start to think about the everyday rhythms and routines of working people, and the ways in which they were gendered, through sources such as these – windows onto both railway working but also wider societal issues.


  1. Caroline Fairclough

    Interesting stuff – I am responsible for a Women’s Archive of Wales website recording women in Wales in WWI. May I use your three women? I have ticket clerks and other railway employees, but no cleaners. Thanks
    Caroline Fairclough

    • Mike Esbester

      Hi Caroline,

      Thanks for this – and absolutely, we’d be delighted to see the project details being used like this. We’ll be interested to explore your data, too! If you’re ok to link back to us as the original source of the data, that would be greatly appreciated – thanks!


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