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Black History Month: Where are the railway workers of colour?

Over the years our project and our blog have covered many topics relating to railway work and railway workers. But ethnicity hasn’t explicitly been one of them. Why not?

October is Black History Month, so it’s a good time to address this one. It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a little while this year, and periodically over several years.


Ethnicity in the pre-1939 British & Irish rail industry

On one level we have touched upon ethnicity – implicitly. The vast majority, if not all, of the workers found in our database were very probably white. It’s difficult to say for sure, as ethnicity wasn’t something which was recorded in the accident records we rely on. Presumably everyone was assumed to be white and this just wasn’t seen as an issue at the time. For the period we cover – that before 1939 – this is reflective of the way that in Britain people of colour were in the minority, including within the railway industry.

Of course, it wasn’t the case that the British and Irish railway industry was staffed just by white people. After all, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. It’s likely that people of colour did work on the railways before 1939 – though the documentary record may be unrevealing and historians have so far had very little to say on the matter.


Ethnicity in rail beyond Britain and Ireland, and after 1945

Historians of other parts of the world have had more to say about ethnicity and railway work – reflecting the particular circumstances of the societies and nations they consider. This is true of the USA and of the British empire, for instance – the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and black labour activism, the role of Chinese and Latin American railroad workers in the USA, or colonial railways in India or South Africa.[1]

So far as the Britain goes, the post-1945 period fares a little better. In part this is because there was both an increase in people of colour working in the industry, and an increase in their visibility. Reg Davies has looked at British Railways (BR) black workers from 1948 until 1997.[2]

BR had an informal colour bar – in relation to public-facing or prominent roles – in the 1950s and 1960s, at least in some locations. The well-known case of Asquith Xavier, who challenged the colour bar at London Euston in the mid-1960s to become a passenger guard, highlighted some of prejudices that railway workers of colour faced. Over recent years, people have been more actively looking for the history of people of colour in rail – and of course they have been finding them, as in the case of Percival Hanniford in Wales.

As Percival Hanniford demonstrated, things changed greatly after 1945, with many more people of colour across British society and working in the rail industry. Today’s rail industry is more diverse than ever before. According to Women in Rail’s 2018 research, around 27% of the workforce in their sample were people of colour. Given this survey is shortly to be taken again, it will be interesting to see how the industry looks now. Proactive steps are being taken to recognise the contributions people of colour have made in the past and support them in the present and future. This comes through a number of routes, including initiatives for Black History Month and year-round via groups such as Ethnicity and Race in Rail.


Ethnicity and accidents

Returning to the project’s focus – accidents to British and Irish railway staff before 1939 – a great many railway roles meant exposure to danger. There’s every reason to think that, where people of colour were employed, they would have had accidents. We can also speculate that, given a lower social status assigned to people of colour at that time, they might have been employed in roles more likely to be exposed to danger. So where are their accidents in what we do?

As we’ve already noted, so far as we can tell, we don’t have any workers of colour featured in the accident records. More than anything else, this demonstrates the challenges of using formal contemporary documentation when understanding minoritized groups. The official blind spot of the time is perpetuated. So – how can we find workers of colour in our dataset (if they feature), and find out more about accidents to railway workers of colour?

It might be possible by making use of other records – things like census returns and newspaper reports – and cross-referencing with the project records. This isn’t a simple task, of course. We’re open to other potential solutions – and to your help in helping us find workers of colour and their accidents.

Why is this relevant now? Even thinking about these issues helps ensure past erasure of people of colour and their accidents is not replicated. It helps to show the relevance of the rail industry’s past to its present – and to communities of colour who might not otherwise have seen themselves as represented in the rail industry’s past. Finally, it helps to show the foundations of the industry in which people of colour work now – and understanding that is important for all of us.


I’d like to add a note to this blog recognising my positionality. For those less familiar with this idea, it’s about where and how we locate ourselves in relation to social identities – gender, class, ethnicity, ability, geographical location in the world and so on. All of these factors influence our experiences and opportunities, and how we view and engage with the world around us. It makes sense that I – as a white, middle-class, middle-aged, straight man who is physically able, lives in Britain and doesn’t work in the rail industry – will have a different perspective to someone else whose position in some way differs. In relation to this blog in particular, therefore, I’ll clearly have very different experiences to a woman or man of colour. I’ve tried to approach the topic with regard to this and to make an honest attempt to think about some of the questions raised by issues of ethnicity in the past – and the present. It might well be, however, that I’ve not got some terms or ideas right. I’m open to that and am happy to engage meaningfully if I can improve – please get in touch!

Particular thanks to all those I discussed this with – including Cheryl Hunnisett, Oli Betts, Lou Moon, David Turner, and Caroline Godesen from Women in Rail.



[1] Di Drummond, ‘Borders and Margins?: Learned Societies, Imperial Administrators, Railway Engineers and the Formation of Discourses on Race, Imperialism and British Overseas Railway Building, 1840-1930’, Amina Alyal, Susan Anderson and Rosemary Mitchell (eds) in Victorian Cultures of Liminality: Borders and Margins (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2018), 137-156; Ian Kerr, Building the Railways of the Raj 1850-1900 (1997); Kurt Korneski, ‘Race, Gender, Class, and Colonial Nationalism: Railway Development in Newfoundland, 1881-1898’, Labour/ Le Travail (2008), 79-108; Nitin Sinha, ‘The World of Workers’ Politics: Some Issues of Railway Workers in Colonial India, 1918-1922’, Modern Asian Studies (2008), 999-1033; Laura Gbah Bear, Lines of the nation: Indian Railway workers, bureaucracy, and the intimate historical self (New York, 2007).

[2] Reg Davies, ‘Opportunity, isolation and prejudice: Black workers on British Railways, 1948-1997’, Journal of the Railway and Canal Historical Society (July 2017), 73-82.

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