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Elizabeth Trevelyan, signalwoman

March is Women’s History Month, and once again is a good opportunity for our project to reflect on where women appear in our work. This is something we’ve done for previous Women’s History Months, with some blog posts here. More than that, we’ve also made sure we’ve blogged about railwaywomen outside Women’s History Month – women worked on the railway all year round, of course.


Elizabeth Trevelyan’s early life

This year we start our contributions to Women’s History Month by looking at the life and accident of Elizabeth Trevelyan. She was born in 1900, in Bridgend, Wales. On the 1901 Census her father, Thomas, was listed as a greengrocer; her mother, Elizabeth, had no occupation listed, so might have been looking after the family and/ or helping in the greengrocers. They were living in Bridgend.

In 1910 she was attending Brynmenyn Seniors School, near Tondu – about 3.5 miles north of Bridgend. We know from the 1911 Census that her father was at that point a coal hewer – he would have worked in a mine, likely at the coal face. Quite a change from being a greengrocer, so at some point fortunes seem to have changed.

By 1911 Elizabeth had three siblings, and her mother again has no occupation listed against her name. She might have been helping look after the family, or undertaking paid work not reflected by the Census enumerator. The Trevelyans now lived in the Tondu area, on Bryn Road (visible on the map – the road running from Tondu and under Ynysawdre Junction). With them in the family home was a boarder, another miner, and Thomas’ niece, Gladys Trevelyan, age 15.


Women, railways and the First World War

Elizabeth last appears on the school register in 1913, so would have left at 14 and presumably have sought work. She re-appears in the documentary record courtesy of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). On 2 June 1917 Elizabeth joined the Tondu branch, as a Great Western Railway (GWR) porter. She seems to have been the branch’s second woman member.

Ordnance Survey map of Tondu, Wales, in c.1914.
Tondu in c.1914.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.


Women had long worked on the railways, so that there were railwaywomen wasn’t new. However, before the First World War they tended to be confined to particular gendered roles – deemed either ‘feminine’ or ‘unskilled.’ This included working in laundries or as seamstresses, or level crossing gatekeepers (as in this previous blog post). As Helena Wojtczak has noted, some women were moving into carriage cleaning in the years before the First World War, but it was by no means large-scale or fully established (see this previous blog post for one incident).

Two key things changed during the First World War. Firstly, the opportunities for women on the railways increased – albeit for the most part only temporarily. The number of roles open to them, as well as the numbers employed, increased. Women became porters, ticket collectors and engine cleaners, for example. Secondly, the NUR permitted women to join. In both cases the direction from the industry and wider society was that these new spaces for women were for the period of national crisis and not seen as a permanent change.


Elizabeth’s accident and post-railway life

With women in new roles came new dangers – hence Elizabeth’s appearance in our project database of accidents to British and Irish railway staff before 1939. Her case appears in the trade union dataset, as part of the information recorded about members and non-fatal compensation.

We have relatively limited information about her accident – likely because it was a relatively minor incident. We know that on 25 April 1917 Elizabeth ‘smashed three fingers’ on her right hand. Beyond that – nothing. Unlike other accidents in the ‘non-fatal compensation’ dataset, she doesn’t have a return to work date listed. We suspect that’s because she didn’t go off work, or she wasn’t off for long enough (a week) to qualify under the Workmen’s Compensation Act. This also means there’s no compensation listed against her entry – along with the line ‘not entitled.’

Whatever happened, she might have received first aid treatment. This is a topic we’ve touched upon in the past (for example, here in the case of Frederick Webb). The railway companies were keen to encourage staff to learn first aid – not least because of the risks of the job and the numbers of accidents employees suffered. Had she done so, she might have been treated by some of the men in this, later, photograph.

Railwayman sat and stood in front of tank engine and engine shed at Tondu, Wales, in 1932. To the front lies a boy on a stretcher, as a mocked up casualty.
Tondu first aid class 1931-32.


Elizabeth left the NUR in December 1919 – and the GWR. Against her membership entry – ruled through – are the words ‘Left Service.’ This might have been because she was required to leave – women’s war service in these roles was temporary. But she might have chosen to leave, too. In September 1920 she married Albert Cridland – a GWR guard. Had they met whilst she worked at Tondu? It seems probable. They appear together as boarders on the 1921 Census, living in Cardiff. Alan Roberts pointed us in the right direction on Elizabeth’s death – 1933, in Cardiff.


A railway signalwoman?

There is one curiosity about Elizabeth’s accident record. Her grade in the NUR records was given as ‘signalwoman.’ This was clearly deliberate – so had she changed role, from porter?

Would Elizabeth have been a signalwoman in the sense we’d perhaps expect? Given the size of Tondu station and area, and the scale of the railway workings including how busy it must have been, it feels hard to believe that the GWR would have entrusted a woman, and a relatively new recruit, with this very high profile and visible role. Caution and fear of public concern would likely have dissuaded any such ideas had they been entertained. In safety-critical roles like signalling, the railway companies were cautious, including about public opinion.

Regardless, could Elizabeth have accrued enough experience and seniority to be a signalwoman at Tondu? By the time she joined the railways, signalling grades were reserved occupations, so normal rules about seniority and progression would have applied. It seems improbable that Elizabeth could have been top of the list to move into a signalling role at Tondu, particularly not in such a short space of time from joining the railways.

Signalwomen did exist, however, so it wasn’t completely unknown. From 1888 until into the First World War, Emily Merwood was station master of Whippingham station on the Isle of Wight. Her role included the signalling, as it was a very small and relatively lightly served station.

Two women dressed in uniform standing on wooden stairs leading up to a signal box at Fairfield Station.
Great Central Railway ‘train register girls’ at Fairfield Station, Manchester. They would have recorded the details of train moves authorised through the signal box. Photograph by Arthur Reavil during the First World War.
Courtesy The John Rylands.

As a result of the First World War, a Mrs Littlewood was signalwoman on the London and South Western Railway, responsible for a level crossing near Egham. Ethel Coates, ‘having passed the Board of Trade examination necessary for taking charge of a signal-cabin on the railway’, was the North Eastern Railway’s first signalwoman (Whitby Gazette, 25 May 1917). We believe she was employed at Lingdale, a small, freight-only line in Yorkshire. And at Crieff, Clackmannanshire, Jean Buchanan ‘has undertaken with success signalling duties at the railway station’ in 1917 (Stirling Observer, 6 January 1917). This too was a relatively small station. These were small – but no less significant – steps for railwaywomen and women in general.

The smaller and less busy station aspect is significant, not just in terms of public and railway companies’ perceptions of where women might be tried in signalling roles. There was an established tradition at smaller stations, where there was less need for a full complement of staff, for people to act ‘across’ grades. ‘Porter signalman’ was a typical example – indeed, a number of cases involving this role appear in our project database. The staff member would fulfil the needs of both roles.

So, might the solution be that Elizabeth was still a porter, but she was undertaking some form of signalling role? Possibly. That signalling role might not have been in a signal box, pulling levers, changing points and controlling the movement of trains – the classic view of a signaller’s role. She might have been doing something else. Equally, she might have been a signalwoman at an outlying, smaller, signal box. As roles and titles were closely guarded, the deliberate use of ‘signalwoman’ in the NUR accident record might suggest she was undertaking signalling duties somewhere. Frustratingly, unless some further evidence emerges, we’ll never know!


First World War railwaywomen in Tondu

It’s hard to know exactly how many other women were working at Tondu at the same time as Elizabeth – but there were others. The NUR admission registers show a number of women joining:

Amy Sylvester, 22, joined as a carriage cleaner on 8 April 1917

Lily Owens, 18, joined as a porter on 3 June 1917 & left December 1917;

Mary Watkins, 18, as a porter in July 1917 & left June 1919;

Florence Edbrooke, 42, as a carriage cleaner in August 1917 & left June 1919;

Rhoda Baker, 18, as a porter in August 1917 & left June 1919;

Beatrice Thomas & Katie Chappell, both 18, as porters in November 1917 & left in September 1919;

VRA Lloyd, 18, as a porter in November 1917 & left in December 1919;

Elsie Prosser, 20, as a carriage cleaner in December 1917; died December 1918;

Nancy Pritchard, 18, as a ticket collector in December 1917 & left June 1919;

Annie Haines, 25, and Annie Riggs, 24, as carriage cleaners in January 1919;

Ellen Haines, 23, as a carriage cleaner in March 1919 (inspired by her big sister?) and left June 1919.

So – there was a definite concentration of railwaywomen in Tondu, at least between 1917-1919. And there was one more – Gladys Trevelyan, Elizabeth’s cousin. She joined the NUR as a porter in January 1919, age 22, and left at an unrecorded time. Had she seen Elizabeth at work and joined as a result?

There might well also have been other women working on the railway in Tondu but who didn’t join the NUR. Six of these Tondu railwaywomen Union members we’re aware of occupied roles on the railway it was possible to see as more easily open to women’s involvement – as carriage cleaners. However, the others occupied even broader roles, as porters or ticket collectors.

The Union membership records aren’t always clear about when members – male or female – left the NUR. However, it seems that most, if not all, of the women left before 1920. This was probably as they left railway employment, though sadly their detailed GWR service records don’t survive.


From Tondu railwaywomen to big questions

And what impact did all of this have on these women’s sense of identity and political agency? Did this experience of work open up new horizons, with experience and desire for change spilling over into new areas?

Without following through more detailed biographies of the women involved – if possible with the records surviving – it’s not possible to answer these very big questions. However, it’s worth noting that these questions link the micro-historical approach, focusing on one place or even one person, with much broader questions about ordinary people’s experiences and about dramatic social, cultural and political change.

Our project records provide a starting point, from which other questions and actions flow, eventually drawing together lots of threads. This is another demonstration of the significance of our project’s work – it offers so many different ways into the past, and allows people to research what they wish to research.


With thanks to Helena Wojtczak for her comments on the piece and her insight!


  1. Helena Wojtczak

    An interesting read, thank you!

    Regarding Elizabeth being shown as a “signalwoman” on the accident report. In my experience they would not have used that term if she were, for example, a train recorder in a box, or pulling levers on the ground. Demarcation was closely guarded on the railway. Roles and ranks and titles were very precise. It’s certainly true that she would not have been put in charge of a large box but maybe there were other, smaller boxes in the area? That would be my best guess.

    Sorry, dear friends, but I’ve a couple of nits to pick.

    The occupations of wives was habitually omitted by census enumerators. I know from my extensive experience of researching women’s employment, especially on the railway, that many women who are clearly shown in other records as being employed, are shown in the census as having no paid employment. Therefore the census cannot be relied upon. Elizabeth’s mother may have been gainfully employed.

    ” ‘traditional’ women’s roles on the railway – as carriage cleaners”

    At the time of the First World War carriage cleaning was definitely not a traditional role for women. The first group were engaged in 1898 and that was only in one location. As recently as 1913 men at Old Oak Common staged a protest against the proposal to introduce female carriage cleaners.

    Here is something I wrote about this subject in 2019:

    “People are often surprised to hear that women were involved in building carriages long before they were employed to clean them. For the first seventy years of railways, carriage cleaning was an exclusively male preserve. This was partly because most cleaning took place in sidings, and walking amongst moving carriages, wagons and engines was considered far too hazardous for ‘the fair sex’. In addition, long skirts made it difficult and dangerous for women to climb into carriages from track level, especially when carrying buckets and mops, and they certainly could not climb up onto carriage roofs to clean lamps or refill water tanks.

    I could not find any prior to 1881, when the census lists just one: Sarah O’Donnell, aged fifty-two, the wife of a bricklayer and mother of three, who was a carriage washer at St Pancras. In 1890 a newsman stated that the lowest grade porter ‘is not the least important’ railwayman. That accolade went to ‘The carriage washers, the men with the broom and bucket, and the cleaners, the men with the brushes’, who ‘have a far humbler task as the railway housemaids’. Citing a female occupation to describe men who performed the lowest-of-the-low railway task turned out to be prophetic, because soon afterwards a forty-year process began to convert it from men’s domain to women’s main role on the railway.

    In 1898 a group of forty or more women was engaged by the LNWR to attend solely to the insides of passenger carriages. Weeks later a solitary female was spotted sweeping out a compartment at Dundee West, prompting the comment that ‘thorough cleaning and dusting is far beyond the ordinary man.’ A 1902 report records that, at Willesden, women were ‘superseding men’ in the cleaning of carriage windows and were also engaged in beating cushions and brushing compartment floors.

    In 1913, five percent of the carriage cleaners at Old Oak Common, GWR, were replaced by women. They were paid 15s, six shillings less than men. ‘There is the possibility of a certain amount of trouble,’ opined The Globe. Protest meetings were held and, on 30th June, 1,500 railwaymen marched behind two hired brass bands though the streets of Willesden to Gladstone Park, where two platforms had been erected for the men’s representatives….

    Between 1890 and 1914 the number of female carriage cleaners grew from zero to 214. The issue of being hampered by long skirts had not yet been addressed (this would happen in 1915). Working almost exclusively from station platforms, the women were paid about 15s a week. Men continued to perform the work in the sidings and yards, and earned about 21s.”

    Helena Wojtczak FRHistS, author of “Railwaywomen”.

  2. Mike Esbester

    Thanks Helena for both comments – particularly the first, with the invaluable corrections and additions!

    Will edit the post re the comment about traditional roles (though will leave your comment standing, of course) and a few other points in response to what you’ve said – much appreciated!


  3. Andy Savage

    A brilliant article, and i shall usesome of its cintebts to uodate my lecture on Raikways and the Great War, which has a section on women’s role.

    One very minor point of detail: Brynmenyn is north of Bridgend, not south. I lived in nearby Bryncethin inthe late 70’s / early 80’s when I was BR’s Area Civil Engineer at Bridgend, so am very sure of this.

    • Mike Esbester

      Thanks Andy – that’s great, really pleased that you enjoyed it and it’ll be useful to you – do give us a nod, please, when you use it and send more people our way!

      And will correct that slip of the compass next – appreciated!

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