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Mrs Clarkson, crane driver

As a project, we try to make our work accessible to a wide audience – after all, the more who know about us, the better chance our work will be used. We try to Tweet a daily ‘On This Day’ case from the project database – and it’s from one of those that this guest blog post has arisen! In this instance, the case came from our recent trade union data release, as the woman at the heart of it belonged to the National Union of Railwaymen.

Last week’s blog post, focusing on Southport accidents, provided some general local and railway history background to this week’s case. As May is Local and Community History Month, we wanted to provide context for one specific case which took place in Southport – that of Celia Clarkson.

We’re really grateful to Debbie Cameron for her research and work on this blog, with help from Denise Hall. It’s wonderful when people are inspired to find out more about the women and men we mention and who appear in the project database – particularly when they share that research like this. We’re always open to guest blog posts, so please get in touch if you’re interested.


As an historian of women’s lives in World War 1, I was very interested to see a tweet from the Railway Work, Life and Death (RWLD) project that featured the death in 1918 of Cecelia (“Celia”) Clarkson, a woman crane driver who fell to her death while cleaning her crane. What was her story? Did she leave behind a young family? An inquest report said her husband was a soldier. What became of him?

With the help of Denise Hall, we have managed to find answers to these questions. A very sad story unfolded.

Celia was born Cecelia Mary Jane Wright in 1888 in Southport. At the age of just 14 she was a domestic servant in Formby. She married Richard Clarkson, a gardener, in 1908 and they had three children, Richard born in 1909, Annie in 1911 and Celia in 1914.  At some point, Richard joined the army, enlisting as a private in the King’s Liverpool Regiment. With Richard away at the front, Celia joined the ever growing number of women who took over jobs that were vacated by men joining the army. She became a crane driver.  Figures estimate that before the war, 13,000 women worked on the railway and these were mainly “domestic” positions such as cleaners. However by the end of the war it had increased to 70,000 with many women carrying out heavy work. Celia was one of these women, but as well as being able to earn extra money for the household, she faced the same perils at work as her male counterparts had.

Overhead crane, on a track hung from the ceiling of a brick building.
A female crane driver of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway operating an overhead crane to manoeuvre a crate at Halliwell near Manchester, 15 May 1917.
Courtesy Imperial War Museum Q109861.


As the unions began to take on female members they demanded equal pay to protect the wage rates for servicemen once they returned from the war. The women’s names were written in red ink in the NUR’s register of members to make it easier to identify who would later be struck off once the war had ended and the men returned!

An entry in the RWLD database of some National Union of Railwaymen (now the RMT union) records shows that Celia’s family were represented by the union at an inquest into her death. The inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death and put forward several suggestions to make the work safer.

Photograph of a trade union membership register: bound volume, opened out, with handwritten entries.
An NUR membership register showing female employees in red ink.
Courtesy Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.


There is a report in the Lancashire Evening Post on 10 January 1918 of the inquest into Celia’s death on duty. She was employed as a driver of an overhead electric crane at the Southport Depot of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. It appeared to one witness that she leaned from the crane and touched a live cable. She then fell 15 feet. She was admitted to hospital where it was found that she had fractured her spine and was paralysed. She remained in hospital for many months but was deemed “incurable” and released home in November. She died on 7 January 1918.

Small enamel badge, circular. Blue outer ring with the railway company name in gold lettering; inside a white circle with 'Railway Service' and an image of a crown in red and gold.
British First World War period lapel badge worn by an employee of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company.
Courtesy Imperial War Museum INS 4960


After the war, Celia’s husband Richard signed on for further service but he died in February 1919 just a year later in a military hospital from bronchial pneumonia. Two weeks before his death he returned home from France on a month’s leave after signing on again for two years. He had been in the KLR for 3 years, had been wounded and on one occasion gave blood to save an injured comrade. His brother William also served in France, aged 31 (Southport Visitor 22/2/19).

What happened to Celia and Richard’s three children? We know that Celia’s mother, Mary Jane Wright, became their legal guardian, as she is named on Richard’s pension records. Mary died just 10 years after Richard, but at this time the children were perhaps old enough to look after themselves, although, of course, probably bereft at losing their mother, father and grandmother within a relatively short space of time. The only son, Richard, married and had a family. He lived to be 78. Annie died in 1979.  Celia married very late in life – in 1970 when she was 56! She died in Essex in 1985 after 15 years of marriage.

My research into the accident of a woman working in a heavy job in WW1 illustrates many aspects of the War. It was a story about hard work by women, the involvement of unions and the input of inquests into safety measures,  the death of a soldier, the responsibility of remaining relatives and how, ultimately, the bereaved children were able to carry on with their lives.



Debbie Cameron

Debbie Cameron is an amateur historian of WW1 with a particular interest in the many roles of women in WW1 in the UK, including those who worked and lived on the Home Front. Who worked in factories, on the land, as nurses and in countless other roles, including keeping the transport system open. Her own grandmother was widowed in 1914 and brought up four boys alone. It is her story that inspired Debbie to research and remember the millions of women who aided the war effort and looked after their families in this terrible time.

Debbie is a retired medical secretary who now lives in Formby, Merseyside. She has published many articles about her research and helped many projects. She sees it as a labour of love!

She runs a Facebook page remembering, sharing information and researching women in the War. Anyone interested in women’s lives during the Great War would be welcome to join.

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  1. Pingback:Women in our coming trade union data release - Railway Work, Life & Death

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