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New surroundings and new dangers: wartime railwaywomen

In this guest post marking the start of Women’s History Month, Dr Susan Major – another of us with a connection to York – explores some of the ways in which women railway staff encountered and experienced dangers in their working environments during the Second World War. Women weren’t new to the railways by any stretch of the imagination (see this post, for example, and this one), but the Second World War did change things, albeit temporarily.

For ethical reasons our ongoing project extensions will conclude at the end of 1939, so we won’t be able to capture the experiences and accidents of Second World War railway staff – including the women newly-employed by the railways. Susan’s post is therefore a valuable reminder of their work and the safety issues they faced.

Our thanks to Susan for putting the post together. If you’ve been inspired and fancied putting something together, please get in touch!


The Railway Work Life and Death project has been investigating railway worker accidents, using varied sources and innovative crowd-sourced techniques. But inevitably most of the results so far have featured death and injuries to male workers. So it might be interesting to take a look at the experiences of a few women workers, focusing on their wartime service.

Gladys Garlick and LNER colleagues Rita and Irene at Bowes Park
Gladys Garlick and colleagues Rita and Irene at Bowes Park. (Courtesy National Railway Museum.)

During the Second World War women were recruited into railway jobs, responding to entirely new scenarios, without any experience to guide them. Conditions such as the need for complete blackout for example increased the dangers of working, especially for women unused to their new surroundings. Surprisingly however railway companies also expressed concern about the ‘dangers’ of young women working alone with men on night shifts, sometimes even deploying two women at extra cost to avoid this.

Interviews carried out twenty years ago by the Friends of the National Railway Museum for the National Archive of Railway Oral History helpfully reveal a number of safety concerns and inevitable wartime dangers for railway workers.

Workplace practices could be dangerous, arising from a combination of factors. Mary Hodgson recalled her experience as a clerk at Chesterfield on the London Midland & Scottish Railway, going into the goods yard to take down information about the wagons:

“During the war the trains were bumper to bumper, there was no space at all. And at that time in a morning the wagon tappers were out. I would stand and I would call, hoping that there was somebody in that cabin, but very often there wasn’t. So how did I get all that information? I used to stand down, between the wagons and listen very carefully because of course, as soon as a train started to move, its chains started clanking. And if everything was deathly quiet, I’m under the wagon, to get that information. To this day I feel apprehensive at the thought of it all. I should have reported it to the goods agent and said I’m not going any more. Very often you see the goods agent was not on the premises. He would come in the morning, read all the correspondence, and he would go out to the firms during the day. So he was away say from ten o’clock in the morning, until about half past three in the afternoon. He didn’t know what anybody was doing.”

During the war there were several severe winters, increasing safety issues. Betty Spiller, lampman on the Evercreech Junction, Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway remembered:

“It was about 1944, it rained and froze. As the rain came down it froze, and I remember seeing icicles on the telegraph wires and sometimes it was so heavy the wires came down, and the ladders were iron and they were wet and I remember climbing one of the ladders and holding on to the rails while I did the lamps. When I went to lift me hands off they were frozen on. I had gloves on mind. And it was so cold that everything froze in the lamp house, and they moved me into the weigh room for a bit, because there was a fireplace in there.  And very often if I’d gone out and got really wet, if there was an engine in on the turntable in the marshalling yard, I used to get up on the engine and stand in front of the firehole doors to dry out. The steam used to come off my clothes. And one day I stood in front of the firehole doors, with me back to them, and the driver went to move and he shoved the regulator over and we got a back draft, and the fire shot out of the firebox and singed the back of me hair.”

A moment’s carelessness could be fatal. Gladys Garlick, a London & North Eastern Railway guard in London, recalled:

“We used to take the trains down into the sidings at Finsbury Park. And one day I’d left the train at Weston sidings. I was coming back up the lines. You were actually supposed to walk right across and walk along the edge. But you never did that. And I’m walking towards Finsbury Park station, and of course as you’re walking the lines are getting narrower and narrower. And I’m walking and sort of not thinking. And the signalman’s waving madly. Cos I’m just getting nearer and nearer, and there’s a train coming along behind me, you know. So that was a moment of carelessness, or youth, on my part.”

A woman’s decision to apply for railway work meant that she was frequently putting herself in particular danger. Railway stations were a prime target for German air-raids, vulnerable to serious damage which affected vital services. Edna Simms, booking office clerk at Evercreech New Station, Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway said:

One morning will always remain in my memory of railway experiences. I had opened the waiting room door to go onto the platform from my office, and imagine my surprise when the porter on duty gave me a backward push and I landed on the waiting room floor with him falling on top of me. The reason being, a German bomber was machine-gunning the line right through the station and we were so lucky to be inside.”

Guard Gladys Garlick recalled a V2 bomb incident in 1944:

“We were a bit late getting to Palmer’s Green, and as we drew into Palmer’s Green station …I put on the handbrake…and we came to a stop. And I got out of the train …and as I walked along, there was paving stones on the roof of the train. And glass, and all sorts of things all over the place, you know. And cos it was dark, it was bit of a muddle. And I’m gradually walking along. It took me about an hour, I think, to get from my train brake down to the engine… I made my way along, helping people out, and various things. Got down to the driver and fireman. He looked very shocked. He was very white. And the hole was huge at the bottom, front of the train. You could have got a bus in it quite easily, a double-decker bus quite easily in it. It was huge.”

Such accounts in oral histories help us to see how worker accidents can happen, and there is much to explore about the role of the companies, accident inspectors and welfare officers in mitigating these dangers.  I’m delighted to report that Gladys Garlick survived the war and is one of the few wartime railwaywomen still alive, now 97 years old, and living independently. These experiences and other accounts feature in my book, Female Railway Workers in World War II (Pen & Sword, 2018).

Cover of Susan's book


Susan Major completed a PhD with the Institute of Railway Studies & Transport History at the University of York in 2012. Her research focused on early railway excursion crowds during the period 1840-1860, a watershed moment for working class mobility. Her book, Early Victorian Railway Excursions: ‘The Million Go Forth’ (2015), was based on this doctoral research. 


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