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Women in our coming trade union data release

Women locomotive cleaners at work in World War 1.

In three weeks’ time, on 27 March 2023, we’ll be releasing another update to our database of accidents to British and Irish railway staff before 1939. This time it’ll consist of around 25,000 records from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) and National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) – the railway predecessor unions of what’s now the RMT Union.

The records are held, in hardcopy, at one of the institutions collaborating in the project – the Modern Records Centre (MRC) at the University of Warwick. In future posts we’ll say more about the records, and about the MRC and the volunteer team involved. For now, though, we want to acknowledge all involved at the MRC in particular and thank them for their hard work over many years.

We’re also delighted that our project – and in particular this data release – has had such strong support from the RMT. It’s great to see the Union so actively engaging with its past. Safety issues and supporting Union members were core aspects of the RMT’s origins – as they are today. It’s fitting that when we launch the data formally, it’ll take place at Unity House, the RMT’s Headquarters.

The records cover some of the years between 1889 and 1920. In due course, they’ll cover the full range of years, probably doubling the number of records available to you. They cover aspects where the Union had an interest in supporting its members, via a number of different areas: disablement, fatal and non-fatal compensation, inquests, and support for families after a member died.

With around 25,000 records in the coming release, it might be hard to know where to start. However, given it’s currently Women’s History Month, and with International Women’s Day this week, we felt it fitting to start with an overview of some of the ways women feature.

On one level, there are relatively few women in the dataset. That reflects the industry and the dominant social conventions of the time, something we’ve discussed in previous blog posts. Around the time of the First World War, there were plenty of women working on the railways – around 13,000. That was a small proportion of the total workforce, numbering around 640,000 at this time. Most of those women were concentrated in roles deemed socially appropriate: seamstresses, laundry work, cleaning (offices and carriages), clerical positions, catering and the like. Some acted in roles rather closer to the lineside – particularly gatekeepers/ crossing keepers, who were responsible for opening and closing gates at level crossings.

There is also another important limitation to women’s places in this dataset. Trade union rules at this time effectively meant women couldn’t join – at least until during the First World War. As a result, given our coverage currently ends in 1920, there were relatively few opportunities for women workers to appear.

Nevertheless, appear they do. From 1915 we have records in which the Union represented women railway workers or their interests at coroner’s inquests: porters, a gatekeeper, a passenger guard, conductors, a labourer, carriage cleaners and others. These records show us that on 4 May 1917 Mrs Clarkson, of the Southport branch, fell to her death from the crane she had been driving at the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company’s Southport goods warehouse. There’s more on her case in this blog. Around 20 other cases of women workers appear in this run of data.

Sometimes we see the same people appearing across different runs of trade union data. For example, the NUR represented the interests of Mrs Lockwood of the Camden branch at the inquest into her death on 3 February 1919. At Camden loco sheds on the London and North Western Railway, Lockwood’s clothes caught fire, leading to her death. We know from the records relating to fatal compensation secured by the Union that Mrs Lockwood was 24 at the time of her death; her death cost the Company just £55 in compensation.

Women appear in the dataset relating to the Union’s orphan fund. At this stage – recognising that the data is incomplete – it seems women only appeared in relation to the death of a railway worker husband, rather than as railway workers themselves. The details provided in the orphan fund records are variable, but as a minimum give us an idea of the impacts of accidents which killed male workers.

They show, for instance, that Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway goods guard Alfred Cryer, of the Castleton branch, died in an accident on 7 November 1880. We know that with his wife (whose first name isn’t given) they had a son, Thomas Alfred, born in 1875. After Alfred’s death, the Union’s orphan fund paid out 3/- week to help support his son. This would have been paid to Alfred’s wife; by the time the Union finished supporting Thomas, in the late 1880s, it had paid out a little over £70.

Of course, not all accidents at work resulted in fatalities. Many more produced injuries, of greater and lesser seriousness. For these, the Union might secure ‘non-fatal compensation,’ contributing one of the largest new datasets for our coming release. Here there are a few cases of railwaywomen’s accidents, starting with Glasgow and South Western Railway carriage cleaner J Rooney’s accident on 9 April 1918. Off work for just under a month with a bruised shoulder and ribs, with the Union’s help she secured 19/1 per week by way of compensation. Whilst most of the women featured in this dataset were porters, there was a reasonable variety of roles: including numbertakers, a van driver, a signalwoman, and an engine cleaner.

It also isn’t only women workers who appear in the Union dataset. It’s possible to identify at least 23 women or girls who appear in the inquests dataset. The Union represented its members at coroner’s inquests – including where deaths of non-employees were being examined, and Union members were involved in some way. Very often these were cases involving passengers.

So we know that on 12 December 1908, SJ Wood fell from a train near Wilmslow station in Cheshire and died. Her son had somehow managed to open the carriage door; as he fell, his mother caught his scarf. The scarf broke, and the boy fell onto the tracks. His mother, Sarah, jumped out of the carriage after him, landing on her head and dying later. Her son was unhurt. The Union represented the train’s guard, A Sherry, at the inquest. Other non-staff cases featuring in the inquests data include suicide, collisions between motor vehicles and trains, a mother taking dinner to her son who was working on the railway, and a child knocked down by a railway-owned horse and dray.

This look at railwaywomen has really been a quick overview of some of what’s coming in our new data release. Hopefully it gives an impression of where we can see women in the project’s work, and in the history of railway trade unionism. Needless to say, plenty more work needs to be done – something we’re keen both contribute to and to encourage you to get involved via your research.

As ever with our project, we can see the data as about much more than solely railway workers and their accidents. It tells us about much wider social histories, of work, of transport, of gender, of families, and more. We’re really excited to be able to share this rich dataset with you in a few weeks’ time, and we’re looking forward to seeing what you make of it. Make sure you download the updated dataset from 27th March – and please tell us what you find and what you make of it!


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  3. Helena Wojtczak

    As the author of “Railwaywomen” the only book ever written about women across all grades and all companies from the beginning of railways, I am desperate to get my hands on this data as I will want to include it when I re-write the book, which I am planning to do. But I cannot navigate your site. I cannot work out how to find the raw data which I am more interested in probably than anyone else on this planet!

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