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Women of the twentieth-century railway

In this blog post we start a series, running through the rest of the year, produced by University of Portsmouth History degree students as part of their course this year. For their second-year ‘Working with the Past’ module the group explored the Project’s trade union dataset, with a view to finding out more about some of the themes that emerged or the individuals they discovered.

In this post, Lara Houghton looks at some of the differences between railwaywomen and railwaymen in terms of their work and their post-accident treatment. Our thanks to Lara for her post and for exploring the project data!

The Railway Work, Life & Death project (RWLD) has recently made it easier to understand the devastating number of fatal accidents that took place on British railways in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The purpose of this blog post series is to raise awareness of a number of people that worked, and sadly lost their lives, on the British railway system. They come from the trade union dataset added to the RWLD database earlier this year. This post focuses on women who worked on, or were connected with, railways in Britain from 1889 to 1920.

Railways, as we might know, were extremely hazardous but impressive feats of engineering. From the first modern railway in Britain, opened in 1825 and led by engineer George Stephenson, the railway network expanded. An early twentieth-century railway is not something most would imagine to be health and safety conscious and as seen in this blog post, many people suffered from the lack of general safety measures. Along with unions in the factories, pottery trades, and mining industries, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants trade union started to call for safety measures that would protect railway workers, such as employing safety representatives.

Sepia photo showing 3 women carriage cleaners at work, 2 on the carriage, one on the ground.
Midland Railway women carriage cleaners at work at Gloucester during World War 1. Taken by Arthur Reavil.
(c) and courtesy University of Manchester.

Women had a visible, if relatively restricted, role working on the railways in Britain in the early twentieth century. One such woman, who worked for the Great Central Railway, was Jane Rowland. Jane was a carriage cleaner and belonged to the Chester No. 1 branch of the National Union of Railwaymen. Many carriage cleaners, similar to Jane, were working-class women and therefore, they were often overlooked by other members of the railway industry.

Sadly, Jane was struck and killed by a train on 14 May 1918 while at work, aged just 36. At this time compensation for a fatality could amount to anything from between £5 to £300, paid by the employer. Lower amounts tended to be awarded to surviving family if there weren’t any dependents. In Jane’s case, from the 1911 Census it seems she was married with at least one child. However, her family received a mere £10 that would go towards funeral expenses. This amount of compensation was incredibly low, especially when other employees of a similar career status were receiving significantly larger amount. Was she ‘worth’ less, because she was a woman? This is supported in Lauren Lee’s focus on male goods guards, elsewhere within this blog series.

When goods guard William Jolley passed away following a traumatic injury while working for the Midland Railway in 1900, his widow received around £250 in compensation. This is a shockingly large difference given that the two individuals worked in similar conditions. Jane also had her accident almost twenty years after William, highlighting the ways in which gender equality in the workplace was almost non-existent at this time. This was not an unfamiliar scenario, and it would be worth exploring the project database to compare compensation awarded to dependents of railwaywomen with dependents of railwaymen.

Five women dressed in large coats, trousers and mob caps standing in front of railway carriage. Two are holding hand brushes.
Midland Railway women carriage cleaners at Gloucester during World War 1. Photograph taken by Arthur Reavil.
(c) and courtesy University of Manchester.

The role of a carriage cleaner was to clean the inside and outside of coaches. This would often include the use of harsh chemicals, such as an acid and glycerine solution, along with general interior upkeep such as sweeping the floors and polishing the inside of the carriage. This job was previously often carried out by men – though not exclusively, as this blog post demonstrates. However due to the First World War, more women were taken as carriage cleaners while men were away fighting. Carriage cleaners were seen to have a much lower reputation than others working on the railways. The job role was not often seen as overly dangerous or important; however carriage cleaners were crucial members of the British railways. Without carriage cleaners, the railways would not be able to run as efficiently as they did. Carriages would not be able to offer the same comfort levels, and passengers would not be welcomed into a pristine carriage. All these aspects were taken care of and handled by teams of carriage cleaners. It’s important to consider the sheer size of the machinery that carriage cleaners were working on. It would have taken many hours for carriage cleaners to get each carriage to the high standard that was expected of them.

Taking on the role as carriage cleaner was not straightforward for women, given the societal boundaries women faced in the early twentieth century. This was the case, even in roles like cleaning which – to some extent – fitted in with some ideas about ‘appropriate’ roles for women. In order to accommodate the enlarged female work force on the railways, employers had to ensure that women were able to work comfortably and as safely as possible. To do so, employers needed to provide women with acceptable, and appropriate work attire. Instead of attending work in an ankle-length skirt, women were able to wear slightly shorter skirts, which in turn, lead to women being able to wear trousers throughout their work shift. If this new uniform did not come into effect, there is the possibility that wearing long skirts and restrictive clothing would be hazardous to women working in a physical and mobile role. It would be incredibly easy for someone to trip on their skirt and fall under or from carriages, as well as preventing women from moving freely both inside and out the carriage. Often, cleaners would have to manoeuvre from one carriage to another on a different set of tracks and doing so while wearing heavy material such as a skirt would prove to be difficult and quite dangerous. The newfound acceptance of women being able to wear appropriate and safe work attire allowed women to work on the railways safely and efficiently – at least for a while.

Through this research, what’s become clear to me has been the severe amount of trauma and heartbreak many people went through while working on the railways. Not only were the workers themselves affected, but their families and friends also suffered the loss of a loved one. In the case of Jane Rowland, many relatives received very little compensation or sympathy. Researching this subject has allowed me to appreciate the hardships of rail workers during this period and I am thankful that I have been granted the opportunity to present my findings in this way.

The next post in this series is available here.


Lara Houghton

My name is Lara and I am currently a second-year History student studying at the University of Portsmouth. This project has been incredibly interesting to research and I am so thankful for the opportunity to take part in it. The support and guidance I received from the University of Portsmouth’s History team has been brilliant throughout the entire process for which I am extremely grateful.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback:Goods guards’ safety burdens - Railway Work, Life & Death

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