Women railway workers in WW2 – new book out at last


Female railway workers in WW2It’s out at last, released by Pen & Sword Books on 3 August 2018. Using interviews carried out by the Friends of the National Railway Museum around 2000-2003, my latest book explores the experiences of women railway workers taken on in wartime.

They talk about working with men for the first time, doing men’s work, the problems of workplaces not designed for women, the dangers of bombing raids and how they dealt with tricky situations.

The interviews cover many areas of Britain. In the London area Gladys Garlick started as a porter at Bowes Park Station in 1940, becoming a guard in 1942, one of the first two on LNER. Florence Brinklow joined LNER at King’s Cross in 1940, working on parcels delivery with horses. She later worked at Ilford Car Sheds, cleaning trains in a gang. Irene Barrett-Locke joined the railway on the buffet at GWR Paddington, at a time when there was much bombing. She left to become a ‘nippy’ at Lyons Corner House but returned to GWR as a train stewardess. She recounts her experiences meeting famous people such as Baden-Powell. Doris Maley worked as a typist at LMS Broad St Goods Depot in London and later as a clerk at Southend Central. Dulcible Haines worked for LMS as a typist at Euston but was moved to the Grove at Watford when the HQ was evacuated there in wartime.

The Southern Railway features Irene Adgie, a typist in Traffic at Woking, when it was evacuated from Waterloo. Joan Cox was in a mobile canteen in a goods siding at Redhill, based in a caravan presented by the Buenos Aires Railway to the railwaymen of Southern Railway. She talks about Italian Prisoners of War working there.

In the York area, Betty Chalmers worked on the teleprinters and switchboard at LNER York Station. When the station was bombed in 1942 she worked on the replacement switchboard under the bar walls, with hot, unventilated conditions, while colleagues at the station were clearing out broken glass and sorting wet tickets. Nellie Nelson joined LNER York as a porter in 1940. She talks about how they helped to get injured passengers off the bombed train in 1942 and how her bike was destroyed. She also worked as a blackout attendant on the trains, going up and down to Darlington to check that the blinds were kept down. Laura Scott was a sawdust bagger at York Carriage and Wagon Works, working at the top of a plank and emptying sawdust from the wood into a great hole. She later became a carriage cleaner for York LNER.

Marjorie Cawthray was working as a waitress in the LNER tea room at Selby Station, sleeping over at the station. She helped fill lunch baskets for the soldiers and sailors to take back on the troop trains. Annie Lageu worked as a shorthand typist for LMS at Leeds, and talks about relationships with supervisors and working with men in the office.

In Scotland Mary Buist was a passenger guard based at LNER Musselburgh. Betty Forrester worked as a Morse operator in the telegraph office at Thornton Junction in Fife. Although she had been an expert at this in the ATS, she found Railway Morse totally different and struggled at first but later became adept. Christine Pettigrew was a shorthand typist at LMS College Goods Station in Glasgow. She talks about the horse-drawn carts there, and the Dickensian setting of the office

In South Wales Mary Woodfield was a linesman’s assistant at GWR Undy, on the main line between London and South Wales at the time. She talks about her experiences of working with men and the conditions of the hut.

In Liverpool Dorothy Crawford was a housekeeper in railway hotels, working at the Adelphi Hotel during the war. She describes the impact of bomb damage at the time and also the Grand National celebrations at the hotel, still running in the early years. Doreen Dickenson was a clerk at LMS Canada Dock Goods Station and talks about her experiences in the office, working with men.

In Chesterfield Mary Hodgson worked as a clerk the Goods Depot during the war, and talks about the dangers of getting information on the number of goods wagons there at certain times of day, about Italian Prisoners of War, rules about stockings and food rations.  She did well in her exams but was most disappointed not to be able to take her studies further because of rules about married women.

Vera Jones worked as an apprentice fitter in the LMS Crewe Works. She talks about the hot and noisy conditions there but she liked the freedom compared to factory work. Georgina Huber was employed at LMS Crewe Arms Hotel at Crewe. She was sacked instantaneously as an alien in 1940 (although Georgina was born in Liverpool, her father was Austrian). Edith Stretch started work with LMS in 1937 as a booking office clerk at Hanley (an experimental move pre-war). Her experience there, where she had to take on responsibilities and duties as a young women, prepared her for her future jobs.

Joan Richards became a GWR parcels clerk at Hartlebury Station, later moving to Kidderminster. She recounts how her father had warned her about the possible bad language she would have to deal with. Violet Lee Joined GWR at 17 in 1940 as a passenger guard in the Cheltenham/Gloucester area. She married at 19 but her husband died in service in France at 22. She had a child but returned to GWR work with help from family. She left the railway in 1947 when the Essential Works Order finished.

Marjorie Pateman trained on lathes in preparation for a job at LMS Wolverton works. She was unhappy when they moved her to the Frame Shop to work as a rivet carrier. Mary Purell started work as a clerk at Murrow Station in Cambridgeshire in 1941, and later went to work in Peterborough.

The book also features a number of women who worked on the Somerset and Dorset Railway, as crossing keepers, a lengthwoman, clerks, a porter, a guard, and an oiler and greaser.




The new book


This week I finally completed my new book and sent it off to Pen & Sword publishers: Female Railway Workers in World War II. It’s always such a relief to draw a line under a project and say no more. Now I have to hold my breath and see how it fares on its journey.

Goods workers at Bristol

This book draws upon a vast collection of oral history interviews with railway workers, carried out around fifteen years ago by the Friends of the National Railway Museum. A small number of these interviews featured women workers talking about their wartime experiences on the railways. I felt that the collection was a valuable resource, little used, and was determined to shine a light on it.

During the Second World War many thousands of the men working on the railways in Britain were called up for military service, and many thousands of women were recruited to replace them, to keep this vital service running. There had of course been women already working in some areas of the railway, such as in clerical, cleaning and catering jobs, although before the war even most of those jobs were carried out by men. But in wartime many women were employed in the kind of work which was completely new to females, working as porters and guards, on the permanent way and in maintenance and workshop operations.

Many were working in ‘men’s jobs’, or working with men for the first time, and these interviews offer tantalising glimpses of conditions, sometimes under great danger. What was it about railway work that attracted them? It’s fascinating to contrast their voices with the way they were portrayed in official publicity campaigns and in the light of attitudes to women working in the 1940s, when the press insisted on referring to them as decorative objects. These women talk about their difficulties in a workplace not designed for women – no toilets for example, the attitudes of their families, what they thought about American GIs and Italian POWs, how they coped with swearing and troublesome colleagues, rules about stockings, about devastating air raids and being thrust into tough responsibilities and prove themselves for the first time. Sadly however none of them were allowed jobs on the footplate, a step too far.

I hope that the book will serve as a tribute to their hard work and their contribution in keeping the railways going in wartime.

And now what Bedlamitish sounds meet my ear!


Next week I’m going to be talking to the Manchester Victorian Society about my research into railway excursions. The North West of England, especially Manchester, Liverpool and Preston, features prominently. Different forces in each area, such as competition between railway companies and with steamships, types of employment, and other factors such as surprisingly the level of Catholicism in an area, were all to play a part in how far the working classes could enjoy their ‘cheap trips’.

Manchester at Whitsun 1846 became the scene of a huge spectacle of mobility, with an extraordinary ebb and flow of population, around 400,000 town-dwellers going out into the countryside and rural folk coming into the town.

Often animal comparisons were used to describe conditions on cheap trips as sheep-pens and pig carriages, with excursionists sometimes ‘bleating’ at stops to complain. Lancashire handloom weaver Benjamin Brierley painted a vivid picture of his cheap railway trip from Ashton across the Pennines to Worksop in 1860, costing 1s 6d: ‘and now what Bedlamitish sounds meet my ear! Singing on every hand, shouting on every hand, swearing on every hand, whistling on every hand, and the mad iron monster at the front rearing away like nothing else’.

My talk is on Thursday 23 March 2017.

7 pm for 7.15 pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 6 Mount St, Manchester M2 5NS

See http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/manchester/the-million-go-forth-early-victorian-railway-excursions/

Railways and the working classes


I’ll be commenting on the railways and the working classes in a new series currently airing on BBC4, Railways: The Making of the Nation. In the episode from the North West of England, about the impact of the railways on leisure, I was filmed in a heritage signal box at Ramsbottom, on the East Lancashire Railway.

bbc-programmeI’ll be making the case for the importance of Henry Marcus of Liverpool, when compared to Thomas Cook. I’ll also be talking about moral reform, the effects of the Great Exhibition on mobility and the power of the crowd, and the development of Blackpool.

The series was produced by the BBC in the regions, where individual episodes have already been shown. Railways: The Making of the Nation:The Age of Leisure appears on BBC 4 at 8pm on Thursday 13 October, and is also available on BBC iPlayer.

Men behaving badly?


The crowded excursion train in the middle of the nineteenth century offered many ways in which young working class men could assert their sense of playfulness in a new travel experience. Reports of an accident in 1857 on an excursion train describe how 22-year-old John Beckett, from Blackburn in Lancashire, said to be ‘quite sober’, was enjoying a summer trip to Liverpool  on the East Lancashire Railway, when he climbed on the roof, caught his head on a bridge and fractured his skull severely, causing his brains to protrude. But nothing a little bit of trepanning couldn’t sort out apparently.

If you look carefully there’s a lot of hidden evidence about the basic nature of third class travel on excursions in the mid 19th century, unlike the kind of experiences portrayed on TV by Portillo. Reports feature a mingling of excited classes crammed together, often in open trucks and sometimes with people clambering on the roof of the train.

But third party evidence from observers and inspectors poses a number of questions. How did this sort of behaviour arise? How far did it represent general conduct? What was the role of the railway companies and other observers and the new travel spaces in shaping reports of behaviour?

The dramatic explosion of railway excursions in Britain played an important part in extending the mobility of the working classes, who could now take part in these leisure activities for the first time in great numbers. A closer look at contemporary newspapers, accident reports and diaries reveals a surprising picture about how behaviour was shaped and reported at this time in the crowded excursion train, including the design of carriages and wagons, gendered behaviour, and the role of drunkenness.

I’ll be talking about this topic at the British Association for Victorian Studies Conference 2016 in Cardiff on 1 September.


What is railway history?


Paul Davies has suggested about my book, in the National Railway Museum Review, that “even though it has the word ‘railway’ in its title, it could not be described as a ‘railway book’. Rather it provides a sociological insight into the impact of the development of the railway network and its effect on…Victorian society…” This is an approach which the National Railway Museum is at times guilty of, in focusing exclusively on the locomotive rather than the human lives and effects involved with the railways.

Davies’ review provoked an immediate response from railway author David Hodgkins, who in a letter to the Editor decried his narrow definition of railway, which Davies appears to define as hardware, ie locomotives and stations, and suggested that the role of, for example, railway companies was just as important. I would of course go further than that. The impact of the railway on every sphere of human life – work and leisure, economics, migration, culture, religion, business and politics, the shaping of the landscape, our social history – has been immense. To ignore that and focus instead on the nuts and bolts of machinery is misguided.

To illustrate this approach I’ve written a new feature article in the latest issue of Who Do You Think You Are magazine, which highlights the powerful effect that the new railway excursions had on the lives of the working classes in the mid-19th century. It discusses the way that the new excursions changed the opinions of many people about large working class crowds at this point, when previously such crowds had been seen to be involved with Chartist riots for example.


I’ve had many positive reviews of my book, some in surprising publications such as The Ripperologist, and I’ve been asked to talk about my research in a number of places. On 1 September I’ll be talking on the theme of ‘Men Behaving Badly’ on excursions, in Cardiff at the British Association for Victorian Studies Conference 2016.