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Friday, 30 September 2011

Discovering Britain's first Railwaywomen (1840s and 1850s) - Part 1

I have repeatedly commented that Victorian railwaywomen are little studied by historians. Indeed, men’s dominance of the workforce has meant that women’s roles have been overlooked. However, this problem is compounded in the case of women working in the early railways as there is a chronic lack of investigation into railway history before 1870 generally.

Therefore, I felt that the working lives of Britain’s earliest railwaywomen were in need of investigation. I used,uk’s railway employee database to search for women that worked on the railways between 1830 and 1860. This was not an exhaustive survey of the available files as I was unable to simply search for them by gender and their years of employment. Consequently, I resorted to using popular women’s first names from the Victorian period with the hope that results would be returned. Happily, I found the records of sixty railwaywomen’s who were working in four railway companies.[1 – distribution of records by company are at the end] Furthermore, I believe more were available and I will have to go back and expand my research. The findings were not startling, but they do make for interesting reading.

Unsurprisingly, as the industry grew increasing numbers women were employed by the railways. Keeping in mind that this only a preliminary survey, no women have been found that worked in the 1830s and only two were discovered from early 1840s. Indeed, the first woman on the list is a Mrs Fuller who was employed by a housekeeper by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR).[2] (Note: other women have been found by historians that were employed earlier - See: Wojtczak, Railwaywomen) It was in the late 1840s that women started to be employed by railways large numbers, as the table below shows. Furthermore, as the industry expanded in the 1850s the number obtaining positions increased more rapidly.

The range of occupations women were engaged in were limited. Twenty-four were engaged in cleaning duties of some type. Nineteen were employed as Office Cleaners, such as Elizabeth Blackhouse who started work on the 10th October 1853 at Ashton on the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MS&LR)[3].  Three others were also classified as ‘Charwoman’ and one was just noted as being a ‘cleaner.’ Furthermore, there was a startling moment when I came across Sarah Dyson who worked at Huddersfield on the London and North Western Railway (L&NWR) in the early 1850s. She was listed as ‘Station Keeper.’ Was this, I thought, one of Britain’s earliest Station Mistresses? Predictably it was not, and a second staff record confirmed she was a cleaner there.[3] Ultimately, and has been recorded elsewhere, most of these women would have received their posts as an act of charity from the company when their husbands were killed or incapacitated by accidents on the railway.

The second largest employment group were gatekeepers and twenty-three women were employed as such, mainly on the LB&SCR. These women’s circumstances are hard to determine without more detailed research, however, other sources would suggest that many would have been the wives of railwaymen. Indeed, some gatekeeper’s records were next to those of other railway employees, such as signalmen, who had the same surname and were based nearby. Furthermore, Ann Hunstead[5] and Frances Earl[6] who were appointed by the LB&SCR to different gates near Berwick in 1849 and 1857 respectively, were both recommended by Mr Oliver of the Permanent Way Department. This suggests that they were the wives or widows of men working on the line in the area, for example platelayers or inspectors. Overall, gatekeeping positions were clearly given to women who already had some association with the railway company through marriage.

What did surprise me is that only seven women were employed as attendants in some form. Six were employed as ‘Ladies Attendants’ and would have looked after Ladies Waiting Rooms where they existed. Indeed, smaller stations did not have separate waiting rooms for men and women and this is confirmed by the fact that all six women were working at large stations that would have had them. They were based at London Bridge (Sarah Kays, Mary McRae), Rugby (Mrs Gillings, Caroline Stephenson) and Wolverton (Thirza Cowdell, Sarah Topsham).  Mrs A Chase, who was a ‘Waiting Room Attendant’ at Brighton also may have worked in a women's waiting room.[7] Again it is likely, as I have pointed out in an earlier post, that most of these women’s’ husbands would have been killed or injured while in the railways’ employ.

Probably the most interesting find was that four women were working as clerks for the LB&SCR, with the earliest being Margaret Savage who was appointed at Three Bridges Station in 1855. Indeed, this is the earliest known female clerk on Britain’s railways so far. Of the four, three were ‘Telegraph Clerks’ who would not have met the public and were ‘back office’ workers. However, another interesting discovery is that Margaret’s sister, Harriet, was also employed at Three Bridges as a Booking Clerk in 1857. Thus, this would make her the first woman to serve passengers in such a capacity. Ultimately, Margaret and Harriet would not have obtained their positions if it were not for the fact that their Father, Thomas John, was the Station Master there.(see above image) [8] Indeed, all four women employed as clerks were the daughters of Station Masters. Consequently, this suggests that the only route for women to obtain these higher status occupations was to have a father who was in a senior position.

Ultimately, this short survey should be treated with caution given the limited survey size, the high proportion of LB&SCR employees in it and the availability of documentary evidence. Yet, it does confirm statistically that the majority of women working on Britain’s railways in the 1840s and 1850s would have been in menial positions and all were dependent on men to obtain employment (even if they had been killed). In the next post I will explore the variable relationships that the women had with their employers.


[1] The railway companies were the Great Western Railway (10.00%), the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (48.33%), the London and North Western Railway (20.00%) and the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (21.67%)
[2] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 414/776, Traffic staff: register of appointments, p.438
[3] TNA, RAIL 463/305, Staff register 1, p.124
[4] TNA, RAIL 264/343, Register of uniformed staff No.1 C, p.59
[5] TNA, RAIL 414/776, Traffic staff: register of appointments, p.229
[6] TNA, RAIL 414/770, Traffic staff: register of appointments Indexed, p.119
[7] TNA, RAIL 414/773, Traffic staff: register of appointments, p.247
[8] TNA, RAIL 414/770, Traffic staff: register of appointments Indexed, p.62

Monday, 26 September 2011

"Whilst Passing over or Standing on Buffers During Shunting" - British Railway Accident Rates in the 1880s

Sadly, railway accidents were common occurrences in the Victorian railway, and both passengers and employees could not fail to be aware of the scale of the loss of life and limb in the period. Indeed, the July 1888 the South Western Gazette, the London and South Western Railway’s staff magazine, published details on all the accidents that occurred on Britain’s Railways between 1880 and 1887. Thus, this gave a useful snapshot of the state of railway safety for both employees and passengers in the period.

The first table that the Gazette presented was a list of those individuals killed or injured in accidents on trains between 1880 and 1887 (above). This showed that over the course of the 1880s that the number of accidents dropped and in 1880 51 individuals had been killed, whereas in 1887 the total was 25. However, the Gazette commented that the 25 passengers who lost their lives in 1887 did so in one accident at Penistone on the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, and had not been for this event ‘some 800 millions of passengers without the loss of a single life.’ More significantly, the number of injuries declined, which is more indicative of changes of railway safety. While in 1880 1,023 individuals had been injured, by 1887 the total was 647.

The decline in train accidents can be attributed to improvements in railway safety. No major safety legislation was introduced in the 1880s, but two technologies were gradually spreading through the British railway network.

The first was the block system of train control.  Originally trains were allowed to proceed along lines only after and interval of time. This meant that if a train got delayed, the one behind would be given permission to proceed after a set duration, which would put both at risk. However, in the 1870s and 1880s this was gradually replaced by block systems. This was where the track was divided up into sections, and a train following another was not allowed to enter the ‘block’ section in front until any preceding train had left it. Most train movements in and out of block sections were controlled by individual signal boxes connected by telegraphs. While the technical details of the block system, which is still in use today, are unimportant, its gradual introduction in this period by railway companies dramatically improved safety.[1]

Secondly, continuous brakes on locomotives and passenger vehicles became more widespread. The principal of continuous brakes was that when the driver applied the brake on the locomotive, the wheels of the coaches did the same. While legislation on this was not in place until 1889, after the Armagh Accident, many companies began to fit three competing brake systems to their rolling stock from the early 1880s. The detail of which systems were adopted by which companies is unimportant. However, two systems used a vacuum maintained by the train, and another, the Westinghouse system, was an air brake.[2] Therefore, this improved the reliability of braking systems generally, as now whole trains could be brought to a halt. Indeed, this explains the drop in injuries, as now in the when a train applied a brake sharply, carriages did not smash into each other as easily.

Despite improvements in accident rates on trains, there was seemingly no improvement in the number of other accidents that occurred elsewhere. The table above shows that between 1885 and 1887 the number of people killed on railways in total increased. The numbers injured decreased, however, this was only because of the decline in injuries to people on trains.

Interestingly, the article also gave the most common causes of injury (left) in 1887. The most number of injuries, 355 in total, were attributed to ‘other accidents during shunting operations, not included in the preceding’ (the preceding being: ‘while moving vehicles by capstans, turntables props &c. during shunting – 187 accidents.’) The second most common form of accident occurred ‘whilst coupling and uncoupling vehicles,’ 232 happening in this manner. Fatalities predominantly occurred in shunting operations. The most number of deaths, 99 in total, were when individuals were ‘working on the permanent way, sidings &c.’ Following this, 93 individuals were killed ‘whilst walking, crossing, or standing on the line on duty.’ Thus, it was people actually working on the line itself that most frequently were killed.

What individuals were doing when they were killed or injured was reflected in the types of employee were involved in accidents the most (right). As expected, those individuals who were involved with coupling together trains were injured the most, and 337 Brakesmen and Goods Guards, 309 Porters and 292 shunters, were so. Furthermore, it is unsurprising that the individuals who were killed the most were platelayers who maintained the line, and 106 died, presumably through being knocked down by a train.

Overall, this small study has revealed that while the railway was an increasingly safe place for those travelling by train, whether they were passengers or railway workers, for those who were actually employed by the railways the risk involved did not diminish. This would challenge any idea that in this period railway work became safer for employees, when only a small proportion benefited from the safety devices that were introduced.


[1] Farrington, John, ‘Block Working’, in Simmons, Jack and Biddle, Gordon (eds.), The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997), p.34
[2] Weaver, Rodney, ‘Brakes’, Simmons and Biddle (eds.), The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, p.41
All other information from: South Western Gazette, July 1888, p.11

Monday, 19 September 2011

What Do You Want Your Railway to Do? - The L&SWR and the Need for a Corporate Vision

Some observers of the Britain’s railway system argue that current problem with the industry is that no one asks what Britain’s railways are for. Indeed, this lack of purpose harms the ability of the industry’s component players to work together, plan long-term or deliver a railway that is truly serving the people of this country. However, this is not simply a modern problem, and railway managers in the past also failed to define what their businesses were trying to do. Indeed, the case of the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) shows how the application of a corporate vision can take a business from failure to success.


The first General Manager of the L&SWR was Archibald Scott. Scott had been the company’s Traffic Manager since 1852 and was made General Manager in 1870. For fourteen years he held this position within the company, retiring at the end of 1884.

Under Scott his very fixed ideas about how railways should be managed shaped company policy. He believed that because the railways’ had a monopoly on inland transportation, traffic and revenue would increase unabated. Consequently, to keep costs down and profits high improvements to train services, infrastructure and rolling stock were only sought from the Traffic Committee and Board when really necessary. Indeed, he believed that with no competition on many routes, it did not matter if the customers were unhappy as they would to use the railway anyway.  Thus, train services, stations and carriages were left in such a poor state during Scott’s administration that Punch nick-named the company’s management the ‘Wags of Waterloo.’

However, after 1870 these policies caused the company’s profit margin to be the smallest of the all Britain’s fourteen largest railways. This was because every potential improvement was looked at on a case-by-case basis with the minimisation of cost being the only factor in the decision. Thus, there was no joined-up thinking about overall company strategy and problems were simply solved in the short-term. Furthermore, no thought was given to growing the business beyond the traffics the company already served. Ultimately, this meant that while in the short-term costs were kept down, in the long term the company did not have an established trajectory, forcing up overall costs.


Charles Scotter became the company’s General Manager in 1885 and rapidly set about turning the company’s fortunes around by bringing a vision and direction to the company’s policies. On his retirement in 1897 the Railway Magazine (RM) wrote that he was keen that ‘the line should live down any unfavourable reputation which it might have earned, and he found that the policy of giving the best possible facilities to the travelling public was the one at which at the same time, yielded to proprietors the highest dividend.’

The majority of Scotter’s reforms related to reversing the policies of Scott in the Traffic Department through improving the company’s services. Scotter did not, however, simply expand services uniformly and judged carefully where it would be advantageous to improve provision. To do this he engaged with the public and business people within the company’s territory, listening to their requests, even if they could not always be satisfied. Thus, the company’s train services, rolling stock and infrastructure improved in line with the public’s needs and beyond. No longer did the railway dictate to the customers what services they received, rather, the customers now had input on them. Thus, RM stated that Scotter had ‘led the proprietors step-by-step into fresh fields of traffic.’

Overall, Scotter’s tenure at the L&SWR was a success. RM stated, ‘there is no instance on record in this country where such striking results have been produced by a railway manager as those which have, within the short period of twelve years, attended the policy pursued by Sir Charles Scotter.’ Indeed, the company’s profit margin aligned with the average of the top fifteen companies and its share price rose from 118d per hundred shares in 1885 to 224d per hundred in 1897.[1]


Therefore, this case study shows why it is important for businesses to have corporate goals. Scott’s simplistic ad hoc approach to management, of simply minimising cost, delivered poor company profitability and an even poorer public image. However, Scotter’s arrival and the application of a corporate vision brought the L&SWR good profitability and wide praise. Indeed, this suggests that those in charge of Britain’s railways in the 21st century really do need to ask the question of what the railway is for, so that they can ascertain where they want their industry to be in twenty or thirty years’ time. Such a step would allow everyone employed in the industry to be working towards the same goals, improve industry efficiency and deliver the British travelling public better value for money.


[1] Railway Magazine, November 1897, p.385

Thursday, 15 September 2011

What is important in Train Renewals? A Historical Consideration.

I was recently involved with a discussion online regarding the current average ages of trains on Britain’s railways. One individual’s argument was that it was a bad thing that on average British trains are older than they were in yesteryear. Indeed, his main complaint was levelled at South West Trains, whose class 455s on the inner suburban routes (Hampton Court, Kingston Loop, Hounslow Loop) are nearly thirty years old. While they are actually between twenty-six and twenty-nine years old, I pointed out that historically electric multiple units frequently have operational lives of between thirty and forty-five years. But further to this, currently, the ages of British passenger rolling stock is at its lowest for some time.
However, I believe that age should not be the primary issue when policy makers consider renewing rolling stock. The main factors should be how much work trains are undertaking each year, their ability to be upgraded when the business and trading environments change, and their capacities. Indeed, while the 455s are getting on now, unlike their compartmented predecessors the ‘open’ seating arrangement they were originally built with makes them far more suitable for upgrading. Furthermore, there seems to be no reason to dispose of them when they are mechanically sound, especially given that last November SWT won the ‘Golden Spanner’ award for their reliability.[1]

Naturally, the link between rolling stock ages and renewals is one that has been approached by railway managers since the industry’s beginnings. As an illustration of this I will look at William George Beattie’s tenure as the London and South Western Railway’s (L&SWR) Locomotive Superintendent between 1871 and 1877. Beattie was employed by the company in 1862 as a draughtsman and was later placed in charge of the company’s hydraulic equipment.[2] Therefore, it seems unusual that a man with no locomotive design experience should be placed in charge of the company’s locomotive department. However, there was one factor in his favour. His father, Joseph, was the L&SWR’s locomotive superintendent between 1850 and 1871. He had great talent and I presume the directors felt that his son would have inherited some of his skill.

The directors were mistaken. Poor William should never have been appointed and was the most inept locomotive superintendent the company ever had. While he ran the company’s locomotive department shambolically, the most serious problem was that he was not attuned to the company’s locomotive traction needs in a time when passenger numbers were increasing massively.[3] Indeed, between 1871 and 1877 the number of passengers the L&SWR conveyed rose by 68.3% from 14,347,577 to 24,142,851.[4]

It could be said that part of Beattie’s failing was that the rate of locomotive renewals slowed. The number of locomotives the company had in its possession only increased between 1871 and 1877 from 272 to 377 (38.6%). Furthermore, the average age of locomotives went from 8.54 to 9.90 years over the same period. Lastly, when Beattie was superintendent only 1.09 locomotives were renewed per year. Yet, between 1878 and 1882 under his successor, Adams, the rate was 1.76. Nevertheless, despite these facts, the slowing of the renewal rate wasn’t actually a serious problem for the company, as on average the number of train miles each locomotive ran per year dropped between 1871 and 1877 from 24,154 to 22,834 miles.[5]

The real problem was the quality and suitability of the new locomotives Beattie introduced. He perpetuated his father’s antiquated and small locomotive designs, which, while suitable in the 1860s, became unsuitable in the 1870s with the increased traffic numbers. Thus, trains were slower as the number of carriages in each increased.[6] The noted railway commentator, William Acworth, commented that ‘engines which had been in the van of progress were mere pigmies by the side of the giants of the present time.’[7]

But his failings didn’t stop there. When in 1876 he could no longer rely on his father’s designs, and because the company needed heavier models, he was forced to design a heavier new locomotive type. However, ordered twenty locomotives without a prototype and these were subsequently recognised as monumental failures suffering problems in both design and construction. Indeed, Bradley argued that Beattie had inadequate knowledge of locomotive design to meet the L&SWR’s needs.[8]

Therefore, this historical case reinforces the fact that when considering issues surrounding locomotive renewals, the age of rolling stock should not be the primary concern. Rather, rolling stock’s suitability for the trading environment and whether they meet the needs of the operators is far more important.


[2] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838-1919, p.62
[3] Bradley, D.L., L&SWR Locomotives: The Early Engines 1838-53 and Beattie Classes, (Didcot, 1989), p.5-6
[4] Board of Trade Returns, 1871 and 1877
[5] TNA, RAIL 411/470, Locomotives, boilers, rolling stock, etc: correspondence, 1882-1884, Statement of Engine Stock, renewals of same and train Mileage during the past 14 years., Undated, p.59
[6] Bradley, L&SWR Locomotives: The Early Engines, p.5-6
[7] Acworth, William, ‘The South-Western Railway,’ Murray's Magazine, Vol.3 No.18 (1888, June) p.802
[8] Bradley, L&SWR Locomotives: The Early Engines, p.5-6

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Discredited by Victorian Railway Managers: Separating Trains from Tracks

In Britain’s privatised railway system one thing has caused a particular headache for policy makers, namely, that the maintenance of the infrastructure is under separate control from the operation of the trains. Indeed, most now believe that unified control of these elements would have been far more desirable, as such an arrangement would have been improved the communication, management and expenditure within the  railway industry. 

But the current arrangement isn't just a feature of modern railways, and a visit to the 1830s, 40s and 50s would reveal that some railway companies used private contractors to maintain their lines. In 1837 William Allcard's firm was awarded the maintenance contract for the Grand Junction Railway when it had completed it. Furthermore, his firm also maintained the permanent way of the Sheffield and Manchester Railway.[1] On the formation of the London Brighton and South Coast Railway in 1846 the company advertised in Herpath’s Journal for ‘tenders for the maintenance of the Permanent Way and Works of the whole of their main line between Brighton and the Junction with the Greenwhich Line near London.’[2] Also, the directors of the Shrewsbury and Birmingham Railway advertised in February 1851 for the same.[3] Lastly, in 1840 Thomas Brassey's firm, after constructing the London and South Western Railway’s (L&SWR) main line, was given a ten year contract for the maintenance its way and works.[4] Thus, while not identical to today's maintenance arrangements, some Victorian railway companies clearly separated the control of the trains from the maintainers of the tracks.

But why did early railway managers opt for using contractors rather than conducting the maintenance themselves? In the case of Brassey and Allcard both had built lines that they subsequently went on to maintain. Furthermore, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway advertised for tenders at the point which it was formed. Therefore, the fact that at the beginning of their operations the railway companies engaged contractors who had worked on the railways, and seemingly did not investigate alternatives, suggests that early railway managers did not posses the knowledge to enable them to organise and undertake railway maintenance.  Indeed, it would have been simpler and cheaper in the short-term for the companies to employ the experienced contracting firms, rather than creating whole new maintenance departments with hierarchies, supply chains and staffs.

Yet, by the 1870, as far as I am aware, most railway companies had taken maintenance operations ‘in house.’ Indeed, in the L&SWR's case this was done to improve costs and administrative harmony. When Brassey’s original ten year contract was up in 1850 the L&SWR had re-let part of the contract to him and another part to a Mr Taylor.[5] Five years later, the two contracts were again up for renewal and a special committee of the  L&SWR's board charged the resident engineer, John Strapp, to write a report on the maintenance arrangements. He was to  include ‘a detailed account of his estimate of the expenses attending the company’s keeping the maintenance in their own hand.’ Indeed, this would suggest that by the 1850s the L&SWR's management had developed knowledge of permanent way maintenance and felt that the company could adequately undertake the job themselves.

However, at this stage it wasn't a certainty that the company would take over maintenance, given that Brassey and Taylor were invited to re-tender for their contracts.[6] However, they were not to be successful, and a month later, with Brassey and Taylor’s proposed tenders taken into consideration, the committee recommended to the board that ‘the company should take the maintenance into their own hands’ on the basis that this would reduce company costs.[7] This recommendation was accepted and the committee's decision was justified when the management of the permanent way maintenance improved and the expenses was reduced. Consequently, the company’s annual report of 31 December 1856 stated that ‘the results have proved satisfactory, inasmuch as the ordinary repairs have been more substantially and durably executed than could have been claimed from a contractor, and the total expenditure for the year has only exceeded the estimate by £39.’[8]

Thus, the L&SWR's case (and presumably others) shows that separating control of infrastructure maintenance from control of train operations has always been undesirable. Therefore, those privatising the railways in the 1990s were essentially introducing a system which had been long since discredited on the basis of its inefficiency.


[2] Herpath’s Railway and Commercial Journal, No. 391, Vol.85 December, 1846, p.1552
[3] The Railway Record, 8 February 1851, p.96
[4] William, R.A., The London and South Western Railway – Volume 1: The Formative Years, (Newton Abbott, 1968), p.246
[5] William, The London and South Western Railway – Volume 1, p.246
[6] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/216, L&SWR Special Committee Minute Book, 30 August 1855, p.181
[7] TNA, RAIL 411/216, L&SWR Special Committee Minute Book, 30 August 1855, p.181
[8] TNA, RAIL 1110/281, L&SWR Reports and Accounts, Half-year ending 31 December 1856, p.1

Thursday, 8 September 2011

A New High-Speed Line, An Old Victorian Assumption?

There is a debate going on in the world of all things ‘railway.’ The building of Britain’s second high speed line, or HS2 as it is more commonly known, fills the pages of newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites, with those in the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps fervently arguing their corners. Indeed, such is the storm that has been whipped up that some campaigners use fall into trap of using emotional arguments to try and win the debate, disregarding evidence and research. However, the emotion involved can some times obscure  the central question at hand; does the nation need a high speed line to accommodate future passenger traffic growth?

The response of those who oppose the line to the projected passenger growth centres on the idea that the existing rail network will be able to be upgraded to accommodate the increasing traffic. This may have some credence, and the network does have the capacity to be modified to allow faster, longer and improved trains, as the West Coast Main Line was in 2008. On the other side of the argument, the supporters of the line argue that routes between London and Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool will start to breach their capacity before 2030 even with modification. Indeed, they believe that while upgrading the West Coast main line is an option, this can only go so far given that the Victorian network’s twists and turns prohibit high speeds. Thus, HS2 is not just desirable, it is a necessity.

Yet, for all this back and forth debates, I believe a central issue has been overlooked and ignored by most involved. Simply put: will passenger traffic actually continue grow at all? Clearly, those who support HS2 think it will. But even those who oppose the line, and dispute the pro-HS2 camp’s predictions of how quickly traffic will increase, still accept that more and more passengers will ride the rails.  Indeed, most accept future passenger growth is a reality on the basis that passenger numbers have grown between 1994 and last year from 735 million in 1994 to 1320 million (see graph below). But, I have seen very little in my reading that even mentions the idea that passenger numbers will plateau or even decline in years to come. I have seen projections of how passenger numbers could increase, but this simply isn’t the same as saying they will increase. Therefore, everyone in every camp is making a massive assumption.

However, this assumption isn’t new, has been made before by railway mangers, directors and commentators. A conversation with anyone in a position of influence in the late Victorian railway industry would have elicited no inkling from them that the massive traffic growth of the period would slow. The graph below shows that between 1870 and 1900 passenger growth increased at a rate at which not even the most astute railway mystic could predict, from 337 million to 1115 million. Indeed, the idea that traffic and revenue growth would never slow was the premise upon which almost all railways invested and embarked on new projects. Thus, those deciding current transport policy, as well of those not deciding it, have fallen into the same mind-set: “Passenger numbers will grow, so let us prepare happy in the knowledge that our assumption will pan out as expected.”

But this reasoning fails to appreciate that traffic growth is not always assured, as Victorian railway managers found out to their horror. The ever-increasing passenger (and goods) traffic numbers of the 1890s deceived railway companies’ managements. They thought that whatever investment they made in their networks would, in time, give healthy returns to shareholders because of the continually increasing traffic and revenue. Consequently, capital investment in the late Victorian period was large, including the myriad of light railways, the rebuilding of stations, a multitude of small works at stations and yards, and the Great Central Railway’s expensive extension to London.

Yet, as the graph shows, passenger traffic growth on Britain’s railways slowed after 1900 and started to decline beyond 1911, as the railways’ trade came under attack from new forms of transport such as trams and motor transportation. Indeed, after the First World War Britain’s passenger numbers went into further free-fall. Thus, all the major capital projects that had been started and finished before 1900, as well as those that were continued on with after it, were building capacity into the network that was simply not needed.

But there was another problem after 1900 that affected the railway industry. In the 1890s railway companies’ costs had risen and their profitability had fallen, making their shares were less attractive to investors after the turn of the century. Consequently, their access to capital was diminished.  This meant that the progress of many major capital projects had to be slowed. But, more importantly, because capital costs were already high the railways’ could not easily invest in the infrastructure to counter the new forms of competition. Thus, the casual acceptance by railway officials before 1900 that traffic and revenue would continue to grow, weakened the industry's financial position after it.

Of course, I am not necessarily saying that the current upward inertia of passenger numbers will slow in the years to come. Indeed, there is an important difference between the trading environments of the Victorian period and those of the current day. Before 1900 the railways had a virtual monopoly in inland transportation, the competition they had was negligible, and their officials found it much harder conceptualise that any external threats that would challenge their long-established hegemony. Contrastingly, in the current trading environment the railways’ competition is already in existence (unless some Star Trek-esque transporter equipment is developed) and transport policy is directed by the Department for Transport. This makes future passenger growth easier to predict.

Yet, the fact that current policy makers and others continue to ask the question of ‘how much will passenger traffic grow,’ while completely ignoring the question ‘will passenger traffic grow at all,’ suggests that the same assumptions that their predecessors had over a hundred years ago may have set in. This is a worry, to be sure.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Cleaner> Fireman> Engine Driver - Positions, Promotion and Pay at Faversham in the 1870s

Today I will be heading to Faversham with friends to visit friends. With this in mind I thought I would see if I could find some information on the railway workers that were based in the town in Victorian times. Faversham station was opened in January 1858 and it soon developed in importance given it was at the junction of two lines; one heading off towards Margate via Whitstable, the other heading towards Dover via Canterbury. Being a junction station, it is unsurprising that the London, Chatham and Dover Railway decided to build an engine shed there. In this post I will briefly look at the members of locomotive department staff that were assigned there in (and around) 1875 and give some insight into their careers.

I have determined that the locomotive department was employing thirty-one men at Faversham Shed in 1875. Nineteen of the men stationed there were on the ‘Engine Driver promotional tree.’ Beginning as locomotive cleaners, they would be promoted to firemen and then engine driver.

Engine drivers were the most numerous type of employee at Faversham in 1875, with seven being assigned there. Curiously, there were only five firemen, and because each locomotive needed one of each for operation, initial analysis may suggest that an error is present in the records. However, on closer examination it is clear that two of the enginemen, Arthur Trowell and John West, were in training as they had been promoted from firemen’s positions that year and were paid less than their colleagues.

The period that individuals were employed with the company before becoming drivers was seemingly formalised by 1875 at nine years. Both Trowell and West were made engine drivers six years after their appointments as firemen in June 1869. Furthermore, R. Clackett and Thomas Jones were promoted from being cleaners to firemen after only three years. Clackett was appointed as a cleaner at Faversham in September 1874 and became a fireman in August 1877. Jones had started in August 1873 and was promoted to fireman in June 1876.

Naturally, the rates of pay increased as individuals were promoted. I am uncertain whether the LC&DR adopted the same practices as other railway companies, however, its employees had a daily rate.  Cleaners received very poor pay and J. Gates, who was appointed in November 1875, started his career on 1s 3d per day. If it is taken that individuals worked six days a week, this equated to £19 10s per year.  As the cleaners gained experience their pay rose to 3s per day or £46 16s per year, at which point they were promoted to being firemen.

However, despite the fact individuals spent six years as firemen, their wage increases advanced at a slower rate than when they were cleaners. As cleaners, the men’s pay increased by an average rate of 3.5 pence for each day’s work per year. Yet, as firemen the maximum pay they could receive was 4s per day or £62 2s per year, equating to an average rate of increase of 2s for every day’s work per year.    

On being promoted to being a driver individuals stayed on 4s per day for around two years, after which an extra six pence per day was added for each year of service. The maximum that drivers received, or so it seemed, was 7s 6d, which was the very considerable sum of £117 per year. [1] Indeed, this was more money than all but one clerk at the Longhedge works was earning in 1875 and reflected the prestige in which engine drivers were held in the late Victorian period.[2]

Of course, even becoming a driver had its risks and the Faversham drivers were no exception. One F. Wilson was probably the unluckiest of all those I have found. On the 1st of October 1881 he had his ‘eye cut with a stone thrown on [the] Sheerness line’ when working the 6.40 am Blackfriars to Faversham goods train.[3] In January 1882, while on his way home, he ‘caught his leg against the lever of points’ in the Faversham Goods Yard and did not return to work for a few days.[4] Then in February 1882 one of the glass gauges on his locomotive broke, scolding his left hand with boiling water.[5] However, Wilson was not the only Faversham driver to get injured and on the 19th March 1886 Richard Broadbridge ‘when waiting at Chatham in stepping over the buffers of carriage caught his foot in communication chord and fell and injured his left leg.’[6] Lastly, J.Powles in July 1889 had two fingers cut by stones ‘thrown from over bridge near East Margate Station.’[7] It seems that accident an injury were a fact of life for the Faversham engine drivers. Yet, there is no doubt others were injured also.

This small study has shown is that by 1875 there was a rigid promotional structure for and pre-determined career path for those the LC&DR employees starting as cleaners. Thus, unless they did something to warrant dismissal or disciplinary action, they would have had a very high level of job security as from day one they would have known the post they would have ended up in. Indeed, Broadbridge spent forty-seven years in the company and finished his career as a driver at Faversham in 1907. J. Powles also stayed at Faversham for all his career and left the company in 1906 after forty-three years’ service.[8] Thus, careers with the railways were, potentially, careers for life.

[1] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 415/109, Register of staff at Longhedge works and outstations, 1860-1881, p.125-128
[2] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 415/109, Register of staff at Longhedge works and outstations, 1860-1881, p.4
[3] TNA, RAIL 415/108, Register of injuries to workmen, 1880-1891, p.23
[4] TNA, RAIL 415/108, Register of injuries to workmen, 1880-1891, p.29
[5] TNA, RAIL 415/108, Register of injuries to workmen, 1880-1891, p.31
[6] TNA, RAIL 415/108, Register of injuries to workmen, 1880-1891, p.96
[7] TNA, RAIL 415/108, Register of injuries to workmen, 1880-1891, p.123
[8] TNA, RAIL 415/108, Register of staff at Longhedge works and outstations, 1864 – 1918, p.219

Friday, 2 September 2011

"Scale of Advances for Junior Clerks" - The Pay of Midland Railway Junior Clerks in the 1880s

Sometimes as a historian you come across single documents that shed light on a whole subject, and this happened to me today. When browsing some railway company staff records online, something that I am apt to do at the moment, a Midland Railway clerical staff record book had pasted in the front a number of documents on clerks’ pay scales before and after the 31st of December 1885. Indeed, it seems that the Midland Railway’s board modified significantly the pay scales for all new clerks at this date and the document these changes.

Before commenting on the pay scales, it is interesting to note that the ages at which new clerks were employed changed. The first document, listing employment practices before the 31st December 1885, showed the wages for clerks beginning their careers ‘over 14 or 15.’ However, in the document specifying employment procedures thereafter, the word ‘over’ was lost and it merely stated individuals started at ’14 or 15.’ It may be tentatively suggested that the Midland, in line with procedure from most railway companies at the time, began to restrict entrance ages of its new clerical staff to younger and younger individuals. However, without more data this is uncertain.

Before 1885, in a practice that has not been observed at railway the London and South Western Railway which I am studying, the department that individuals went into determined their initial wages. Thus, new clerks who entered into the Locomotive, Carriage, Secretary’s, Accountant’s and Stores departments started on the measly sum of £15 per annum or 5s 9d per week. However, those going into the Way and Works Department received £24 per annum (9s 3d per week), those entering the General Managers, Goods and Coaching Offices received yearly £20 (7s 8d per week) and ne clerks in the Telegraph department received £30 per annum (11s 6d per week).

Possibly, the prestige of the different departments and the skill involved in the job of hand may have affected the starting salaries. While the telegraphists would have required far more skills to undertake their work and consequently received more pay, the higher salaries of the ‘General Managers, Goods and Coaching Offices’ may have reflected that these posts had more potential to lead to managerial careers (clerks being the only ones being able to realistically ascend to such heights).

Thereafter, the junior clerks’ wages increased at varying rates of between £5 and £10 per year. While it would be dull to detail all the wage increases the clerks in the different departments received, I will look at how quickly they reached the point at which they became full clerks and began to be promoted ‘on merit only’. The wages they were receiving in the year before their promotion to being full clerks, as well as the number of years it took, are listed below:
  • Locomotive: £65 in eight years
  • Carriage: £60 in seven years
  • Way and Works: £66 in seven years
  • General Managers, Goods and Coaching Offices: £65 in five years (£5 extra at each stage for each clerk working in the London goods Offices)
  • Secretary’s, Accountants and Stores: (uncertain) Possibly £60 in eight years (4th to 6th years - £5 bonus at Christmas, 7th and 8th years £7 10/- bonus)
  • Telegraph: £80 in eleven years
Thus, once again there was variance depending on the prestige of the department and the skill involved in the work. Those employed in the prestige General Managers, Goods and Coaching Offices became full clerks quicker than those in other departments. Whereas, those employed in the Secretary’s, Accountants and Stores departments also received regular bonuses after their fourth year. Furthermore, the skill that was required by telegraph clerks is shown by the longer period individuals spent as a junior and the high wages they received at the end of this period.

However, in 1885 the company changed this system and established to two employment streams for junior clerks (thereafter known as ‘third class’ clerks), splitting them into those employed at the head offices in Derby, and those stationed at other locations. This made wage patterns fairer so that most new clerks received the same incomes at the same points in their careers. However, it also would have brought down the company’s costs by slowing the rate at which new clerks in some departments advanced, and would allow the company to anticipate increases in wage costs better than previously, in an era when wage costs were rising.

Clerks appointed to ‘stations’ beyond Derby started on £20 per annum (with £5 extra in their first three years if living away from home), and reached £60 in their sixth year. Thereafter, they became second class clerks. Those living in London, like clerks in other companies, received London-weighting of £5 extra per year. Yet, Clerks who began their careers at the Derby Headquarters began on only £15 per year and remained ‘third class’ until their eighth year when they were receiving £60. However, between their fourth and sixth year they did receive a £5 bonus at Christmas, and in their seventh and eighth year received £7 10/-.

Possibly, the reason that headquarters clerks stayed in the ‘third class’ for so long was due to their  potential to ascend to the ranks of management. Thus, they were given more training. It would, therefore, imply that from a very young age the Midland Railway assessed whether their new clerical intake were ‘management material,’ and posted those competent individuals to the headquarters to become well versed in all aspects of railway operation. Therefore, this change, combined with the reorganised pay scales, suggests an increasing professionalization and standardisation within the Midland Railway in the period.


All information taken from: The National Archives, RAIL 491/1086, Midland Railway Company: Records, Locomotive Department, 1872-1892,
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