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Monday, 24 December 2012

Counting customers - railway traffic before Christmas in the 1800s

There is no doubt that the four or five days before Christmas are some of the busiest for Britain’s railways as people travel home to see their friends and relatives, or return bleary eyed from Christmas parties and gatherings. No doubt the flooding in Britain has reduced the number of trains running in the period this year. However, nationally, 22,247 trains were scheduled on the 21 December; 20,436 on the 22nd; 11,588 were supposed to run yesterday and 18,968 are due to run today.[1] Most Train Operating Companies have not supplement their regular scheduled services,[3] Chiltern being the only one.[2] Thus, with largely regular Saturday and Sunday timetables in operation on the 22nd and 23rd December, and with trains stopping early today, many passengers will feel like they have travelled in tin cans by the end of the festive season.

However, it is no comfort to say so, but crowded trains are what the Christmas passenger has experienced for over a century. In the nineteenth century particularly, the various railway companies provided the press with a plethora of data on their Christmas traffic. In the days after the 25 December how many passengers to and from stations were commonly mentioned in newspapers, especially as the numbers usually grew each year. 

The number of passengers who travelled in the festive period from London via the Great Western Railway (GWR) perfectly shows this growth. In 1895 the number booked at the company’s City and West End Offices and London Stations between Friday 20 December and Thursday 26 December at noon was 40,750. This was an increase on 1889’s total of 37,000. Indeed, in 1895 5,953 passengers travelled from Paddington on Saturday 21 December; with 8,992 being conveyed on Christmas Eve.[4] Therefore, with Christmas passenger numbers increasing so rapidly year on year, it is quite possible that individual travellers found themselves progressively squeezed as the railways struggled to keep pace with the changing demand.   

However, as we are currently told passenger numbers in this country continue to grow, it would be interesting to see this year whether the 374 and 307 trains scheduled leave Paddington on the 21 and 24 December respectively are on average they are more packed than those on the same day in 2011. [5]

But passenger data was not the only information the newspapers featured; and the amount of parcels handled by stations also appeared alongside it. Those passing through the London and North Western Railway’s Euston Station were of particular interest and, as I related in a blog post last year, special arrangements were established there in the 1840s to handle this vast and growing traffic. Statistics have been found which show that number of parcels arriving at Euston in the three days before and the morning of the 25 December grew most years. They were as follows:

1848 - 12,000 [6]
1849 - 15,000 [7]
1850 - 10,000 [8]
1851 - Inward and Outward: 40,000 (figures for the week before Christmas) [9]
1852 - 12,000
1853 - 12,500 [10]
1864 - 17,000 [11]

Therefore, by digging into nineteenth century newspapers we can gauge how the railways became an integral part of Christmas for Victorians; performing the same function as do for passengers today, through taking them from home to merriment and delivering them all they needed for Christmas cheer.

Much thanks must go to Tom Cairns for the data he provided on current train operations.


[1] Data kindly provided by Tom Cairns and Twitter: @swlines
[4] Morning Post - Friday 27 December 1895
[5] Data kindly provided by Tom Cairns and Twitter: @swlines
[6] The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 26, 1848
[7] Daily News, Wednesday, December 26, 1849, Issue 1119
[8] The Era, Sunday, December 29, 1850
[9] The Standard, Saturday, December 27, 1851, p.1
[10] The Essex Standard, and General Advertiser for the Eastern Counties, Wednesday, December 28, 1853
[11] Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday, January 9, 1864

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

'Pretty Festoons of Holly Leaves Are Displayed' - The Decoration of Railway Stations Before 1900

In the late nineteenth century most railway employees would find themselves at work over the Christmas period, even on Christmas Day itself. Therefore, it is unsurprising that many felt the need to adorn their places of work so that the spirit of Christmas would remain with them while on duty. The decoration of stations was seemingly a collective effort by station staff, and it was reported by the Reading Mercury in January 1887 that at Sunningdale station on the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) ‘all the men have worked at the decorations during their “off time” under the supervision of the station master.[1]

This decking out of stations at Christmas allowed travellers to pass a wealth of colour while on their journeys. In 1884 the London and South Western Railway’s (LSWR) staff magazine, the South Western Gazette, reported that the standard of decorations at suburban stations was ‘quite up to the standard of past years’.[2] The Whitstable Times and Hearne Bay Herald stated in 1881 that the London, Chatham and Dover Railway’s (LCDR) station at Canterbury ‘looked exceedingly pretty’ and that ‘there had been no stint in the quality of decorative material, and it had been put up in a manner that evinced care and taste on the part of the decorators.’[3] Furthermore, in 1887 the adornments at the LSWR’s Totton, Redbridge and Lyndhurst Road Stations were described by the Hampshire Advertiser as being ‘very effective, reflecting credit on those who carried out the work.’[4]

Decorations were usually a mix of local plants, particularly evergreens, with other items added. In 1888 the booking office and waiting room at Purley on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR) was decorated ‘effectively and prettily’ with holly and ivy.[5] Furthermore, the copious adornments at the LSWR’s Sunningdale Station in 1886 were described in full, as follows:

‘The evergreens, relieved by numerous flags, and mottoes have a very pretty effect. The pillars are entwined with Turkey red, above which is a diamond shaped wreath, with Chrysanthemums, yellow, white and pink bronze at each point. The booking office is adorned with great taste, and a number of pretty festoons of holly leaves are displayed.’[6]

Additionally, the Gazette recorded that the parcels office staff at Richmond station in 1887 had…:

“…vied with their parcel brethren at other stations in the way in which they have recognised this season of the year by wreathing and other decorations on the walls and around the windows of their office; the result has been very successful…a considerable quantity of evergreen has been expended in all decorations of this Richmond parcels office. We hear it is as well as any in the vicinity.’[7]

Staff at Norbiton in 1884 and Camberley in 1885[8] did things a little differently; lighting their booking offices and waiting rooms with Chinese lanterns. The Gazette recorded how at Norbiton ‘The effect at night is exceedingly pretty, and reflects great credit upon the designers.’[9]

It is unknown when stations were decorated by their staff. However, only one article I have found reports a station's adornments before 25 December, suggesting that most stations were decked out shortly before Christmas Day.[10] As for when they were taken down, this is again a bit of a mystery. Yet, clearly some stations were a bit lazy in doing so. At Saxmundham Station on the Great Eastern Railway in 1875, decorations were noted to be still up in the waiting room at a staff supper on the 12 January.[11]

I have always felt that the Victorian railway community’s decoration of stations is akin to what many of us do at our own places of work; we decorate to help us remain festive while grafting. Consequently, our festooning of desks and walls follow in a long tradition of work-place festivities.


My other Christmas posts are as follows:

[1] Reading Mercury, Saturday 01 January 1887
[2] The South Western Gazette, January 1888, p.8
[3] Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald, Saturday 01 January 1881
[4] Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday 31 December 1887
[5] Surrey Mirror, Saturday 22 December 1888
[6] Reading Mercury, Saturday 01 January 1887
[7] The South Western Gazette, January 1888, p.11
[8] Reading Mercury, Saturday 02 January 1886
[9] The South Western Gazette, January 1884, p.2
[10] Surrey Mirror, Saturday 22 December 1888
[11] The Ipswich Journal, Saturday 16 January 1875

Saturday, 27 October 2012

'It is impossible to manage a [pre-1914] railway by theory" ... or is it?

In the early 1900s the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) was one of five British railway companies that began sending its clerks to the London School of Economics (LSE) to undertake classes in 'railway administration.' The aim of this move was to augment the skills and knowledge of its clerical staff, the company's future managers, in a period when the quality of the railway industry's management was being questioned and it was being challenged by high material and labour costs, competition from trams on suburban routes, increased government intervention and stagnating traffic growth. Indeed, this caused a severe drop in company profitability from the late 1890s onwards.

However, before the First World War the idea of railway employees attending universities to receive management training was not universally accepted within many companies'. Furthermore, this attitude was not restricted to the railways and Amdam argued that historians have almost unanimously concluded that within British industry generally there was a ‘skepticism towards business education within the both the academic and business community’.[1]

This scepticism towards was expressed frequently by LSWR clerks in the company's staff magazine, The South Western Gazette, which was largely written and edited by them. When Hilditch, the Waterloo Station Superintendent, retired in 1905, the piece announcing this stated that he had had ‘a good plain practical education, but he possessed, in addition, what universities have not yet been able to provide, namely, a shrewdness and capacity for sound common sense, a cool head and clear intellectual grasp.'[2] The anti-university feeling was reiterated in 1909 when another clerk, writing on the matter staff education, stated that ' I will dismiss the question of the London School of Economics by saying that “it is impossible to manage a railway by theory.” Indeed, he preferred an institute where individuals could learn 'practical' railway skills.[3]

The problem with this attitude was that it was what had created many of the problems railway management faced immediately after the late 1890s. Indeed, because many senior officials felt that good railway managers were born within the industry, not made outside it, and thus recruited the vast majority internally, companies' decision-makers were highly institutionalised within the practices and norms of the railways that employed them and the industry as a whole.  Consequently, railways were unable to respond adequately to the challenges they faced as there was severe lack of innovation within them and few new ideas were being generated. This is what my PhD shows in the LSWR's case.


[1]Amdam, Rolv Petter, ‘Business Education’, in Jones, Geoffrey and Zeitlin, Robert (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Business History, (Oxford, 2007), p.586 
[2] South Western Gazette, September 1905, p.9 
[3] South Western Gazette, December 1909, p.10

Wednesday, 24 October 2012


Dear Friends

I am looking to re-start the TurnipRail Blog soon - so keep your eyes peeled!

Best Wishes


Friday, 15 June 2012

A Temporary End to Turnip Rail

Dear all. It is with much sadness that I write this post.

On Monday I had my Thesis Advisory Panel, where, after much discussion, it was decided that I need more work on my PhD than could be done within the three months of my remaining registration. Indeed, I may even need to extend my work until Christmas. Consequently, this has left me very disheartened, as I was hoping to start a book in October.

*UPDATE* I have decided not to pursue a career as an author and have decided to go into academia full-time when my PhD is over. It is why I did the PhD and, ultimately, I'll have the opportunity to do the thing I love, research. I am not saying I will never write a popular book - just not yet.

However, this said, I am determined to get the work done as soon is as humanly possible (before Christmas hopefully). The problem with a thesis, any thesis, is by the end those doing them want to get shot of them. Indeed, while I love my topic and the subject matter, I feel that after six years it is time to move on. Therefore, to speed my work, I have taken the decision to virtually suspend working on anything new for my sites, 'Turnip Rail' and 'Turnip Rail's Waiting Room'. Given my lovely, loyal readership, this decision has not been taken easily, and I do feel I am letting down the people who like the site and who have made it such a success over the past two and a half years. I thank everyone from the bottom of my heart for their support. But I have to get the thesis done ASAP. My career, and my sanity perhaps, depends on it.

But I will leave you with this thought: Turnip Rail will return, you can be sure of it.

With Love


Saturday, 2 June 2012

Did the Management Ever Control Britain's 19th Century Railways?

Alfred Chandler
The rise of what Alfred Chandler called the ‘visible hand’ of management has dominated the business history literature for forty years. Simply put, Chandler argued that managers came to dominate American business in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As technology was introduced to companies and markets expanded, their processes of distribution and then coordination became more complex as they increased in size. Consequently, this generated a need for better administrative control of the organisations’ activities, leading to the rise of the ‘visible hand’ of management. Indeed, as managers grew in number within firms, they increasingly steered their destinies, wrestling control of corporate strategy from companies’ shareholders, financiers and directors. Chandler called this ‘managerial capitalism.’[1]

In the United States this process occurred first in the railroads. When faced with challenges such as safety concerns, then the increasing volume, speed and complexity of traffic on the line, companies quickly developed hierarchies of railway managers to coordinate their activities, leading to the rise of the ‘visible hand.’ Ward argued that a situation had developed on the Pennsylvania Railroad by 1873 where ‘paramount executive authority had emerged’, directors were by then ‘pliant acceders,’ and shareholders were virtually impotent.[2] Indeed, there is no doubt that Chandler admired railroads, such as the Pennsylvania, where managers had seized control of the organisation, arguing they were the best managed and innovative. They adopted high-level strategic direction, with considerable authority delegated to operating units and complex administrative practices were developed.[3] Indeed, Zunz also argued similar of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, which he considered an exemplar of good management practice because it was controlled by the company’s management class.[4]

The question, therefore, is to what extent this process was replicated in the British context? How much control did British railway managers have over their companies’ directors and shareholders in the nineteenth century, and, ultimately, their destinies? Chandler argued that because of the nation’s smaller size British railway managers were challenged less than their American counterparts to develop new and innovative management techniques.[5] Therefore, this possibly implies that British railway managers did not secure the same level of control as some American managers. However, Channon countered this by arguing that British railway managers were challenged in different ways because of the country’s high-density, expensive and intensive network, which was, unlike in the United States, complete in its operating and physical details in a much shorter time period after the industry’s establishment.[6] Therefore, while not ruling out a rise of the ‘visible hand’ of management, this may suggest that a different pattern of managerial development occurred within British railways. Nevertheless, neither of these perspectives really answered the question of whether there was a rise in the ‘visible hand’ of management in the British railway industry in the nineteenth century.

No comprehensive history of British railway management before 1914 has been written. Therefore, I have had to compile what I know about the rise of the ‘visible hand’ from case studies. However, some historians have broadly attempted to assess when the railways’ management class, particularly within larger companies, came to dominate the industry’s direction. Cain argued that General Managers, who were usually at the top of railway companies’ hierarchies, were the most important decision-makers in the industry by 1870.[7]  Channon made a similar claim, stating that before 1870 managerial ascendency ‘cannot be assumed.’[8] I believe both were wrong, and using a number of case studies I will suggest that management cannot be said to have ascended into a position of control before the 1900s.

Richard Moon
Terry Gourvish’s book on Mark Huish, the London and North Western Railway’s General Manager between the company’s formation in 1846 and 1858, is an enthralling text. It relates the story of a railway manager who during his administration and after his death was considered ‘unscrupulous, dictatorial and Machiavellian’; controlling the companies' policies. At face value this would suggest he was the first ‘managerial capitalist’ in Britain’s railway industry. Yet, Gourvish’s research showed the reverse. He argued that while Huish had more control of the company’s policies than his contemporaries, he did not possess the ‘dictatorial’ influence in decision-making often ascribed to him.’ Indeed, his resignation was forced on him 1858 as he did not satisfy the board’s requirements regarding inter-company diplomacy.[9]

Archibald Scott
Indeed, it was the career of the man who instigated  Huish’s resignation, LNWR director Richard Moon, that truly shows that the ‘visible hand’ of management did not really control policy on the British railway network until long after it had on many American railroads. Moon was appointed chairman of the company in 1861 and stayed in the post for thirty years. Before his ascendency becoming chairman, he had a reputation for taking a highly detailed interest in most of the company’s operational affairs, even when they were beyond his remit. Indeed, most railways’ boards met twice monthly, with directors meeting in committees the day before. Yet, Moon would be active in the company’s affairs every day of the week. Thus, when made chairman his controlling instincts were let loose. His biographer, Peter Braine, described him as being ‘not only a managing director, but also effectively his own General Manager,’ throughout his chairmanship. [10] Indeed, the company’s General Manager between 1858 and 1875, William Cawkwell, was very much under his and the board’s control.[11]

But directors having control of companies’ strategic direction was not unusual in the period. Lord Salisbury, chairman of the Great Eastern Railway between 1868 and 1871, looms large in the company’s history. On his appointment the GER was in chancery. Yet, he successfully turned it around and it began paying dividends again in the 1870s.[12] On the London and South Western Railway, as I will explain in my thesis, policy was dominated by directors until the 1881 when they gave the General Manager, Archibald Scott, more ‘general control’ over the concern’s affairs.[13] However, even then he was still under their control and did not have a decisive role in corporate decision-making. Lastly, on the Great Northern Railway in the 1850s, 60s and 70s it had directors who ‘thought they knew more about the business than the company’s senior officers.’[14] Therefore, this would suggest that the dominance of company boards was still present in the industry as late as the 1870s.

Indeed, from the 1860s there also appeared controlling positions within companies which would now be described as managing directorships. In most cases the individuals taking these positions were ex-managers, who on retirement became controlling directors. The most prominent examples of this were Edward Watkin and James Staats Forbes. They were fierce rivals, with Watkin chairing the Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire (1864-1894), South Eastern (1866-1894) and Metropolitan Railways (1872-1894); while Forbes was chairman of the London, Chatham and Dover (1873-1898) and Metropolitan District Railways (1872-1901). Both men had served as railwaymen and then had moved onto railways’ boards where they dominated policy.[15] The other example of this was the managing directorship of the Daniel Gooch on the Great Western Railway. Gooch had been the company’s Locomotive Superintendent between 1837 and 1864, and when he resigned took up a position on the board. He then became the company’s chairman, and had a position akin to a managing director between 1865 and his death in 1889.[16] Furthermore, James Ramsden on the Furness railway also was in such a position between 1866 and 1883.[17]
Myles Fenton

But by the late 1880s the dominant power of railway managers was coming through more widely within the British Railway industry. Between 1885 and 1897, as my thesis will show, Charles Scotter was the dominant General Manager of the London and South Western Railway, controlling almost all aspects of policy, large and small. Cornelius Lundie, General Manager and Superintendent of the Line of the Rhymney Railway between 1858 and 1904, ran the railway as he wished with little or no reference to the board’s interests.[18] Even Watkin  relied on the General Managers at each of his companies for their safe and efficient operation. They were the SER’s Myles Fenton, William Pollitt at the MSLR and John Bell at the Metropolitan.[19] Indeed, Hodgkins argued that because Pollitt and Bell were rivals a proposed link between the MSLR and Metropolitan in the 1890s would have been difficult to arrange. Therefore, this suggests that despite Watkin’s domineering chairmanship of his companies, his chief executives still heavily influenced their railways’ policies.[20]

George Gibb
These cases were, however, only the start of a shift of towards the absolute control of the ‘visible hand’ of management within Britain’s railways. In 1891 George Gibb was appointed General Manager of the North Eastern Railway. Gibb reformed the company’s operations and, through dominating the company’s board and staff, dragged it into a position where experts acknowledged it was a model of good management practice.[21] But Gibb was just the first of a new breed of railway executives. Indeed, as a crisis hit the industry around 1900, as passenger, goods and revenue growth stalled, the cost of fuel and materials increased, and railway securities became less favoured as investment opportunities, the role of reversing  the industry’s financial situation fell onto the shoulders of executives.

After 1900 a raft of new and innovative managers came to the fore within British railways. Sam Fay, an ex-LSWR employee, became the Great Central Railway’s General Manager in 1902, and through his dynamic leadership transformed it from being a poorly performing to concern into one that, while never rich, made great advances and innovations in operational practice.[22] On the Midland Railway Cecil Paget, the company’s Chief Operating Officer, devised a whole new method of train control that added greatly to the company’s operating efficiency,[23] reducing delays to freight trains from 21,869 hours in 1907 to 7,749 hours in 1913.[24] Lastly, in 1912 Herbert Walker became the LSWR’s General Manager. Through dominating the company’s directorate he reformed its management and introduced electric traction onto its ailing suburban network.[25]

Of course, not all railways had General Managers that were as dynamic as these three. However, generally by the early twentieth century executives controlled the strategic direction of most of the largest companies within the British railway industry. Furthermore, the process of the rise of the ‘visible hand’ was also helped, as my thesis will relate and as Channon discussed,[26] by directors having less time to dedicate to the companies they served. Before 1900 the many took an active interest in their railway companies as they had little else to occupy their time. However, from around 1900, as the British corporate economy grew, they took on other external responsibilities, such other directorships. Thus, large numbers of directors were occupied by these activities, leaving vacuum of control into which railway executives could step.
Herbert Walker

Therefore, it is not surprising that on the formation in 1912 of the Railway Executive Committee, established to organise Britain’s railways in wartime, all its members were General Managers of the country’s largest companies. Indeed, the diminished role of the railway directors in the administration of the industry by that time was reflected by the fact that not one was present on the REC. Consequently, Britain’s railways in World War One was completely managed by the ‘visible hand’ of management,[27] the final proof that it had secured strategic control of the industry by 1914.

Overall, this survey [tentatively] disproves Channon and Cain’s claims that railway managers were universally important to British railways’ policies by 1870, and there was much variance in who controlled their direction. Overall, in the contrast with experience of the American railroads, the rise of the ‘Visible Hand’ of management occurred relatively late in the British context; only truly emerging after 1900. But why this was so?

I think that Chandler was correct to some extent in arguing that British railway managers were challenged less than their American counterparts because of the country’s smaller size. Despite the dramatic traffic growth throughout the century, the smaller size of British railway companies meant that there was never a point until after the 1890s when the internal administrative control required by them was beyond the ability of one director or their boards to organise. Indeed, the highly centralised management structures of British railway companies throughout the period, where decisions could be made by a small group of directors or managers at the top of the hierarchy,[28]  meant that dynamic and knowledgeable individuals, irrespective of whether they were directors or a managers, had the possibility of controlling their railways. Thus, this is why it is unclear before 1900 if management had 'ascended' within the industry. Indeed, one factor in an individual controlling a railway in the period was his personality; and all of the men mentioned were certainly characters. 


[1] Channon, Geoffrey, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940: Studies in Economic and Business History, (Aldershot, 2001), p.5
[2] Ward, James A., ‘Power and Accountability on the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1846-1878’, Business History Review, XLIX (1975), p.58
[3] Channon, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940, p.5
[4] Zunz, Oliver, Making America Corporate: 1870-1920, (Chicago, 1990), p.47
[5] Chandler, Alfred D., Scale and Scope: the Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism, (London, 1990) p.253
[6] Channon, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940, p.29
[7] Cain, P.J., ‘Railways 1870-1914: the maturity of the private system,’ in Freeman, Michael J. and Aldcroft, Derek H. (eds.) Transport in Victorian Britain, (Manchester, 1988), p.112
[8] Channon, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940, p.44
[9] Gourvish, T.R. Mark Huish and the London & North Western Railway, (Leicester, 1972), p.167-182
[10] Braine, Peter, The Railway Moon – A Man and His Railway: Sir Richard Moon and the L&NWR, (Taunton, 2012), p.477
[11] Channon, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940, p.44
[12] Barker, T.C., 'Lord Salisbury, Chairman of the Great Eastern Railway 1868-1872' in Marriner, S., Business and Businessmen: Studies in Business, Economic and Accounting History, (Liverpool, 1972)
[13] The South Western Gazette, December 1881, p.2
[14] Simmons, Jack, The Railway in England and Wales 1830-1914, (Leicester, 1978), p.247
[15] Gourvish, T.R., ‘The Performance of British Railway Management after 1860: The Railways of Watkin and Forbes’, Business History, 20 (1978), p.198
[16] Cain, P.J., ‘Railways 1870-1914: The maturity of the private system’, in Freeman, Michael J. and Aldcroft, Derek H. (eds.) Transport in Victorian Britain (Manchester, 1988), p.113
[17] Simmons, The Railway in England and Wales 1830-1914, p.247
[18] Simmons, The Railway in England and Wales 1830-1914, p.247
[19] Gourvish, ‘The performance of British railway management after 1860’, p.188-191
[20] Hodgkins, David, The Second Railway King: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Watkin, (Melton Priory, 2002), p.609
[21] Irving , R.J., The North Eastern Railway Company: An Economic History, 1870-1914,  (Leicester, 1976)  p.261-264
[22] Dow, Andrew, ‘Great Central Railway,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (1997, Oxford), p.191-192
[23] Burtt, Philip, Control on the Railways, (London, 1926), p.144-151
[24] Edwards, Roy, ‘Divisional train control and the emergence of dynamic capabilities: The experience of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, c.1923-c.1939, Management and Organisational History, 6 (2011), p.398
[25] Klapper, C.F., Sir Herbert Walker’s Southern Railway, (London, 1973), p.33-76
[26] Channon, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940, p.187-188
[27] Pratt, Edwin A., British Railways and the Great War: Organisation, Efforts, Difficulties and Achievements – Vol. 1, (London, 1921), p.40-50
[28] Bonavia, The Organisation of British Railways, p.17-18

Saturday, 12 May 2012

A Brief History of the Female Railway Clerk 1830-1914

While I have written frequently about female clerks on Britain’s railways before 1914, I have never penned a complete history. Therefore, this post will provide a broad survey of the changes in women’s clerical employment on the railways between 1830 and 1914.

Initially it may be useful to specify who I am talking about. Women were employed in three clerical positions on the Victorian railway. Firstly, there were the booking clerks; who sold tickets to passengers and registered their luggage. Secondly, women were engaged as administrative clerks, to fill in returns, conduct correspondence, and deal with the day-to-day station administration. Lastly there were telegraph clerks, who sent and received telegraph messages. It would be interesting to talk about these types of clerks separately. Yet, that would take some time and I have decided to just do a general history of all female clerical workers.

When the first female clerks were engaged on Britain’s railways is uncertain. However, the earliest I have found was Margaret Savage, who was appointed as a Telegraph Clerk at the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway’s (LBSCR) Three Bridges Station in August 1855. Two years later Margaret’s sister, Harriet, was also employed there as a Booking Clerk. Clearly, both Margaret and Harriett only got their jobs because their father, Thomas, was the Station Master there.[1] The same occurred in the case of Elizabeth Spearpoint, who was appointed as Telegraph Clerk at the LBSCR’s West Croydon Station in October 1857 because  her father, Robert, was in charge of that station.[2] Interestingly, what these and other appointments by the LBSCR suggest is that in the 1850s it was the first company to adopt a coherent policy regarding female clerical staff, which was simply to appoint station masters’ daughters in clerical positions.

It is not clear to what extent similar opportunities were available for women on other railways. Yet, a letter to The Times reported in 1858 that:

“In taking a ticket the other day at the Edinburgh station of the Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee Railway, we were pleasantly surprised on being waited upon by a blooming and bonnie lassie, who, along with an activity quite equal to, exhibited a politeness very rare in railway clerks of the literally ruder sex. We observed that the department was entirely occupied by women, there being another giving out tickets, and a third telegraphing.” [3]

Nevertheless, the evidence suggests before 1870 different railways adopted different policies regarding female clerks, and many, such as the London and South Western, Great Western, Metropolitan and London and North Western Railways, did not employ any. Thus, the first reference to a female clerk in the London and South Western Railway’s files, of which I have done an extensive survey, was in 1871, as follows:

Mr Fifields Daughter – Read letter from Mr Fifield Agent at Oakley Station requesting that his daughter may be appointed as Telegraphist at that Station at a pay of 7/- per week
   Recommend this to the Board[4]

Indeed, the fact that this matter had to be submitted to the board suggests that this was the first case the company had considered. Thereafter, the LSWR employed some female clerks, but these were in isolated cases and there was no set policy.

The first case of a railway company employing a large group of female clerks at one time was the London and North Western Railway between late 1874 and 1876. The women were working in the Birmingham Curzon Street Station Goods Department and their role was to make 'abstracts from invoices for the ledger accounts of credit customers and for forwarding to the Railway Clearing House.’[5] Following this, the company began employing large numbers of female clerks around the its network, at locations including Camden, Shrewsbury, Bolton, Manchester and Wolverhampton.[6]

The success of this ‘experiment’ (a word used frequently) meant that other companies began investigating the possibility of engaging women for clerical work. Most notably, the Great Western Railway investigated it thoroughly for about six months in 1876. On the 30 August its board minuted that:

‘…female clerks might be employed with advantage, but their work should be confined to offices (such as Goods or Abstract Offices) where they could be employed separately from the men clerks, except when the member of a station master’s family may be employed at the same station himself.’[7]

This was a promising start, and a later letter by a senior management endorsed these views. Indeed, on 24 November a meeting of goods managers authorised a trial of clerks at Birmingham, Bristol and Plymouth Goods Stations. For some unknown reason the trial was not proceeded with, and it was not until 1905 that the matter was considered again by the company.[8]

Nevertheless, despite the LNWR’s ‘experiment’ being successful,  it would not be until after 1900 that the cases of women being engaged in clerical positions on the railways became common. In March that year twelve were employed at Kings Cross Station by the Great Northern Railway, with the North British Railway engaged forty as telegraph clerks at Edinburgh Waverly Station. In 1901 the North Eastern Railway employed six women as telegraphists at York, with an undetermined number of female clerks being appointed there in the Traffic Statistics office the following year.[9] In 1906 the Great Western Railway employed a number of women in clerical positions at the Paddington Goods Department, followed by female telegraphists and tracers in 1908 and 1910 respectively.[10] One of the last places to engage female clerks was the Railway Clearing House, which in 1912 appointed twenty-seven who were related to men working there. This number had increased to 180 two years later.[11] Thus, by July 1914 there were 2,341 female clerical staff working on Britain’s railways.[12]

The LSWR's 'Conditions of Service' for female clerks.
However, not all companies were quick to appoint women in clerical capacities, and it was only in March 1914 that the London and South Western Railway drew up formal 'conditions of employment'.'[13] Indeed, by the coming of war, the company had only employed six female clerks.[14]

Overall, how should we think about the increase in the number female clerks within British railways after 1900? It would be easy for me to simply claim this change occurred because it became more socially acceptable for women to take up such positions. Yet, I cannot help think that there was an economic rationale involved on the railway companies’ part. Between 1870 and 1900 the profitability of British railway companies declined, with the industry’s operating costs increasing from fifty-one to sixty –two per cent of revenue over the period. Indeed, the most significant rise in companies’ expenses occurred in the late 1890s.[15] Consequently, the railway companies began looking at many ways to economise from around 1900.

Indeed, given that female clerks were paid less than their male colleagues, this raises an interesting question; to what extent was the expansion of women’s clerical employment on railways after 1900 advanced by changes in society, or changes in the nature of the railways’ business? My impression is that alterations in society's attitudes made the employment of female clerks more acceptable. Yet, because the cases of their employment on the railways grew rapidly after 1900, with little progress directly before it, I would also suggest that the industry's weakened financial circumstances stimulated managers into taking advantage of changing attitudes by employing more women in clerical positions, thus reducing railways' wage bills. Indeed, when the London Underground was considering engaging women as clerks in 1907, the Railway Gazette stated the following: ‘such an innovation has obviously only one raison d’être, that of economy…’[16]

Of course, I may be wrong in this assessment, which is based on the information I have to hand. Therefore, I am open to other perspectives and suggestions.


[1] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 414/770, Traffic staff: register of appointments Indexed, p.62
[2] TNA, RAIL 414/771, Traffic staff: register of appointments Indexed, p.77
[3] The Times, quoted in Wojtczak, Helena, Railwaywomen, (Hastings, 2005), p.27
[4] TNA, RAIL 411/241, Traffic Committee Minute Book, Minute 575, 30 November 1871
[5] The Englishwomen’s Review, Friday, 15 February 15th, 1878
[6] TNA, RAIL RAIL 410/1837 to RAIL 410/1842, Salaried Staff Registers.
[7] GWR Board Minute, 30 August 1876, quoted in, Matheson, Rosa, The Fair Sex: Women and the Great Western Railway, (Stroud, 2007), p.50
[8] Matheson, The Fair Sex, p.51
[9] Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.29-31
[10] Matheson, The Fair Sex, p.52-54
[11] Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.29
[12] Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.38
[13] TNA, RAIL 411/275, Traffic Officers’ Conference, March 1914, Appendix 1
[14] TNA, RAIL 411/506, Clerical register - Female staff, Various Staff Records
[15] Gourvish, T.R., Railways and the British Economy: 1830-1914, (London, 1980), p.42
[16] Railway Gazette, quoted in Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.27

Sunday, 6 May 2012

A Misinformed but Devious Take-over of a Railway

The Somerset and Dorset Railway in 1875
The ultimate point of my PhD on the London and South Western Railway’s (LSWR) management between 1870 and 1910 is to determine the quality of managers' and directors' decisions in the period. Therefore, I deal with questions surrounding what drove decisions and what decision-makers knew when making them. One event I focus on is the LSWR and Midland Railway’s lease of the Somerset and Dorset Railway (SDR) in 1875.

The LSWR and Midland Railway's Lease

The SDR was formed from a number of small companies in 1862. Yet, after connecting to Bath in 1874 it got into financial trouble, even though the trade with the Midland at that place and the LSWR at Templecombe was healthy.[1] Consequently, the beleaguered company approached the Great Western Railway (GWR) with the proposal that it would purchase the SDR. Thereafter, the GWR and its Bristol and Exeter Railway (BER) allies engaged in protracted negotiation with the SDR,[2] and by early August a deal was close. On the 12 August 1875 James Grierson and J.C. Wall, the GWR and BER General Managers, visited the LSWR’s General Manager, Archibald Scott, at Waterloo. The LSWR and GWR were fierce competitors, but as an act of good faith Grierson and Wall informed Scott of the negotiations and offered the LSWR a working agreement on the southern part of the line between Templecombe and Wimborne.[3] Scott expressed his alarm at the proposal[4] and requested another meeting on the 16 August to give him time to consult the LSWR’s board.[5]
James Allport

It was at that point that the LSWR out-flanked the GWR. Scott met his board on 13 August and was immediately sent to Birmingham to confer with the Midland’s Deputy Chairman and General Manager, James Allport.[6] By the 17 August they decided to work with the LSWR to offer the SDR a better deal than the GWR and B&ER's.[7] Yet, knowledge of Scott's trip was withheld from Grierson and Wall when he met them on sixteenth,[8] with Scott stating that a LSWR half-yearly meeting of proprietors had prevented the board considering the matter.[9] This gave the LSWR and Midland time to finalise their deal with the SDR board, who on 19 August rejected GWR and BER’s offer. The agreement between the LSWR, Midland  and SDR was signed on the 1 November.[10] Naturally, the GWR was angered by Scott’s actions and opposed the leasing Bill in Parliament.[11] However, against its many protestations, this passed on 13 July 1876.[12]


The question remains as to why the LSWR decided to go behind the GWR's back and secure the SDR for itself? Certainly, LSWR decision-makers thought their company would benefit from leasing the SDR and augmenting its infrastructure. Scott described its traffic as being ‘in its infancy’ and at the parliamentary committee investigating the lease stated that:

James Grierson
‘A considerable amount of money will have to be expended on the Somerset and Dorset Line to improve it and make it efficient for traffic purposes, and I have no hesitation in saying that the traffic to be carried over the Somerset and Dorset Line in connection with the South Western system and the Midland as well as locally, will be very large indeed.’[13]

However, the LSWR did not employ accurate predictions of the capital expense required to realise the SDR's revenue generating potential. Like Channon argued regarding the Midland’s London extension in 1869, LSWR decision-makers’ knowledge of costs and revenues was too incomplete for accurate predictions of these things to be made.[14] Furthermore, there was realistically not time enough between Scott being notified of the GWR and BER’s plans on the twelfth, and the agreement’s completion on the nineteenth, for accurate forecasts to be formulated. This is not to say LSWR decision-makers had absolutely no idea of the potential revenues and costs of taking over the line, and the proposal for the LSWR to operate between Wimborne and Templecombe was deemed objectionable because Scott recognised the region’s poor revenue generating potential. But this analysis was not systematic, and based on ‘gut-feeling’ and experience.

In reality, the potential profits the SDR could generate with investment was not the reason the LSWR joined with the Midland to lease it. Before 1876 the SDR generated little traffic for the LSWR. In 1871 freight moving from the SDR onto the LSWR’s system contributed to the latter revenue of only £38,282, rising to £54,482 by 1875, the increase being because the Bath connection opened. Yet, this still only constituted 2.19 per cent of the LSWR’s gross receipts in 1875[15] and it is unlikely this traffic alone justified the lease.

Rather, the timing of the LSWR’s approach to the Midland and SDR were determined by the GWR and B&ER’s actions. The LSWR's trade could have been potentially disadvantaged if they had taken over the line, and Portal, the LSWR Deputy-Chairman, stated that the GWR and B&ER’s proposals were ‘highly injurious to the interests of the public, contrary to the interests of Parliament and hurtful to the South Western Company.’[16] Strategically, the SDR was important for the LSWR, with trade coming through it from the north and South Wales to Southampton. In August 1875 Scott stated that ‘…naturally the South Western Company, [has been] interested…for so many years been in the traffic in connection with the Somerset and Dorset line.’[17] Therefore, the GWR’s proposals would have given it control of this traffic, possibly damaging the LSWR's revenue.

Thus, the LSWR’s concern to control its trade and territory on its own terms, overrode others regarding the investment the line needed or its revenue generating capacity. Indeed, LSWR decision-makers were attempting to protect a regional monopoly, as Dodgson argued occurred at the time in the industry more generally.[18]

Archibald Scott
However, the lack of accurate cost and revenue predictions played a role in LSWR decision-makers’ mind-sets when approaching the SDR takeover. Firstly, they had believed from as early as the 1840s that traffic and revenue would always increase irrespective of the state of the economy (as I prove elsewhere in my Phd). This fed the belief that territorial protection would always put extra traffic onto the LSWR’s system, which would ultimately be good for company profits. Consequently, because accurate project forecasting was largely absent and decisions were usually made based on gut-feeling, these largely assumed beliefs underpinned the rationale and timing of most decisions. Indeed, in the SDR's case, for the LSWR to loose territorial control, may also have potentially lost it the profit from the naturally assumed traffic growth. Again, Channon argued that similar thinking was behind the Midland Railway’s construction of the London extension.[19]

A Successful Take-Over?

Ultimately, the SDR lease mirrored Watkin’s extensions of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire railway to some extent, as Hopkins described them as ‘expensive failures’ because they ‘were not properly weighed up as investment opportunities’.[20] While the the success of the SDR lease is hard to determine accurately, it was seemingly limited. Between 1875 and 1880, when the LSWR and Midland was investing heavily in the line,[21] passenger numbers hauled grew by 53.22 per cent, and goods tonnage hauled increased by 26.75 per cent.[22] Contrastingly, the LSWR’s passenger traffic numbers grew by 44.26 per cent and goods tonnage by 37.90 per cent over the same period. Yet, thereafter, traffic growth on the SDR stalled, and between 1885 and 1895 the passenger and goods traffic originating from the company grew by 26.94 and 14.58 per cent respectively, while the LSWR’s proportions were 53.02 and 34.47 per cent.[23] Therefore, in later decades the SDR’s own traffic growth was proportionately much lower than the LSWR’s, and its traffic would have made up proportionately less of its parent company's over time.[24] Nevertheless, the benefit of the LSWR controlling the line for its traffic from the north and South Wales may have been considerable as the SDR provided a more direct route to Southampton for it, but this cannot be determined.

Overall, however, the case of the SDR lease shows that rather than mid-Victorian railway managers and directors making calculated decisions about network expansion; the protection of territory was a very important concern for them in the period. Yet, this was despite them never being able to truly quantify what the costs and benefits of protecting this territory would be.


[1] Williams, R.A., The London and South Western Railway, Volume 2: Growth and Consolidation, (Newton Abbot, 1973), p.173
[2] MacDermot, E.T., revised by Clinker, C.R., History of the Great Western Railway: Volume 2, (Shepperton, 1982), p.52
[3] The National Archives [TNA] RAIL 1066/1692, Sir D. Gooch to the Hon. R.H. Dutton Bart. 26 August 1875, p.44
[4] TNA, RAIL 1066/1692, Wyndham S. Portal. To Sir D. Gooch, 4 September 1875, p.46
[5] TNA, RAIL 1066/1692, Sir D. Gooch to the Hon. R.H. Dutton Bart. 26 August 1875, p.44
[6] TNA, RAIL 1066/1692, Archibald Scott’s evidence for Somerset and Dorset Railway Bill, Minute No. 418, p.55
[7] Williams, The London and South Western Railway, Volume 2, p.174
[8] TNA, RAIL 1066/1692, Sir D. Gooch to Wyndham S. Portal. 27 October 1875, p.48
[9] TNA, RAIL 1066/1692, Sir D. Gooch to the Hon. R.H. Dutton Bart. 26 August 1875, p.44
[10] Williams, The London and South Western Railway, Volume 2, p.174-175
[11] TNA, RAIL 1066/1692, Parliamentary Bills and Minutes of Evidence, etc.
[12] Williams, The London and South Western Railway, Volume 2, p.175
[13] TNA, RAIL 1066/1692, Archibald Scott’s evidence for Somerset and Dorset Railway Bill, Minute No. 378, p.42, 24 March 1876
[14] Channon, Geoffrey, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940: Studies in Economic and Business History, (Aldershot, 2001), p.107
[15] TNA, RAIL 1066/1692, Archibald Scott’s evidence for Somerset and Dorset Railway Bill, Minute No. 369, p.41, 24 March 1876
[16] TNA, RAIL 1066/1692, Wyndham S. Portal. To Sir D. Gooch, 4 September 1875, p.46
[17] TNA, RAIL 1066/1692, Archibald Scott’s evidence for Somerset and Dorset Railway Bill, Minute No. 375, p.42, 24 March 1876
[18] John, ‘New, disaggregated, British railway total factor productivity growth estimates, 1875 to 1912’, The Economic History Review, 64 (2011), p.639
[19] Channon, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940, p.107
[20] Hodgkins, David, The Second Railway King: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Watkin (Llandybie, 2002)
, p.486
[21] TNA, RAIL 262/16, Somerset and Dorset Joint Line Committee, Meetings of Officers 1875-1884
[22] Board of Trade, Railway Returns for England and Wales and Scotland and Ireland, 1875, p.58-62 and 1880, p.50-54
[23] Board of Trade, Railway Returns for England and Wales and Scotland and Ireland, 1880, p.52-56 and 1885, p.52-56
[24] Board of Trade, Railway Returns for England and Wales and Scotland and Ireland, 1875, p.62 and 1880, p.54

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Defining the Early British Station Master

Late Victorian and Edwardian Station Masters are perceived to have been highly respected individuals. They commanded the stations at which they were based, and were pillars of the community; respectable, authoritarian and honourable. However, in the case of station masters before 1870 these attributes are not necessarily applicable. Without established promotional trees, standardised rules and regulations, and with vetting procedures for new employees not being set in stone, Britain’s pioneer station masters were a very mixed bag, to say the least.

Firstly, the term ‘station master’ was not a universal one in the period, although it was certainly around. A London and South Western Railway rule book from 1845 called them ‘station clerks’, and in many cases this is what they were, simply clerks in charge of a station.[1] Indeed, the Great Northern Railway omitted the word ‘station’ altogether, calling officials in these positions ‘clerks-in-charge’ in 1856.[2] Nevertheless, it seems that other railways used ‘clerks-in-charge’ interchangeably with ‘station master’, as shown in the East Lancashire Railway’s 1856 rule book.[3] The most common alternative to ‘station master’ in the period was ‘station agent’, and the London and South Western Railway, after disposing of ‘station clerk’, retained this title right until the 1900 for all except those individuals administering large stations.[4] It was only in the 1860s that ‘station master’ became far more common and part of common parlance.

However, whatever early station masters were called, the individuals filling these posts came to the railways after being occupied in a vast array of other occupations. In my survey of the professions 400 London and North Western Railway workers between 1830 and 1860 had prior to being employed by the railway, thirty-nine of the sample were station masters or ‘agents’. Their previous occupations were diverse, including farmers, journeymen, sailors, civil servants, bookkeepers and porters. Seemingly, most sectors of the mid-Victorian economy were represented amongst the thirty-nine, and it suggests that it would not be wise to pigeonhole early station masters as having one or two types of employment background.[5]

However, it is unsurprising that with men from many backgrounds filling these posts, not all were well behaved. In 1858 George Reeves, Station Master at Lowdham Station on the Midland Railway, pleaded guilty to embezzling the company out of an unspecified amount. In passing sentence the judge stated that he Reeves had been placed in a position of ‘great confidence and trust,’ and while he showed remorse, he was sentenced to six months hard labour.[6] In 1861 the cash held at the London and South Western Railway’s Windsor Station was found to be deficient. While no officials were found to be at fault, it is odd the management would then ‘break up the staff’ throughout the line [7] and remove the Station Master, John Madigan, to Petersfield with a reduction of salary.[8] Lastly, in 1865 at the Usk Quarter Sessions, Alfred Brown, station master at Hengoed Station on the Rhymney Railway, was charged with indecently assaulting Mary Ann Griffiths in a railway carriage.[9]

Of course, the majority of station masters in the period were honourable and did their job satisfactorily. Indeed, most had to have favourable references to be appointed. The Great Northern Railway’s ‘General Instructions and Regulations for the executive department’ stated that ‘experienced clerks’, who I presume were frequently appointed as ‘clerks-in-charge’, were required to have references from their ‘last employer’ and ‘one from each of two housekeepers of an undoubted respectability.’[10] 
Furthermore, after around the mid-1850s it was highly unlikely that an individual would be appointed directly as a station master, as railway companies increasingly preferred these posts to be filled by individuals who had risen through the ranks. Thus, by this time potentially poor station masters were usually weeded out before they reached that post. For example, William Mears was appointed directly as ‘agent’ on the opening of Winchfield Station on the London and South Western Railway in May 1840.[11] Yet his son, Francis, had a longer road into that position. He was appointed as an apprentice clerk at Dorchester 1851, finally becoming ‘agent’ at Dinton fifteen years later in 1866.[12]

Additionally, as the years passed the rules regulating station masters’ work grew in number and were increasingly formalised. The London and South Western Railway’s 1853 rule book dedicated only thirteen pages to instructing station masters,[13] and the East Lancashire Railway provided only eleven in 1856.[14] However, as the complexity of the railway network and density of train movements increased, the regulations for station masters mirrored this by becoming more detailed. For example, in 1858[15] and 1865[16] the London and South Western Railway produced abstracts of ‘instructions which have from time to time been issued to the Station agents’, which were forty-two and 102 pages long respectively. This was in addition to the nineteen dense pages of instructions in the company’s general rule book of 1864.[17] Therefore, because of  companies’ tightening regulation of station master's activities, there was less scope for them to misbehave or commit crime. Indeed, from a brief survey of on-line nineteenth century newspapers, the cases where this was so seemingly decline after the 1850s.

Therefore, the story of the early Victorian station master is one of a mixed bag of individuals doing a job which was not the same at every location or within every company. However, it is also one where what station masters did quickly became standardised and routine within the promotional and organisational frameworks the railway companies established.


[1] London School of Economics Collection [LSE], HE1 (42) – 439, London and South Western Railway Rules to be observed by Enginemen and Firemen , 1845, p.iii-iv
[2] Author’s Collection, Great Northern Railway, General Instructions and Regulations for the executive department’, p.94
[3] LSE, HC1 (42) -41, Bye-laws, rules and regulations to be observed by the officers and men in the service of the East Lancashire Railway Company, Bury, October, 1854. p.51
[4] The National Archives, RAIL 1135/276,Rules and Regulations General Instructions and Appendices to Working Timetables: General Instructions to Staff, Station Staff, 1908
[5] The National Archives, RAIL 410/1805, Register of waged and salaried staff including station masters, agents, porters, policemen, pointsmen, signalmen, female cleaners, foremen, gatemen, shunters, clerks, breaksmen and lampmen.
[6] Nottinghamshire Guardian, Thursday, January 07, 1858, p. 3
[7] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/217, Special Committee Minute Book, 11 January 1861
[8] TNA, RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, p.416
[9] The Leeds Mercury, Saturday, January 7, 1865,
[10] Author’s Collection, Great Northern Railway, General Instructions and Regulations for the executive department’, p.94
[11] TNA, RAIL 411/491, Clerical staff character book No. 1, p.340
[12] TNA, RAIL 411/491, Clerical staff character book No. 1, p.305
[13] LSE, HE 3020 – L.84, Rules and Regulations for the guidance of the officers and servants of the London and South Western Railway, 1853, p.16-29m
[14] LSE, HC1 (42) -41, Bye-laws, rules and regulations to be observed by the officers and men in the service of the East Lancashire Railway Company, Bury, October, 1854. p.51-61
[15] TNA, RAIL 1035/269, Abstract of instructions which have from time to time been issued to the Station agents &c Previous to 1st May 1858
[16] TNA, RAIL 1035/270, Abstract of instructions which have from time to time been issued to the Station agents &c Previous to 1st June 1865
[17] Author’s Collection, Rules and Regulations for the guidance of the officers and servants of the London and South Western Railway, 1 August 1864, p.22-43

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Archives, Artefacts, Amateurs and Academics - A Conference Report

The Conference Centre's 'Sunken Lounge'
To say that my time in Derby on Friday and Saturday was stimulating is a bit of an understatement. For those who don't follow my Twitter feed, on Friday and Saturday I attended the Archives, Artefacts, Amateurs and Academics workshop in Derby, jointly run by the Historical Model Railway Society and Business Archives Council. Firstly, I will hand over to Keith Harcourt, HMRS Academic Liaison Officer and conference co-organiser, who has very kindly provided me with this interesting summary on the origins, purpose and work of the HMRS:


The Historical Model Railway Society was founded in 1950 by historians and modellers concerned at the crude railway models on sale at that time. They set out to collect an archive of original drawings, photographs, working and public timetables plus other ephemera and historically accurate models as well having for reference The George Dow Library of railway books. The Drawings Collection holds over 160,000 historic drawings many of which have been of use in preservation work on Heritage Railways and in a vindication of the original purposes of the Society have been used by Bachmann in their making of current model trains. The photographic collection currently has 47,233 image listed on the website, but that is but the tip of the iceberg.

Significantly each year they also provide small, but often crucial, grants to a few PhD and Masters students who are working on the railways of the British Isles.

Their mission statement is interesting; it notes that the Historical Model Railway Society is an educational charity whose objectives are the study and recording of information concerning railways of the British Isles and the construction, operation, preservation and public exhibition of models depicting those railways.”[1] Simmons and Biddle[2] note that : “ The HMRS is the senior such society in Britain. The interests of individual members are cared for by stewards, each of whom specialises in a railway company or subject, and who act as a clearing house for information between members.” From my experience the Society has a refreshing attitude to railway history believing that it starts from today and trying to reflect that in their collections.

In 2005 the Society, having fund raised amongst its members for many years, opened its purpose built Museum and Study Centre on the Midland Railway at its Swanwick Junction Museum Site. The building is to full museum standards and a description of it, with directions can be found here: At present the Centre only opens one day per week and on special Midland Railway open days, but as Margaret Garratt, the Secretary of the Society says, “If only we had more volunteers we could do so much more. More people to help would mean that we could open more often and, while the work of cataloguing has to be carefully done, we can teach people how we do it and so speed up the work.”

As the HMRS holds the entire Metropolitan Cammell Engineering Drawing collection as well as the Derby Works Collection (held on behalf of Derby Museums) and many private collections, some of the drawings are of foreign locomotives and rolling stock built in Britain and whilst these are not the prime purpose of the collection, they are carefully archived and listed too. Because the Society has an Academic Liaison Officer who gives papers at international conferences on transport and history of technology topics he is sometimes approached by people from other countries whose locomotives and rolling stock were built in the British Isles. The Society, via links to the Manchester Locomotive Society and the Newcomen Society, made through a delegate to this workshop, has recently been able to help Dr Tatsuhiko Suga, Executive Director of the East Japan Railway Culture Foundation locate the original drawings for Japan Railway Locomotive Number 1, built at the Vulcan Foundry in 1871, and the HMRS are now scouring the HMRS archives for drawings of the four carriages shipped with it which may well have been built by Metropolitan Cammell.


The conference brought together forty-four individuals from a range of organisations that all had one thing in common; they were interested in railways in one shape or another. For example, the meeting was attended by members of the Great Eastern Railway Society, The Railway and Canal Historical Society and The London and North Eastern Railway Society, to name but a few. Furthermore, various individuals from archival institutions attended, such as the National Archives, the Ballast Trust, The National Railway Museum and the Midland Collection Trust. Lastly there were academics such as Terry Gourvish, Kevin Tennent and little old me.

The goal of the workshop was, as the Business Archives Council's Website states, to:

'...prompt an awareness of what these various groups are doing, and to start a dialogue between the enthusiast and academic which may lead to co-operation in preserving and using collections, and furthering our understanding of the past and its relevance to the future.'

I not only believe that the workshop was successful was in starting this dialogue, but the ball has started rolling on something very important.

Perhaps the only high speed point indoors. Craig King, MD of TQ Catalis, (in Orange Jacket) explains to delegates how it works.
Friday started at 2.30 with fascinating tour by Craig King of TQ Catalis, who provide training for signalling engineers in the conference centre. Indeed, where we were staying, The Derby Conference Centre, was originally Britain's first purpose-built training centre for railway staff, and was opened in 1938 by the London Midland and Scottish Railway. Designed by William H. Hamlyn, the art-deco building is now Grade II listed.

Being shown round the TQ Catalis training centre
On the first evening, the keynote speech was given by Professor Peter Stone OBE from the University of Newcastle. Professor Stone does not have any links with railways, but rather is an archaeologist. However, he brought with him considerable experience from a long career building links between academics and amateur organisations. He highlighted that when working towards a goal, individuals from many different interest groups can possess knowledge which, while generated for different purposes, may enrich each other's outlooks. Indeed, the dangers of one group or another taking a dominant role when trying to reach an objective were also underlined, as this may produce outcomes that others are dissatisfied with. This was a perfect start to the workshop, as a tone was set of the need for cooperation and collegial working between all those using and attempting to preserve railway archives.

Dr. Roy Edwards, Tim Proctor, Keith Harcourt and Prof. Peter Stone
Dr. Roy Edwards Speaking
We were then treated to a talk by Tim Proctor who is curator of the National Railway Museum's archive. Tim talked about the way the archive operates, the challenges it faces given its restricted funding, and how it cooperates with organisations and volunteers to help catalogue and manage its collections. Furthermore, he highlighted that some people do not realise that the National Railway Museum's archive exists, and I felt that this was an important point. The question that stuck in my mind was how we disseminate knowledge among those interested in railways, historians from all relevant fields, and the general public, that railway archives exist? I think Tim also was responsible for the biggest laugh of the workshop, pointing out one plan in the NRM's archive from the Wolverton Railway Works for a combined folding writing desk and lavatory.

The only negative point about the Derby Conference Centre was that I had to leave. The food we received that evening was exemplary, the décor was lovely and the bar comfortable. Therefore, with some delegates overcoming a few drinks from the night before, everyone rose early to catch the coach to Historical Model Railway Society's study centre, located in the grounds of the Midland Railway Centre at Butterley.

After much inspection of the HMRS's model railways at the centre, which were, to say the least, impressive, four more talks were given. The first was by Dr. Valerie Johnson from The National Archives, who talked on the nature of archives. She posited a number of questions, for example what is an archive? Who decides what is important? Can documents be objects? Can objects be documents? Indeed, items of interest that one group may find unimportant, may be vital to another. Therefore, this is where interested communities that have great knowledge of a subject can be useful in shaping what archives hold and how they are treated. Towards the end of her talk, Valerie mentioned a project that TNA had completed cataloguing all 7,328 railway accidents between 1853 and 1975. I had no idea about this project, and neither did a lot of people present. This emphasised another key issue for the workshop. How can researchers and archives holding railway material build links to understand better what each other is doing?
Kevin Tennent and I entering the HMRS Study Center

Following this, Kiara King discussed the work of The Ballast Trust. For those of you who were not aware, the Ballast Trust is an organisations set up in 1987 by William Lind to assist with the rescue, sorting and cataloguing of business archives, particularly technical records, such as shipbuilding, railway and engineering plans, drawings and photographs. This talk highlighted how the trust used volunteers and interns to catalogue the archives they received. Furthermore, Kiara talked on how she had developed procedures for the processing of the collections that flowed through the Trust's hands, as well as the use of social media, such as Flikr and a blog to raise awareness of its work.
Inside the HMRS Study Centre

Paul Garratt speaking to the delegates
Ivor Lewis, deputy-chair of the HMRS, then talked about the challenges faced in archiving documentation created by modern businesses. Almost all are in digital format, with many firms considering these the masters. Therefore, their preservation is a huge issue, especially as the role of 'secretary' within organisations has disappeared and individuals are now expected to manage their own files. According to Ivor, when computers first arrive on the scene, twenty to thirty years ago, document preservation was not greatly considered and the loss of records was seen by some as natural. Currently, while more people are becoming interested in preserving digital records, concerns regarding the histories of companies being lost through the 'delete' button remain. Indeed, in the railway context these concerns will apply to what Train Operating Companies will or will not preserve. He finished by suggesting that currently the archiving of digital records is up to well meaning and enthusiastic employees pursuing the issue.

Our time at the study centre was finished with a talk by Paul Garratt, the Drawing Archivist there. He described how the drawings came to be at the centre, what state they were when they arrived and how they were then sorted and catalogued. Once again, the discussion mentioned how the HMRS had to work with groups to accurately identify what items are within the collection. Furthermore, he also posited questions regarding the future of the collection, for example how the study centre might archive rolling stock plans generated by Computer Aided Design.

Princess Margaret Rose
We then broke for lunch and I headed over to the Princess Royal Class Locomotive Trust and Museum, which is also on the site. A number of delegates were taken round by the curator, Kate Watts, and we were shown the Trust's museum and workshop. The presence of the trust complements Midland Railway centre perfectly, and it is lovely to see steam locomotives up close.

Delegates being shown around the Midland Railway Study Centre
Derby and the Silk Mill Museum was where the second half of the day was held. Unfortunately, this clearly fascinating museum was mothballed by Derby City Council in April 2011 to save money. This is especially sad as the building was the world's first factory, having been established in 1717. Nevertheless, delegates were lucky enough to have a look around the first floor and we were then given a tour round the Midland Railway Study Centre, which is housed within. Its archive holds a highly impressive collection of Midland Railway documents, more than The National Archives. Consequently, it is a hugely valuable resource for those researching the railway. As part of the tour, we were also given access to the study centre's repository. As many of you are aware, I have an obsession with railway rule books (and I am always open to receiving digitised copies) and immediately on entering I went looking for them. I think torment is the correct word. I opened a cabinet and there, right before me, were boxes of rule and instruction books. I had to be dragged away.

Rodger Shelly, Principal Keeper of Derby Silk Museum speaking
The afternoon's lectures commenced with Roger Shelley, Principal Keeper of the museum, giving us a fascinating talk on what was held within the museum's collection and how it was managed. Given the museum's closure, he mentioned new initiatives to keep the museum engaging with the community. Indeed, it had recently it had improved over 300 Wikipedia articles relating to items within its collection and Derby's history. The case of the Silk Mill Museum posed some interesting questions to the audience about archival organisations' public engagement and how, when faced with financial restrictions, documents and artefacts can be made accessible the public. Furthermore, at the forefront of my mind were concerns as to how cash-strapped archives may treat families and individuals that come to them wishing to deposit collections of railway documents when their resources are limited.

This topic was touched on by the next speaker, John Miles. John is Chairman of  the Midland Collection Trust, which supervises a collection of 39,000 Midland Railway documents and artefacts which constitute the majority of those held in the Midland Railway Study Centre. These were formerly owned by Roy Burrows, and John spoke very informatively on how the trust to manage the collection was established, how it had been catalogued, and how it is currently maintained. John's most interesting anecdote was that in the gallery of Midland Railway items on the Trust's website, the most looked at were the chamber pots from the company's hotels. Ultimately, this talk focussed the audience's mind on the fact that many collections of railway items are in the hands of private collectors. Indeed, as many who have read some of my earlier posts will know, this is a matter that concerns me greatly. What happens to these collections when their owners pass on? How can we be sure they will be saved when their families, through no fault of their own, have no knowledge of their value? Lastly, how do we disseminate amongst the general public knowledge of where collections of railway artefacts and documents can be deposited?
Grahame Boyes of the Railway and Canal Historical Society Speaking

Grahame Boyes and Keith Fenwick from the Railway and Canal Historical Society then demonstrated the 'Transport Archive Register' (formerly the Tracking Railway Archives Project). This is a database of where archival material from railways and canals is stored around the country, and was begun in the early 2000s to complement other archival databases, such as the now defunct Access 2 Archives and the National Register of Archives. Researchers can search the database by railway or canal company, subject, industry, county, country or people, and then will be provided a link to the relevant web page. I was struck by the fact that if the railway community are going to come together to preserve and promote railway archives, then tools such as this, which are added to by the community, are going to be vital. We need hubs whereby information on railway archives can be found and pooled. Indeed, this may take the form of a website, yet there also may be a need for a central organising committee that can marshal such efforts.

The last talk of the day was given by Joan Unwin, archivist at the Company of Cultlers in Hallamshire. This company was established in 1624 to maintain the quality of Sheffield manufactured cutlery and steel products. She spoke of one particular accession into its archive of 1400 razors and the issues surrounding this, including the evident safety concerns regarding the storage of these potentially dangerous items. While donations of paper archives are trouble enough for archivists, the talk highlighted the what problems there are when archives take into stock physical items. In the context of railways this is potentially a huge problem, given that they were, and are, producers of items of all sorts. Indeed, the talk challenged the audience to think about what railway archives actually need to acquire, and whether every physical item needs to be kept.
Roy Edwards and Keith Harcourt leading the round-table.

The workshop ended with a round-table discussion where many of the ideas and questions highlighted in the two days were thrown around. While nothing concrete was decided on there and then, I think we have started a very large ball rolling. I am certain that in the next coming months the energy and enthusiasm that the speakers and delegates showed towards railway archives will produce many new ideas and initiatives to aid their promotion, use and preservation. 

I am looking forward to playing a large part in this and working with the many of the new friends I have made this weekend. Indeed, there is much work to be done; for myself, and a whole community of amateurs and academics who love the railways. I want to finish off by saying a big thank you to the two organisers of the workshop, Keith Harcourt and Roy Edwards, for putting on such a wonderful event - it was truly fantastic and at the end of Saturday night, I was not happy to be leaving! 

Many thanks to Keith Harcourt for many of the photos.


[1] The Executive of the HMRS. Carried on page 2 of every copy of the Society’s Journal.
[2] Simmons, J. & Biddle, G The Oxford Companion to Railway History. Oxford University Press, Oxford (1997) Page 205)
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