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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’ĂȘtre, 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
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