Go back to article: Uncovering the secrets of Canadian Pacific

A secret uncovered: Canadian Pacific

Eastleigh Works in the Second World War employed women who worked on the carriages, wagons and locomotives (Boocock and Stanton, 2006:51; Eastleigh Works Appointments book 1936–1943; Asprey, 2017). Women now worked in the dining hall, paint shop, sawmill, body shop, forge, erecting shop, and the machine shop (Eastleigh Works Appointments book 1936–1943). The extent of women’s roles on the railways in the Second World War can be seen in the films created by the Southern Railway Film Unit. Good examples of this are Ladies Only (1942) and Bundles for Berlin (1943).[6]

One area in the Works where women took over to a very great extent was the machine shop, and in fact by 1940 the only railwayman left in the machine shop was the Assistant Machine Shop Foreman, Mr Asprey (Asprey, 2017). The women performed complex tasks using hand operated machinery such as capstan mills and lathes. Many of the jobs would have been making replacements parts for carriages and locomotives, stays and other parts needed to repair damaged stock.

In 1938 Chief Mechanical Engineer, Oliver Bulleid (see Figure 8) decided to build ten new locomotives for the Southern Railway (Haresnape, 1985, p 18). Thus, the women employed in Eastleigh Works from 1939 helped in building the first ten Merchant Navy class locomotives, including Canadian Pacific. These were advanced steam locomotives designed with novel features such as chain-driven valve gears, Bulleid-Firth-Brown wheels, electric lighting, air-smoothed casing, oil baths and an all steel-welded boiler (see Figure 9).

Figure 8

Black and white portrait photograph of Oliver Bulleid

Oliver Bulleid

Figure 9

Pen and ink technical drawing of a train engine design

Line drawing of Merchant Navy class locomotive

It is in some ways extraordinary that ten new locomotives were allowed to be built during the Second World War when so much effort was focused on producing arms, but the Southern Railway managed to get the designs past the Board of Trade Inspectors (Mannion, 1988:8). A number of the features were sold as making the maintenance of these locomotives easier, therefore reducing costs. This was deemed important as the Southern Railway was ‘the most financially successful of the four railway companies’ (Mannion, 1988:6) and these new locomotives replaced the Southern Railways old and tired running stock. During the Second World War the Southern Railway ran ‘30,890 troop trains, carried 9,367,886 troops, ran 1,127 PoW trains and carried 582,005 PoWs’ (Wragg, 2006:109; Wyeth, 2017; Bell, 2017). It also handled 31,135 special trains (Polley, 1994:93). The Southern Railway was also involved in the evacuation of children from Medway towns running 54 trains and running 172 trains from Portsmouth, Southampton and Gosport (Bonavia, 1987:165; Curdridge Parish Council; Ashford Hill).

While there is an acceptance among historians that women did help on the railway during Second World War, in many cases the extent of their roles is played down (see for example Bernard Darwin’s book War on the Line, originally published 1946). This is especially true for women’s role in the workshops. The misconception that women were not involved heavily in the railway workshops has made it even harder for people to accept that women were involved in the construction of a steam locomotive. Books such as Darwin’s reflect the attitudes of the time and many later authors cite secondary sources such as this rather than looking at the original archives. This perpetuates the myth that women were not involved in the construction of locomotives and thus the very male centred culture within railways and the writing of their history can still be seen today.[7]

Research conducted as part of the Canadian Pacific Project looked more closely at women’s roles in the Eastleigh Workshops during the Second World War. From the appointments books and testimony[8], we can safely say that women were actively involved in the maintenance and building of steam locomotives (Figure 10 and 11; Asprey, 2017).

Figure 10

Photograph of a ledger showing appointments to rail works

Appointments book 1936–1943, Eastleigh Works

Figure 11

Photograph of a ledger showing appointments to rail works

Appointments book 1936–1943, Eastleigh Works

During the time when Canadian Pacific and the other Merchant Navy class locomotives were being built large numbers of women were working within Eastleigh Works, up to 1,500 at any one time. Moreover, the records show that women were working within crucial areas of the Works that would have been heavily involved in the construction of Canadian Pacific. These included the machine shop, wheel shop, fitting shop, sawmill, offices, wagon shop, paint shop, lining room, finishing shop, brake shop, copper shop, electric shop and brick shop in Eastleigh Works, all of which contributed to the construction of Canadian Pacific and the other Merchant Navy class locomotives (Figures 10 and 11). The involvement of these women in the building of locomotives is an important and under-appreciated part of Canadian Pacific’s story. Nowadays, the Merchant Navy locomotives are remembered largely for their performance and design, but the involvement of women in their construction is absent from their history. Canadian Pacific is one of the first ten Merchant Navy locomotives built in Eastleigh Works and the oldest surviving member of the class. But it is not just important for its age: on 15 May 1965, Canadian Pacific travelled 105 mph down Winchester bank (Wilson, 2014). Thus, it is both the oldest and fastest surviving Merchant Navy locomotive in preservation, but more than that it is a testament to the women who were involved in the construction of locomotives in the Second World War and a true example of female engineering. It should make the women involved in its construction proud.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181010/005