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Change is coming: the First World War

The railways underwent a dramatic change with the start of the First World War in 1914. Large numbers of men left the railways to join the forces, even though railway work was a protected profession. This threatened the movement of troops and supplies by London and South Western Railway which serviced the south of England. The government decided to step in and take charge of the situation, pushing aside the railway companies and taking control through the Railway Executive Committee. Precedent had already been set in industries such as manufacturing where women had replaced men and the government proposed that women should replace those railwaymen that had left to fight. Unfortunately, this didn’t go down well with the unions or the railwaymen left behind. The railwaymen had three broad objections to women working on the railways, particularly in male grades (Railway Review 1915, National Union of Railwaymen). The first objection was that women were both mentally and physically incapable of railway work. Physically women were not built to cope with the physical nature of the work, the men argued, and mentally they were supposedly too feeble minded to comprehend the complexity of railway work. Women quickly proved they were both physically and mentally capable on the railways. The second objection was economic: railwaymen had fought long and hard for a higher rate of pay, their jobs was extremely dangerous, with a high accident rate amongst railway workers (although not the highest accident rate in the country, which was reserved for coal-miners). An example of the potential danger of the environment was the policy of placing first-class passengers at the back of trains, as far away from the locomotive as physically possible. This was in the hope that if the locomotive exploded the first-class passengers would survive. Railwaymen’s pay reflected this dangerous work, while women were paid a lower rate of pay than their male colleagues. Railwaymen were worried that if women worked in male grades and proved they could do the job just as well as them, the men’s rate of pay would decrease. It was thought that railway companies would try any way to pay the men less for the job and consequently women were seen as the enemy. The third objection speaks to the railway psyche: when you joined the railway you didn’t just join a profession, you became part of a family and that family looked after you. The railwaymen who did not leave to fight were worried that colleagues who had joined the forces would have no jobs to return to once the war had ended because women now occupied them. Therefore, it was agreed by the National Union of Railwaymen and the Railway Executive Committee that on the return of a railwayman, the woman working in his position would be fired automatically. The agreement also stated that women would receive no war bonus and no uniform (National Union of Railwaymen, Meeting Minutes April 1915). For many of the men, women working on the railways as part of the war effort were not really part of the railway, just a nuisance to be tolerated.

Once these agreements had been made in 1915, women started entering the railway, taking up both female and male roles. Jobs which women had held before the war started to change. For example, carriage cleaners before the war were only allowed to clean carriages on the platforms. Now women were now allowed into the yard, an area that had previously been an entirely male domain. Moreover, women were not only cleaning carriages, they were now assigned to cleaning locomotives. However, no uniform was provided, and women were expected to clean locomotives and carriages in their ordinary clothing, which consisted of floor length skirts, and dresses and corsets. A number of carriage cleaners passed out on the top of the carriages and locomotives because of their clothing restriction but this did not seem to worry the railway companies. It took a group of carriage cleaners at Wimbledon Park Depot (which was owned by London and South Western Railway) to tackle the clothing issue by donning men’s breeches. The newspapers referred to them as ‘the ladies’ maids to locomotives’ and ‘our heroines in overalls’ and after this, the railway company conceded that the women could wear overalls to complete their work. It may seem surprising that women had to fight for their right to wear appropriate clothing for the profession rather than it being provided, however, this reflects the prevailing view that women were a temporary nuisance on the railway, even if their roles had expanded due to the war. Railway historian Helena Wojtczak notes that, by October 1916, 2,173 women were employed as carriage cleaners. The first loco cleaners were hired in March 1916 and in six months 587 had been recruited; in two years there were over three thousand (Wojtczak, 2005, p 52–53). Thus, female carriage and locomotive cleaners in the First World War played a huge part in the running and maintenance of the railways stock.

Other new jobs were becoming available to women because of the war. Women were now allowed to work in male grades performing such jobs as ticket collector, guard, and goods porter. Just like carriage cleaners, women were not provided a uniform in these roles (it took until 1956 for the railways to make an item of female clothing). For the first-time women were allowed to work as police officers in what would become the British Transport Police. Female police officers were not allowed to arrest or even caution a man. On some railways (for example the Caledonian Railway) female police officers had no power of arrest and in Piccadilly Circus they only dealt with women.

Despite the restrictions and reluctance to accept women workers, railwaywomen in the First World War quickly proved that they were capable of all types of railway work. However, many were not treated well. In Eastleigh Works women were obliged to sign an undertaking not to join any society or association. The companies claimed that this was to prevent their employees becoming suffragettes but managers later claimed that it also encompassed unions (Wojtczak, 2005, p 80). Women who signed this agreement had no one to represent them and it meant that the railway companies had total control over their working lives. For example, female clerks worked in all-female offices separated from the rest of the workforce in order to stop fraternisation – the assumption being fraternisation was entirely the woman’s fault.[3] Female clerks were also dismissed on marriage, although this practice was not restricted to the railway. Women were usually dismissed on marriage in other industries well into the 1960s.

‘By December 1916 there were over 46,000 women working in 135 grades, of whom more than 34,000 were performing work that had previously been considered only suitable for men’ (Wojtczak, 2005, p 91, Eastleigh Appointments book 1916–1923). With the end of the First World War in 1918, the railway returned to its pre-1914 structure. Railwaywomen were quickly dismissed from the railway and many women faced hostility if they tried to stay. Those women that did stay were forced back into female roles. It was as if women had never held male grades on the railway and all the achievements that women had made were lost until the Second World War (see Southern Railway census of staff 1931 for roles held before WWII[4]).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181010/003